Istanbul

Bitter news with roots 1,000 years old: Russian Orthodox Church cuts Istanbul ties

Bitter news with roots 1,000 years old: Russian Orthodox Church cuts Istanbul ties

Anyone who has studied the history of Orthodox Christianity knows the details of this story, as well as the arguments about its significance.

As the first Christian millennium was drawing to a close, something big happened among the East Slavic and Finnic tribes of Europe. As always, the change involved economics, culture, military might and, last but not least, religion.

Here is a typical short take on this complicated subject:

The chronicles report that the Great Prince of Kiev sent embassies around the world to find the faith that best suited his nation and people. Travelling from nation to nation they visited Muslims and Jews at worship observing their forms of worship and pondering the way of life that each religion taught. The emissaries judged neither of these worthy religions suitable for Russ. Finally, they visited the city of Constantinople and attended Divine Liturgy in the great cathedral of Hagia Sophia. … They breathlessly reported back to Kiev that in Hagia Sophia they were unable to tell if they were on earth or in heaven.

Thus, Prince Vladimir was baptized In 988 and commanded his whole nation to follow his conversion to Orthodoxy.

Just in case you missed it, one of the key words in this account is “Kiev.”

In the past week or so, I have received all kinds of contacts asking for my take on mainstream news coverage of the split that has taken place between the giant Russian Orthodox Church and the Ecumenical Patriarch based — with a tiny, persecuted flock — in Istanbul.

To be blunt, this topic is so complex that most of the Orthodox folks that I know think it would be next to impossible for journalists to handle it in a few inches of type or sound bites. Many of the Orthodox are reading the transcripts of statements by Orthodox leaders and that’s that.

However, I would like to note a few key issues that news consumers should watch for, when reading about this important story.

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Hagia Sophia evolving into mosque? The Los Angeles Times omits crucial Christian voices

Hagia Sophia evolving into mosque? The Los Angeles Times omits crucial Christian voices

This past Sunday, I was at a lunch in Seattle that included someone who runs a retreat center in Turkey. She knew of only 4,000 evangelical Christians like her in the country, which under the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been encroaching on the religious freedom of non-Muslims for some time.

Evangelical Protestants are one of the smaller groups among Turkey’s 160,000 Christians, most of them Orthodox Christians linked to the city's history as a crossroads in the early church. The Christian community that was, in 1914, 19 percent of Turkey’s population is now a tiny group amidst 80 million Turkish Muslims.

So I was interested to read a Los Angeles Times story about the increasing pressure by Islamic activists to turn the Hagia Sophia back into a mosque. We've covered this before but the volume has been amped up.

So what is missing in this report on a topic that will be of special interest to Christians, as well as Muslims, around the world? Want to guess?

As the time for afternoon prayers approaches, Onder Soy puts on a white robe and cap and switches on the microphone in a small 19th century room adjoining the Hagia Sophia.
Soon, Soy’s melodic call to prayer rings out over a square filled with tourists hurrying to visit some of Turkey’s most famous historical sights before they close for the day.
The room Soy is in -- built as a resting place for the sultan and now officially called the Hagia Sophia mosque -- fills up with around 40 worshipers, drawn not by the modestly decorated space itself, but by the ancient building it shares a wall with.

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What happened in Turkey? Look for two words -- 'secular' and 'Ataturk' -- in news reports

What happened in Turkey? Look for two words -- 'secular' and 'Ataturk' -- in news reports

So what was the attempted coup in Turkey all about? It seems pretty clear at this point that no one really knows (or they are not saying). Were experts at the White House and the U.S. state department really flying blind on this one, as appeared to have been the case?

