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German church leaders urge concessions for Christians in Turkey

September 14, 2010

WARSAW, Poland

The president of Germany’s Roman Catholic Bishops Conference has called on Muslims to do more to support religious freedom for Christians around the world, especially in Turkey, from where most German Muslims originate.

“We hope reflection on the faith will lead to the overcoming of tensions dividing Christians and Muslims,” said Archbishop Robert Zollitsch. “But we should also remember the difficult situation facing Christians in the Middle East. The Catholic Church in Germany has publicly supported justified Muslim needs, and we count on Christians in Turkey soon being able to enjoy full religious freedom too.”

The archbishop sent greetings to Muslims, dated August 27, for the end of the traditional Ramadan fast in Germany. Three million mostly ethnic Turkish Muslims make up 3.5 percent of Germany’s population and are the third largest religious group after Catholics and Protestants.

At the same time, another German Catholic church leader welcomed a recent call by the Muslim head of Turkey’s official religious council for Christians to be allowed to repossess a historic church at St Paul’s birthplace of Tarsus.

“If this church were given back, it would be a signal for the whole world and German society in particular,” Cardinal Joachim Meisner of Cologne said in a statement.

“Members of Turkey’s government have made many promises to return it which have aroused hopes and then turned out to be illusory. But our church hierarchy has never abandoned the ancient Christian principle of hoping against hope.”

Christian minorities have frequently complained of discrimination and hostility in Turkey, most of whose 71.5 million inhabitants are Sunni Muslims.

In May, the country’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, ordered local authorities to “uphold the rights of the Christian and Jewish minorities” and “behave with respect towards their clergy” after repeated warnings from the European Commission that the country must provide better protection for religious rights as a precondition for joining the EU by 2015.

In late August, the head of Turkey’s official Presidency of Religious Affairs said allowing faith communities places of worship, “regardless of religion, race or color,” as “integral to religious freedom,” and called for St Paul’s church in Tarsus to be returned to Christians.

“We don’t deserve to be listed as a country where religious freedoms are restricted,” Mufti Ali Bardakoglu, whose office monitors religious practices in Turkey and supervises 80,000 mosques, told journalists August 24.

“When I went to Tarsus, I said there was nothing wrong with reopening St Paul’s church, which is now a museum. I said it would even be a positive step for more freedom of religion in Turkey — and we want religious freedom not only for Muslims and Christians, but for everyone.”

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