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Solidarity Shown at Priest’s Memorial Service in Turkey

Other Christians in Muslim countries targeted with anti-cartoon anger.

by Peter Lamprecht

ISTANBUL , (Compass) – Amid global debate about cartoon depictions of the prophet Muhammad first printed in Denmark , Muslims and Christians came together in Istanbul yesterday (2/9) for the memorial service of a Catholic priest who was murdered in the Turkish Black Sea city of Trabzon .

Andrea Santoro was shot twice while praying at the Santa Maria Catholic Church on Sunday (February 5); the suspect is a 16-year-old boy who shouted the opening lines to the Muslim call to prayer. Arrested on Tuesday (February 7), the teenager gave contradictory motives for attacking the 60-year-old priest, including vengeance for the caricatures of Muhammad, Turkish media reported.

At the memorial service in Istanbul ’s Harbiye district, Bishop Louis Pelatre said that it was Santoro’s godly character that had caused such a public outcry over his death.

Quoting Pope Benedict XVI’s February 6 comments on Santoro’s death, Bishop Pelatre used imagery from the Gospel of John to compare the dead priest’s life with that of a seed that must fall to the ground and die before it can bear fruit.

“Let us pray that his death was not in vain,” he told leaders of the Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox churches and members of the Muslim community who had gathered for the service in the Saint Esprit Catholic Church. “Even this terrible event can be a source of brotherhood and peace.”

A papal representative in Istanbul read a letter from Turkish Religious Affairs Minister Ali Bardakoglu condemning the attacks as a “grave sin.” Read at the end of the mass celebrated by Papal Nuncio Antonio Lucibello, Bardakoglu said in the letter that Turkey could only respond with “vehemence and loathing. We hope the criminal will soon be caught and receive the punishment that he deserves.”

In a show of solidarity with the Catholic Church, Protestant pastor Bedri Peker presented Lucibello with a letter of condolence on behalf of the Alliance of Turkish Protestant Churches (TEK). “We hope that Andrea Santoro’s death will soften the hearts of those in Turkey who are prejudiced against Christianity and will remind them that God is love,” Peker’s letter stated.

One TEK pastor who attended the service told Compass that he was excited over the unexpected amount of good that had come out of Santorre’s death.

“He was such a good man and witness that everyone is talking about the gospel now,” said the leader, who requested anonymity.

In a letter of condolence to Pope Benedict XVI, Armenian Orthodox Patriarch Mesrob II said that he remembered Santoro for “his joyful attitude and profound love and willingness to reach out to Muslim neighbors.”

Speaking at his weekly general audience in Rome on the same day as Santoro’s funeral Wednesday, the pope called the deceased priest a “silent and courageous servant of the gospel.” He said he hoped Santoro’s sacrifice would contribute to “dialogue among religions and peace among peoples.”

More Attacks

Catholics have not been the only Christians to face problems in Trabzon , which has experienced a wave of violence in the past months. In a February 7 interview with the Turkish daily Hurriyet, TEK chairperson Ihsan Ozbek said that several Protestants have also been attacked in the Black Sea city in recent weeks. Ozbek called on the government to protect Turkey ’s Christian minority.

Turkish government and society remain deeply suspicious of Turkey ’s Christian community, which makes up less than 1 percent of the country’s population.

Though distribution of religious literature and conversion to another religion are both legal under Turkey ’s secular laws, proselytizing is often equated with efforts to undermine the unity of the country.

In the wake of Santoro’s death, Turkish media published reports that the priest had been conducting missionary activity. And in yesterday’s Hurriyet, a supposed second motive for the killing appeared – that the priest had allegedly paid his attacker $100 a month to attend mass and had recently decreased the amount.

“There are reasons for this sort of attack,” TEK spokesperson Isa Karatas told Compass at the funeral. “Anti-Christian media reports, among other things, create an atmosphere in which this sort of [murder] is likely to occur.”

Yesterday Catholic Bishop of Anatolia Luigi Padavese told Asia News that another priest had been attacked by a group of youths in the Aegean city of Izmir . The boys reportedly grabbed Franciscan friar Martin Kmetec by the throat, shouting “We will kill you all.” The bishop told Asia News that the most recent attack was the “fruit of rampant fanaticism.”

The Turkish daily Radikal reported that the incident, which occurred at St. Helen’s Catholic Church, has been reported to Izmir ’s chief prosecuter.

As a precautionary measure at Fr. Santoro’s memorial service, over 100 police were stationed outside the church to provide security. The event took place without opposition or incident.

“We weren’t really worried about bomb threats, but more about the possibility of protests,” one officer said on condition of anonymity. “We didn’t expect anything to happen, but we still needed to take measures to make sure that nothing did happen.”

Cartoon Backlash

Law enforcement in Middle Eastern countries has seen increased action during the past weeks as outrage over caricatures of Muhammad has turned into violence. Protests that began in the Middle East have now spread to Europe, Africa and Southeast Asia .

First printed by Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten in September as a test of what editor-in-chief Carsten Juste termed “the self-censorship which rules large parts of the Western world,” the 12 cartoons included a drawing of Mohammad as a terrorist with a bomb in his turban. On October 20 a group of 10 Muslim ambassadors to Denmark complained to Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen that the cartoons portrayed Muhammad as a terrorist. Many Muslims have protested that the cartoons violate basic tenants of Islam, which forbids any depiction of the prophet.

Jyllands-Posten on January 31 issued a qualified apology on its website “for the fact that the cartoons undeniably have offended many Muslims,” but the next day the cartoons were reprinted in France , Germany , Italy and Spain in the name of freedom of the press. “Yes, we have the right to caricature God,” read the banner headline of French daily France Soire.

Protests across the Muslim world soon followed, highlighted by attacks on the Danish embassies in Syria , Iran and Lebanon and the death of 10 people this week in Afghanistan , Reuters reported. The February 8 article said that the cartoons have been published in at least 22 countries, including Yemen and Jordan .

In Iraq , where six simultaneous bomb blasts outside of churches in Kirkuk and Baghdad on January 29 left three dead and at least 22 injured, distancing themselves from the cartoons has become a matter of life and death for the country’s Christians. In the days leading up to the bombings, fatwas against the cartoons had reportedly been issued by religious leaders in the local media.

At the funeral service for a Christian boy killed in the blasts, Chaldean Archbishop of Kirkuk Louis Sako told a crowd of 700 Muslims and Christians that the church had nothing to do with the caricatures of the prophet Muhammad, Christian organization Open Doors reported. According to Open Doors, many of Sako’s Muslim contacts told him they had received text messages calling on them to take revenge on the Christians for the Danish cartoons.

Among others who suffered from anti-cartoon violence were two Christian schools in Peshawar Pakistan , where anti-cartoon protestors reportedly smashed windows and beat children before police quickly moved to halt the attack. In a February 7 report, General Secretary of Pakistan ’s NCC Victor Azariah called on the West to condemn the cartoons since they “create problems for Christians living in Muslim countries.”

Churches in Lebanon also came under attack in varying degrees of cartoon-related violence on Sunday (February 5). A Maronite Catholic church and the headquarters of the Greek Orthodox archbishop were vandalized in Beirut during an anti-cartoon protest of 30,000 people in which 29 were injured, Catholic News Service reported.

Muslim and Christian leaders alike condemned the attack on the Lebanese churches, located in the neighborhood of the Danish consulate. While reporting that many Lebanese believed the attacks to be motivated by outside political forces, Catholic News Service quoted Maronite Archbishop Paul Youssef Matar as saying that government’s lack of protection for the Christians was “unacceptable.”