I'm no expert on Turkish history in the 20th century, but I have been to Istanbul twice and heard the local experts explain that nation's unique standing as a "secular" Muslim state. In recent years, Turkey has been swinging in the direction of some form of Islamist regime, under the leadership of President (some would say "strongman") Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

During the modern era, the Turkish military -- with strong ties to the West -- have acted as defenders of the secular state, using blunt power to crush attempts to move toward any form of Islamist rule. Is that what happened this time? Or did some rebel group within the military actually try to take Turkey in a more radically religious direction? That would be a stunning development in a nation under pressure -- in the form of terrorism, at the very least -- from the Islamic State and its supporters.

Read the coverage. Do the experts not know the answer to this question or they are not saying?

As you read, look for two words -- "secular" and "Ataturk." How far did you have to read to hit those crucial terms?

We are, of course, talking about Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, not the airport named in his honor. Here is the opening of a History Channel biography on this giant in modern Turkish history.

Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (1881-1938) was an army officer who founded an independent Republic of Turkey out of the ruins of the Ottoman Empire. He then served as Turkey’s first president from 1923 until his death in 1938, implementing reforms that rapidly secularized and westernized the country. Under his leadership, the role of Islam in public life shrank drastically, European-style law codes came into being, the office of the sultan was abolished and new language and dress requirements were mandated. But although the country was nominally democratic, Atatürk at times stifled opposition with an authoritarian hand.

That opposition Ataturk and then his followers kept crushing?

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Istanbul's LGBTQ community: Dealing with 'conservative attitudes' or DNA of Islamic law?

Istanbul's LGBTQ community: Dealing with 'conservative attitudes' or DNA of Islamic law?

If you are reading a newspaper in India and you see a reference to "community violence," or perhaps "communal violence," do you know how to break that code?

As I have mentioned before, a young Muslim journalist explained that term to me during a forum in Bangalore soon after the release of the book "Blind Spot: When Journalists Don't Get Religion."

Whenever there are violent clashes between religious groups, especially between Hindus and Muslims, journalists leave out all of the religious details and simply report that authorities are dealing with another outbreak of "community violence." Readers know how to break the code.

As the student told me, if journalists write accurate, honest stories about some religious subjects in the nation's newspapers, then "more people are going to die."

I thought of that again reading the top of a recent Washington Post story about the tensions in Istanbul between civil authorities and the LGBT community in modern Istanbul, symbolized by confrontations during gay pride parades. Please consider this a post adding additional information to the complex religious issues that our own Bobby Ross, Jr., described in his post about terrorist attacks -- almost certainly by ISIS -- at the always busy Ataturk International Airport in that city.

Here is the overture for that earlier Post report:

ISTANBUL -- It was just after sunset when patrons began to arrive, climbing a dark stairwell to the bar’s modest entrance. Here, in dimly lit corners, is where the mostly gay clientele come to canoodle and drink -- but without the threat of violence or harassment.

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Concerning the dozens dead in Istanbul: Why religious affiliation of victims matters

Concerning the dozens dead in Istanbul: Why religious affiliation of victims matters

Dozens dead at the Istanbul airport.

Hundreds injured.

Are we even surprised anymore when images of yet another terror attack linked (it seems) to the Islamic State bombard our screens?

There is, as almost always seems to be the case, a huge religion angle on this latest attack (and not the one you might think). But first, the latest lede from The Associated Press:

ISTANBUL (AP) -- Suicide attackers armed with guns and bombs killed 41 people and wounded hundreds at Istanbul's busy Ataturk Airport, apparently targeting Turkey's crucial tourism industry. The government blamed the attack on Islamic State extremists but there was no immediate confirmation from the group.
Scenes of chaos and panic unfolded Tuesday night as gunfire and explosions on two different floors sent crowds fleeing first in one direction, then another.
Airport surveillance video posted on social media appeared to show one explosion, a ball of fire that sent terrified passengers racing for safety. Another appeared to show an attacker, felled by a gunshot from a security officer, blowing himself up seconds later. A growing stream of travelers, some rolling suitcases behind them, fled down a corridor, looking fearfully over their shoulders.
"Four people fell in front of me. They were torn into pieces," said airport worker Hacer Peksen.
The victims included at least 13 foreigners and several people remained unidentified Wednesday. The toll excluded the three bombers. The Istanbul governor's office said more than 230 people were wounded.

