06/30/2022, 13.00
TURKEY - SYRIA
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Vicar of Anatolia: Christian refugees left without pastors or places of worship

by Dario Salvi

Bishop Bizzeti: the emergency related to immigration has "increased" in the last period and cannot fall "only on the shoulders of Ankara." The need to give birth to a true local Church, with Turkish clergy and religious. Commemorating Msgr. Padovese 12 years after his murder, to give new life to his mission.

Milan (AsiaNews) - Concern for Christian refugees in Turkey who, unlike locals, "do not have meeting places, buildings for worship," cannot move "freely" or "participate in celebrations." Msgr. Paolo Bizzeti, vicar apostolic of Anatolia and president of Caritas Turkey, draws attention to a problem within a problem, that of Christian refugees embedded in an even larger emergency framework. The prelate explains in this interview with AsiaNews shortly before his return to Turkey, "the fate of millions of refugees cannot be entrusted to Ankara alone. From refugees to pastoral care to the remembrance of Msgr. Padovese, there are many elements of interest for the vicariate, a reality - according to 2020 estimates - composed of just over 3,000 faithful. It is based in Iskenderun (Alexandretta, until June 2000 it was in Mersin), where the Cathedral of the Annunciation is located; the territory is divided into six parishes, has 10 presbyters (including one fidei donum) and 8 religious (including five nuns). Below is the interview with Msgr. Bizzeti:

Your Excellency, there is a lot of talk in recent weeks about a possible Turkish offensive in Syria and a new wave of refugees. What is the situation on the ground?

The refugee emergency has increased in the last period. Turkey has been very generous in recent years in terms of reception, but the fate of millions of refugees cannot be entrusted to Ankara alone. This is a problem that affects everyone, and you cannot think of solving it by paying one nation to keep them; it is not honest or solving. One example: if Italy promised to take in Afghans who worked for our country before the Taliban, it cannot leave them parked in Turkey.

Is the issue of refugee reception still relevant or is impatience mounting among the population?

The Turkish people have been welcoming but in a climate of widspread economic crisis the presence of millions of people is seen as a threat in some sectors. The problem exists and is real, as there are at least four million refugees and displaced people on the ground. Many say Turkey cannot be used as a "depot"; moreover, many of the problems in the Middle East have been caused by the West, which first and foremost has a responsibility in this process. 

In this light, a new military operation in Syria is an element of concern....

Syria is a devastated and divided nation, from which the West wants to disentagle itself while maintaining some form of presence. The point is that the Syria problem is no longer even discussed  internationally; the country has been conquered and forgotten depending on the moment and the years, supporting or opposing the intervention of one or another external actor or providing support to factions committed to overthrowing Bashar al-Assad, although today we find ourselves with the same power group. 

In this climate of tension and concern, what is the situation for Christians in Turkey?

I want to clarify a point here: Turkish Catholics, although they are a minority, do not have major problems. On the other hand, there are elements of concern for Christian refugees, far outnumbering the natives, who do not have meeting places, buildings for worship, cannot move freely or participate in celebrations. This situation is a source of discomfort. Difficulties certainly exacerbated by Covid-19 and related restrictions, but we are in the presence of a long-standing problem: refugees have been in Turkey for a long time and are in danger of remaining there for a long time, we need to address this issue and guarantee them a decent life, including in terms of faith.

They are Iraqis, Afghans, Syrians, Iranians ... some even from Africa. We need places of worship with pastors who can take care of them; we need Christians to be able to meet for formative, liturgical and festive moments without having to ask permission from the police each time to leave their city. Christian refugees are grateful to the government for its generous welcome, but now it is time to address the issue more systematically at the political and institutional level. The Catholic Church, having no legal personality in Turkey, is not an official interlocutor and cannot move independently even to purchase a meeting hall. 

Msgr. Bizzeti, what is the pastoral priority?
There is a growing challenge to find new priests, empowering local Christians. The challenge that awaits the Church in Turkey is to nurture a local church, train the faithful in the Word of God and solid theology: a Christianity that is limited to liturgical celebrations and that is exhausted to the sphere of the sacred has no future here .

12 years have passed since Msgr. Padovese's murder: Is his figure still relevant today?

We had organized an international meeting in 2020 on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of his death, but everything was called off because of the pandemic and we are considering how to reorganise it. However, his figure is still alive and through his memory we want to affirm the continuity of the Church of Anatolia also through the people who gave their lives for it. This is not a pure celebration of the person: we want to keep alive the memory of what was close to his heart, his mission. Of course it is important to remember the past, but always looking toward the future. 

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