I wrote about visiting one of the Princes Islands in Istanbul, and my interest in the abandoned building at the top of the hill. I recently discovered there is more to the story of that abandoned orphanage than what I learned on the trip. It has fairly recently been part of an important court case.
Relations between church and state are frequently a touchy thing, wherever you are. That may be especially true in Turkey. The country is officially a secular state, though the population is about 96 per cent Muslim. But it also has a long Christian history – the Ecumenical Patriarch, titular head of all Orthodox churches, is based in what is now known as Istanbul.
The orphanage, which was run by the Greek Orthodox Church, is abandoned and in disrepair, though you can see that it was once the dominant building on the island. Indeed, it is the second largest wooden building in the world, the largest in Europe. It was also the subject of a major legal battle between church and state.
It seems orphanage was shut down and the Government of Turkey took the place over. It wasn’t just the declining orphan population but the tensions between Greece and Turkey over Cyprus that played a big part. At that time they maintained the property and land belonged to Turkey. Not so fast said the Ecumenical Patriarch; that land belongs to the church. Off to the European Court of Human Rights they went. The case of course took years, as court cases seem to do.
In such a legal case in Canada I would have expected the state to triumph. Court decisions here in recent years have trampled all over the rights of Christians and Christian institutions, no matter what the law says. At least that is how it appears to me.
I suspect a Turkish court would mimic a Canadian one in how it would treat the matter, choosing state over church without paying particular attention to the facts of the case (which is exactly what happened). I have the impression that Orthodox Christians in Istanbul may feel a bit like they did in 1453 when the city fell to the forces of the Ottoman Empire: under siege with defeat only a matter of time. I also suspect that the Orthodox fact is a little bit of an inconvenience for Turkish politicians. They enjoy the tourist dollars that flow from it, but really wish the church would just go away.
I was surprised therefore to discover that the church won its case. Maybe the European courts are fairer than Canadian ones where faith institutions are involved, willing to decide a case on its merits.
The relationship between any religion and the state is a touchy one. The American separation concept is taken for granted in North America, but that isn’t the case in much of the world. For example, Pakistan has Islam firmly embedded in its constitution. In England the Queen is not only head of state but head of the Anglican Church. (While it is true that relationship is more de jure than de facto, it still gives pause for thought.)
It becomes especially problematic as religion has become a polarizing force in some parts of the world – there are places where blasphemy (as defined by the majority religion) will earn you a death sentence. Minority rights can be defined as the minority having the right to be acquiesce to the majority or be trampled on.
So it was refreshing to hear that in this particular battle between church and state the church won. Those victories seem to be few and far between.