As GetReligion readers know, historic details really matter in Instanbul.

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Got news? Will anyone cover that historic, and now shaky, Orthodox council in Crete?

Got news? Will anyone cover that historic, and now shaky, Orthodox council in Crete?

Every couple of centuries or so, the leaders of Christianity's ancient Orthodox churches get together to talk about issues of theology or church governance. It helps if everyone agrees that there is some kind of crisis that simply has to be addressed.

It also helps if everyone shows up. The whole point is for the church to speak as one body.

That's been rather complicated, you might say, since the Great East-West Schism of 1054. The ancient church of Rome has held its own great councils, after that ecclesiastical earthquake. The ancient churches of the East have not.

That's why it's rather important that, for 50 years, Orthodox leaders have been wrestling with the idea of a Pan-Orthodox Council. After a 1,000-year gap, there may some items of business to discuss. You think?

That council is now days away -- if it takes place. Several Orthodox churches have already pulled out or suggested that they plan to do so, for reasons that some might call "Byzantine." It's especially crucial that the ancient church of Antioch -- involved in a tussle with the symbolic, but now tiny and oppressed, church of Constantinople -- has called for a delay until painful problems can be resolved.

The meeting is supposed to happen in Crete. Why Crete? Because pretty much everyone agrees that it cannot, for myriad reasons, safely be held in Istanbul, in the allegedly secular state of Turkey.

It you were looking for a symbol of all of that, you might cite the issue of Ramadan prayers being broadcast from inside Hagia Sophia (click here for background), a once great Christian cathedral that is now a UNESCO historic site. For decades it has been considered neutral ground for Muslims and Christians, serving a massive cultural icon and museum.

Here's the question that "Crossroads" host Todd Wilken and I discussed in this week's GetReligion podcast: Have you been hearing about any of this in news coverage here in America? Click here to tune that in.

So where would one need to go to find mainstream news coverage of this international story?

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Divine Liturgy alongside the pope of Rome or in presence of pope? (updated)

Divine Liturgy alongside the pope of Rome or in presence of pope? (updated)

Any list of the defining moments of Christian history -- if not the history of religion on Planet Earth, period -- would have to include the Great Schism of 1054.

That's the split, of course, between the Orthodox East and the Catholic West and there is hardly anything that you can say about the who, what, when, where, why and how of that schism that will not lead to a millennium or two of debate. It's complicated. 

However, it's pretty easy to understand that the Church of Rome and the churches of Eastern Orthodoxy are not in full Communion -- with a big "C" -- with one another. The primary symbol, and reality, that demonstrates this is that their clergy cannot celebrate the Eucharist together.

Now, with that prologue, let's flash back to the recent meetings in Istanbul between Pope Francis and the Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew. Since I am Orthodox, lots of people have asked me what I thought about their latest statements on their desire for full unity, meaning Communion. My question, in response, was: Yes, the pope asked Bartholomew to bless him, but did either man kiss the other man's hand? There was also quite a bit of confusion about the rite they took part in at the Phanar.

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RNS: It's no rumor; Turks want Hagia Sophia as a mosque

I just did a quick search in my email files and it appears that I started receiving alerts about the following story in 2007 — all linked to appeals for Eastern Orthodox Christians to sign petitions opposing Turkish efforts to turn the iconic Hagia Sophia back into a mosque.

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Secular and religious symbols lost in many Turkey reports

I have been reading the mainstream coverage of the events unfolding in Turkey from the get go, in large part because of my interest — after two visits to Istanbul — in the nation’s complex blend of European secularism (think France) and a variety of approaches to Islam. In the midst of all that, religious minorities have not fared well at all, including the tiny remnant of Eastern Orthodox believers who huddle in what was once the New Rome.

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