Turkey's Christians await pope's visit

Ankara, Turkey - Next door to a store selling artificial limbs in a run-down area of Turkey's capital, the Protestant church sits on the ground floor of a dreary apartment block, with barred windows and kitchen chairs for pews.

The 100-strong congregation of the Kurtulus Church, which is linked to the U.S.-based International Church of the Foursquare Gospel, rents the space because authorities have not responded to its request for land and a permit to build a proper chapel.

When Pope Benedict XVI visits Turkey for four days starting Tuesday, he will try to ease anger over his recent remarks linking Islam and violence. But he is also expected to press the 99 percent Muslim country to give its Christian community more rights. Some of those Christians are forced to worship in so-called "apartment churches," and suffer prejudice, discrimination, even assault.

"The pope will discuss the rights of the religious minority" with Turkish officials, said Monsignor Luigi Padovese, the pope's vicar in Anatolia. "In a secular country, people must have the right to believe in whatever faith they choose to believe."

The pastor of Kurtulus Church, the Rev. Ihsan Ozbek, sees an opening for dialogue. "We face serious problems. Turkish citizens who converted to Christianity, especially, face serious discrimination and violence," he said.

The windows of his makeshift chapel have twice been smashed by suspected Turkish nationalists, reflecting a widely held conviction that conversion is treason and that Christian clergy are missionaries or spies for Western powers.

Of Turkey's 70 million people, some 65,000 are Armenian Orthodox Christians, 20,000 are Roman Catholic, and 3,500 are Protestant, mostly converts from Islam. Another 2,000 are Greek Orthodox and 23,000 are Jewish.

The shrunken Christian presence belies the church's deep roots in latter-day Turkey.

Constantinople _ modern-day Istanbul _ was the Christian Byzantine capital for more than 1,000 years until it fell to Muslim forces in 1453 and became the seat of the Muslim Ottoman Empire.

St. John the Apostle is said to have brought the Virgin Mary to Ephesus, 400 miles southwest of Istanbul, where she is believed to have spent her final years, while St. Paul traveled through much of modern-day Turkey on his missionary journeys.

Iznik is the former Nicea, where early Christian doctrine was formulated in 325 A.D. All seven major churches of early Christianity, mentioned in The New Testament, are in present-day Turkey. The pope will make a pilgrimage to one of them at Ephesus.

Today, Istanbul remains the center of Orthodoxy and the seat of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, considered "the first among equals" among the Orthodox leadership.

But membership is dwindling. The sole seminary training Greek Orthodox monks was ordered closed in 1971, and no alternative site has been granted. Turkish law also makes it impossible to import non-Turkish seminarians, and requires that the patriarchs be Turkish citizens, severely reducing the pool of candidates to succeed 66-year-old Bartholomew.

The Armenian Orthodox community's seminary is also closed, confronting it with the same challenge, while Greek and Armenian communities are struggling to recover property that the state confiscated in the 1970s.

Turkey wants to join the European Union, which is pressing it for greater tolerance. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's Islamic-rooted government has taken some steps toward change, amending laws to allow religious minorities to recover some property. The government has also indicated willingness to reopen the minority seminaries, but has failed to find a formula that conforms with the country's secular laws.

Even though Turkey is secular and Turks are considered moderately religious, authorities often report students who attend Christian meetings to their families to prevent possible conversions, and proselytizers are detained and extradited.

The distrust is so deep that non-Muslims are barred from the police force and military.

In February, a Turkish teenager shot dead a Catholic priest, Rev. Andrea Santoro, as he knelt in prayer in his church in the Black Sea port of Trabzon. The attack was believed linked to widespread anger in the Islamic world over the publication in European newspapers of caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad. Two other Catholic priests were attacked this year.