SYRIA Vicar of Anatolia: Christian refugees without pastors or places of worship

The migratory emergency has “increased” in recent times and cannot fall “only on the shoulders of Ankara”, says Monsignor Bizzeti. It is necessary to build a true local Church, with Turkish clergy and religious. The memory of Bishop Padovese 12 years after his assassination, to resume his mission.

Milan () – Concern for Christian refugees in Turkey who, unlike the locals, “have no places to meet or buildings for worship”, cannot move “freely” or “participate in the celebrations”. Monsignor Paolo Bizzeti, Apostolic Vicar of Anatolia and President of Caritas Turkey, draws attention to a problem within a problem: Christian refugees embedded in a broader emergency framework. “Because – explains the prelate in this interview given to in Italy before returning to Turkey – the fate of millions of refugees cannot rest on Ankara’s shoulders alone”. From refugees to pastoral care, passing through the memory of Msgr. Padovese, there are many issues that demand the attention of the vicariate, on which -according to 2020 estimates- just over 3,000 faithful depend. The headquarters is in Iskenderun (Alexandreta; until June 2000 it was in Mersin), where the Cathedral of the Annunciation is located; the territory is divided into six parishes, it has 10 presbyters (one of whom is a fidei donum) and 8 religious (of which five are women). Below is the interview with Bishop Bizzeti:

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

The refugee emergency has increased in recent times. Turkey has been very generous in these years in terms of hospitality, but the fate of millions of refugees cannot rest on Ankara’s shoulders alone. It is a problem that concerns everyone and one cannot think of solving it by paying a country to maintain them, it is not honest or decisive. For example: if Italy has promised to take in the Afghans who worked for our country before the Taliban arrived, it cannot leave them stationed in Turkey.

Is the issue of reception still valid in the population or is there more intolerance?

The Turkish people have been welcoming, but in a climate of economic crisis some sectors perceive the presence of millions of people as a threat. The problem exists and is real, given that there are more than four million fugitives and refugees in the country. Many say that Turkey cannot be used as a “deposit”; On the other hand, many problems in the Middle East have been caused by the West, which is the first to assume its responsibility in this process.

In this sense, a new military operation in Syria is an element of concern…

Syria is a devastated and divided country, from which the West wants to withdraw while maintaining a certain degree of presence. The point is that the Syrian problem is no longer being discussed at the international level; the country has been successively conquered or forgotten over 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 the same power group.

In this climate of tension and concern, how do Christians live in Turkey?

Here I want to make a clarification: Turkish Catholics, despite being a minority, do not have major problems. On the other hand, Christian refugees are a source of concern, because they far outnumber the natives, have no meeting places or buildings for worship, and 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 facing an old problem: refugees have been in Turkey for a long time and risk staying there for much longer. We must face the problem and guarantee them a dignified life, even in relation to faith. They are Iraqis, Afghans, Syrians, Iranians… some even from Africa. We need places of worship with pastors to take care of them; Christians need to be able to gather for formation, liturgical and festive moments without having to ask the police for permission every time they leave their city. The Christian refugees are grateful to the government for its generous welcome, but the time has come to address the issue more systematically at the political and institutional level. The Catholic Church does not have legal status in Turkey, it is not an official interlocutor and cannot move autonomously, not even to buy a meeting room.

Bishop Bizzeti, what is the priority at the pastoral level?

The challenge of finding new priests and holding local Christians accountable is ever more pressing. The main objective of the Church in Turkey is to build a local church and educate the faithful in the Word of God and in a solid theology: a Christianity that is limited to liturgical celebrations and restricted to the realm of the sacred has no future.

At the beginning of the month it will be 12 years since the assassination of Bishop Padovese: is he still a relevant figure?

We had organized an international meeting in 2020 to commemorate the tenth anniversary of his death, but everything came to nothing due to the pandemic and we are thinking about how to resume it. However, her figure lives on, and with her memory we also want to affirm the continuity of the Anatolian Church through the people who gave her life for her. It is not a mere celebration of the person, we want to keep alive the memory of what he loved the most, his mission. Of course it is important to remember the past, but our perspective is towards the future.

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Written by Editor TLN

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