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The Martyr of Trabzon

Lessons From the Death of a Good Priest


January 14-20, 2007 Issue

Posted 1/10/07 at 8:00 AM

A few weeks after the murder of Father Andrea Santoro, a priest of the Diocese of Rome living in Trabzon , Turkey , who has already been called a martyr, a friend was passing through Paris .

He picked up a copy of the popular French magazine Paris-Match and happened upon the following description of Father Santoro’s simple church of Santa Maria : “In the little crypt set up in the cellar vaulted entirely in white, the priest’s guitar is laying on the ground, not far from the psalm for the day of his death.”

“In the parlor, the little Christmas tree was still up. In the priest’s monastic room, no one has touched anything. The heavy, checked bedcover is impeccably stitched, medicines stand on the rustic oak chest, the slippers are lined up at the foot of the bed. The only troubling detail: the bedtime book that Father Santoro had been reading in the final hours of his life, written by the American Robert Royal. The title was a premonition: The Catholic Martyrs of the Twentieth Century.”

I am still stunned by this connection of one of the most recent of Catholic martyrs to my account of his predecessors in the last century.

In the web of grace, of course, nothing is ever entirely an accident. But why Father Santoro should have been meditating on martyrs prior to his own unexpected death is and will remain a mystery.

Catholic priests are not often killed in Turkey or in other Muslim countries, though it happens now and then. Most commentators have been quick to attribute it to a generalized threat to Christians in Muslim lands. Such a threat exists almost everywhere, but not only because of Islam. There are still militant secular ideologies raging in the world and fundamentalist religious movements among Hindus and others, as well. All these potential dangers are worth keeping in mind, but it is precisely because we need to know the nature of the threat that we want to be very clear about what it is — and is not.

I myself have been quoted in several places recently, not so much inaccurately as selectively, making the argument that the major threat to Christians has shifted from the ideological atheisms of the 20th century to the fundamentalist sects of the 21st. This is partly true, of course, because the main ideologies — fascism, Nazism, communism — collapsed in many places, although communism continues to persecute in China , Cuba and Vietnam to no little degree. And in a soft form, as we well know, militant unbelief in developed nations has been trying to curtail religious exercise by restricting it to the purely private sphere and aggressively attacking the appearance of faith-inspired arguments in the public square.

But it is worth being careful to understand exactly where the difficulties lie instead of invoking grand schemes like the clash of civilizations or prematurely bemoaning the failure of peaceful dialogue.

There are reasons for caution but also for hope in the situation in which we find ourselves.

This is quite evident in Father Santoro’s own Turkey . The Turks are not Arabs, and like the Muslims in Indonesia and other east Asian countries, their leaders tend to take a more positive view of Christians, America and the West than may be found in Arab nations.

Anyone who tries to engage in dialogue with the Turks — I have participated in interreligious discussions both here and in Turkey — will find that many Turks are not only open, but quite eager to explore better ways of co-existence and mutual respect.

It is very common to hear from Turks, who are often knowledgeable and balanced, as well as from representatives of other non-Arab Muslim nations, that fundamentalist violence is not Islam, and those who practice it are not zealous believers but simple thugs upon whom the West has conferred a wholly unwarranted religious dignity. Turkey ’s own deputy minister for religious affairs, Mehmet Gormez, publicly stated after Father Santoro’s death that the act was nothing less than blasphemy and that a true believer would never kill “a man of God in a house of God.”

But it does not take many people of a different bent to give a distorted picture of the situation. The Paris-Match correspondent who went to Turkey and talked with people who knew Father Santoro found near universal love for him as a man and a priest. As I read these accounts of his background, I felt a kind of writer’s déjà vu because his life’s path resembles so many other martyrs’ lives in modern times. While he was still in Italy , Father Santoro was already involved in trying to correct social injustices and to help drug users.

Young people were especially attracted to him. He turned his attention towards the problems of Islam after the end of the Cold War and went to the extreme eastern regions of Turkey , hundreds of miles away from the already exotic destinations of Istanbul and Ankara , to work with the marginalized of a marginalized country.

Georgian Orthodox Christians, many prostitutes who were poor women back home forced into a sordid trade abroad, found asylum in his church. The few converts from Islam to Christianity speak of him as extraordinary. As one reported: “His Masses were the most beautiful things I have ever seen.” And even ordinary local Muslims valued him for his kindness. Like Charles Foucauld almost a century ago, he did not die because he was involved in divisive proselytizing, but was establishing local contacts in an effort to reconcile Catholics and Muslims. These cases are always instructive because they remind us that fanatics do not attack religious or secular Westerners because we have done something wrong.

The idea that others only hate us because of our own sins is not only false, it forgets one of the greatest truths about the causes of Jesus’ own crucifixion: People can hate good as much as evil.

Duzhan Akdil, the psychologically unstable 16-year-old who killed Santoro, perhaps with the help of a wider set of accomplices, has been portrayed as part of the much talked about “clash of civilizations.”

But he seems like a poor specimen for such a grand notion.

To accept that view is to adopt the absurdly broad categories of the Muslim fanatics themselves who think that every disagreeable event in a culture like the West is the personal responsibility of every Westerner or Christian. It’s not true here or there.

We may yet see other loners like Duzhan Akdil or even organized networks systematically killing priests and other Christians. But we need to be clear about responsibilities in each specific case.

Akdil’s own father has been at great pains to deplore the act, has explained that in his family children were not raised to hate anyone, and has insisted that even in his own business he works with people of all sorts of religious backgrounds.

All this is quite believable of Turkey and other non-Arab Muslim countries. The son had been expelled from the local mosque two months earlier for reasons that are not clear. We do know, however, that he spent a lot of time surfing the Internet and that he had a fascination with the Gray Wolves, the group that spawned Mehmet Ali Agca, the would-be assassin of Pope John Paul II. In other words, this young man who had become detached from his own relatively well-off family and religious institutions in a remote region of Turkey gravitated towards radical Islamic websites for no real reason other than his immaturity and emotional problems.

There have been some reports that some local Muslims did not like the fact that Father Santoro allowed Christian prostitutes into his church and that there may even have been some altercation over the Danish cartoons mocking Muhammad.

But I have seen over and over again stories of similar circumstances leading up to the death of good men and women. The seven Trappist monks who were killed in 1996 at Tibhirine in Algeria were equally loved by their neighbors — and killed by men who belonged to a small band of radicalized militants.

From everything we know about Father Santoro, it would be difficult to believe that he would have done anything other than deplore the disrespect to the founder of Islam in the Danish cartoons — while trying to reason with anyone who mistakenly thought those cartoons reflected an anti-Islamic sentiment in the West generally or among Western individuals such as himself noted for their courage and kindness.

We need to be firm and fearless in denouncing such events wherever they occur and for whatever reason. And I fear that we will see more than a few martyrs of Father Santoro’s kind because of current religious tensions.

But we will be disrespecting the memory of a good and holy man, and of his work, if we ourselves assign blame to the abstract clash of civilizations and are not careful about understanding the particulars of why he died.

Robert Royal is president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C