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Slain Priest’s Memorial Opens Way to Reconciliation

2/6/07 Turkey (Compass Direct News) – Turkey ’s Catholics extended reconciliation to this tense Black Sea city yesterday, exactly one year after a local teenager shot an Italian priest while he was praying in his church.

Trabzon has come under increasing criticism in the Turkish and international press after the killer of Father Andrea Santoro and the suspected assassin of Armenian journalist Hrant Dink emerged as Black Sea locals. Tight security both in and around the church indicated that authorities did not want a repeat of either incident.

“ Trabzon is an honest and clean city,” Anatolian Bishop Luigi Padovese said in Turkish at the opening of an 11:30 a.m. mass in Trabzon ’s St. Mary Church to commemorate the death of Fr. Santoro. “We will continue to trust the honest people here.”

Underlining the importance of these words for Turkey ’s Catholics, Cardinal Camillo Ruini, president of Italy ’s Bishops Conference, and Antonio Lucibello, Vatican nuncio to Turkey , celebrated the mass.

“The majority of [ Trabzon ’s] population is like us [Christians], they reject violence and can’t understand such murders,” Bishop Padovese commented to Compass.

A Turkish Protestant attending the service said that negative press against Trabzon has increased nationalist anger among segments of the city’s youth.

“Certain young people have begun wearing a white hat [like that worn by Ogun Samast, who reportedly confessed to murdering Dink] because they see Samast as a leader and a hero,” Sezgin Saglamer told Compass. “The source of this anger is not against Christians: it’s partly because the media have excessively faulted Trabzon .”

The mother, sisters and cousin of the murdered priest were also in attendance from Italy bearing a message of forgiveness.

Fr. Santoro’s mother’s first act upon entering the small church was to kneel on the exact spot her son had been praying when 16-year-old Oguzhan Aydin shot him from behind. Alone with a few security police and clergy, she wept softly in prayer before rising to walk around the rest of the chapel.

“My family and I have forgiven with all our hearts,” Fr. Santoro’s sister told the daily Today’s Zaman following the mass. “Before Jesus died he said, ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.’”

The unexpected arrival of the killer’s parents at 11 a.m. created a minor stampede as dozens of Turkish journalists cornered the pair, climbing on pews and shoving aside a nun. The couple eventually broke free and met privately with Cardinal Ruini and Bishop Padovese to express their sympathy.

“It was very moving that the mother and father of the murderer came,” Bishop Padovese commented. “We could see that they were genuinely saddened by the whole event.”

The exchange stood in sharp contrast to previous comments by Aydin’s mother, who had reportedly defended her son after his sentence. According to Turkish press reports, she said, “If my son is jailed for the state, for the people, then so be it with my blessing. He is jailed for Allah.”

Media Contribution to Deaths

Aydin was given a prison sentence of 18 years and 10 months in October for shooting Fr. Santoro. As a minor, he is expected to serve only 10.5 years of that sentence.

Contrary to reports in the Turkish media, Bishop Padovese told Compass that Aydin’s parents did not meet Fr. Santoro’s mother. The bishop said he had hoped to prevent her from experiencing shock.

Though the ceremony received positive coverage in the Turkish media, members of the Catholic community were wary of several dozen Turkish journalists covering the event.

One member of the congregation commented to Compass that it was negative nationalist media reports against Fr. Santoro, and more recently against Dink, that had provoked their deaths. Local press had published angry statements that the Italian priest was working to convert Muslims to Christianity.

A heavy police presence at yesterday’s memorial service highlighted the uncertainty that Trabzon ’s small Christian community continues to face.

“Christians in Trabzon are not afraid, but they have become more careful,” Bishop Padovese told Compass, adding that he was thankful for the excellent security provided by the city.

“Father Andrea always told us that he was more worried for us than he was for himself,” commented one Turk of Muslim background who had attended the church during Fr. Santoro’s three years in Trabzon .

Christians in Turkey have faced increased persecution during the past year. Attacks on foreign Catholic priests occurred in Izmir , Mersin and Samsun in 2006, the most serious in July when a man with a history of mental instability knifed an elderly French priest outside Samsun ’s Mater Dolorosa church.

Converts to Christianity have also faced attacks, most recently the stoning of Agape Protestant Church in Samsun last month.

In his homily, interpreted from Italian into Turkish, Cardinal Ruini underlined the necessity for freedom of conscience to underpin worship of God.

“True and sincere worship of God is only possible with free and brotherly love,” Cardinal Ruini said. “We’ve come here to highlight religious freedom.”