OXFORD England – The president of the Turkish Catholic bishops’ conference welcomed U.S. President Barack Obama’s expression of support for religious freedom during his visit to the country.
“He clearly knows the problems facing minorities here,” Bishop Luigi Padovese of Anatolia told Catholic News Service April 9. “Of course, our situation can only be expected to change slowly. But it’s very important a senior figure like this is drawing attention to minority hardships, since Turks themselves are often unaware of them.”
President Obama spoke to the Turkish parliament April 6 and called for “robust minority rights” and “freedom of religion and expression.”
Bishop Padovese said he was heartened that the remarks had been “positively received” by most of the Turkish media and that the Obama administration was observing the plight of Turkish Christians.
“Officially the Catholic Church doesn’t exist here since we aren’t recognized as a minority,” Bishop Padovese said. “The bishops’ conference has insisted the church’s legal recognition wouldn’t in any way endanger the secular character of the Turkish republic. But the current situation brings us many problems.”
Bishop Padovese said Catholic parishes faced “great difficulties” in the some parts of Turkey but were better protected in others.
Turkey’s Islamist-led government has pledged to improve minority rights as a condition for accession into the European Union in 2015 but has faced repeated criticisms for failing to uphold Christian rights and prevent attacks on Christian communities.
Addressing parliamentarians in Ankara, President Obama said religious freedom led “to a strong and vibrant civil society that only strengthens the state,” while minority rights “let societies benefit from the full measure of contributions from all citizens.”
He added that a long-sought agreement to reopen the Orthodox Halki seminary in Istanbul, which was closed by the government in 1971, would “send such an important signal inside Turkey and beyond.”
President Obama, who also described Turkey as an “important part of Europe,” held talks in his Istanbul hotel April 7 with Ecumenical Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople and with Muslim and Jewish leaders.
Bishop Padovese said Patriarch Bartholomew, whose Orthodox leadership is not recognized by Turkey, was the country’s most important church leader and had represented “not just the Orthodox, but all Christians” during his talks with Obama.