When Bishop Luigi Padovese, Turkey’s best-known Catholic prelate and head of its bishops’ conference, was stabbed to death at his Iskenderun home June 3, the macabre crime sent shock waves through the country’s small, embattled Christian minority. 

On June 4, during a pilgrimage to Cyprus, Pope Benedict XVI paid tribute to the 63-year-old Italian bishop’s work to further interfaith understanding, insisting the outrage should not “be blamed on Turkey or the Turks,” or be allowed to “cast a shadow over dialogue with Islam.” 

However, many observers are alarmed at the apparent vulnerability of Christians in Turkey, most of whose 77 million residents are Sunni Muslims. 

Violence against Christians 

Turkish court investigators are piecing together how the Capuchin bishop’s Muslim driver, Murat Altun, 26, who confessed to the killing, came to carry out the attack. The provincial governor of Anatolia, where Bishop Padovese worked as Catholic apostolic vicar, told journalists that Altun had been treated for psychiatric disorders.  

However, some Catholics, including the Church’s lawyer, Ercan Eris, have said the murder bore the hallmarks of Islamic militancy and have urged the authorities to widen their inquiries. 

The bishop’s killing was only the latest act of violence against Turkey’s 32,000-strong Catholic Church. A beatification process is expected to open in Rome next year for Father Antonio Santoro, who was shot dead at his church in Trabzon in February 2006. Two other priests, Fathers Roberto Ferrari and Pierre Brunissen, were wounded in knife attacks at Mersin and Trabzon, respectively, the same year, while Capuchin Father Adriano Franchini was stabbed at Izmir in December 2007. 

Turkey’s Protestant communities have been targeted, too, most notoriously in April 2007, when a German and two Turks were tortured and stabbed to death at their Bible publishing house in Malatya. 

Most of these attacks were carried out by young people who were judged mentally unstable, but later found to have connections with nationalist, anti-Christian groups. Some Christians fear Turkish officials have deliberately played down the significance of the attacks by portraying them as isolated acts by mentally ill individuals. 

Eyewitnesses told the Rome-based Catholic AsiaNews agency they heard Altun shouting “Allah is great!” after the killing. The agency has called on Turkey to investigate the driver’s alleged links with a nationalist group and to check claims he recently converted from Islam to Christianity. 

“His action correlates with the murders by ultranationalist groups and Islamic fundamentalists who apparently want to eliminate Christians from Turkey,” AsiaNews wrote. “Establishing the truth is necessary for the Turkish state, if it is to its show modernity and ability to guarantee rights.” 

Protecting religious rights 

Bishop Padovese became prominent during the 2008-09 Year of St. Paul, hosting pilgrimages to the apostle’s hometown of Tarsus and unsuccessfully petitioning the Islamist-led government of Premier Recep Tayyip Erdogan to reopen the town’s ancient St. Paul’s Church, which has been used as a state museum since 1943. Interviewed at the time, Bishop Padovese said he hoped to use the anniversary to improve the status of Turkey’s estimated 120,000 Christians by working closely with the Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople and other denominations. 

The European Union has continued to warn Turkey it must offer better protection to religious rights if it hopes to join the European Union by 2015, highlighting the problems faced by Christians in establishing associations, building churches and training clergy, as well as in gaining visas and work permits for visiting priests and ministers. 

Last year, Church leaders deplored an Education Ministry textbook warning schoolchildren against the “perfidious tactics of Christians,” while Istanbul police said they had arrested 16 people in connection with an Islamist plot to kidnap and kill Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I. 

In October, the European Court of Human Rights accepted two separate suits by Orthodox and Protestant churches that Turkey had violated their rights by denying them legal registration and property ownership. In February, it again branded Turkey guilty of infringing human rights by requiring citizens to specify their religious status on national identity cards. 

“If Turkey is going to align itself with Western democratic nations, it will have to make changes, whether or not it joins the EU,” Zekai Tanyar, chairman of Turkey’s Association of Protestant Churches, told OSV. “The real issue isn’t with the law, which is quite clear about religious freedom, but with attitudes and mentalities. The state is making no effort to dissuade people from thinking Christians are their enemies.” 

Yet there have been signs that the Turkish government may be confronting the problems. In May, Erdogan ordered local authorities to “uphold the rights of the Christian and Jewish minorities” and “behave with respect toward their clergy.” 

If such breakthroughs come, they will owe much to patient campaigning by Bishop Padovese. This spring, the bishop welcomed the return of a confiscated Syriac Catholic Church at Iskenderun as a “sign of the Turkish authorities improved ties with Christians.” 

He also reported on personal assurance from Turkey’s Ministry for Tourism and Culture that St. Paul’s Church in Tarsus would soon formally reopen, adding that he believed the case had been defended by Kenan Gursoy, Turkey’s newly appointed ambassador to the Vatican. 

At the bishop’s June 7 funeral in Iskenderun’s Annunciation Church, Archbishop Ruggero Franceschini of Izmir said Bishop Padovese had also been admired for his charitable work, which had included organizing home food deliveries for needy Muslim families. He added that the bishop had mostly employed Muslims in his office and enjoyed “excellent relations” with the local mufti. 

“Msgr. Luigi did all of this without expecting anything in return, without self-interest or concern about image,” he said. “This country has thus once again confirmed that it is a place of martyrdom, even for someone who loved it so much.” 

Although that may be true, the Church’s surviving leaders will do their best to ensure the bishop’s conciliatory work is not undone, and that the movement for Christian rights continues to make progress. 

Jonathan Luxmoore writes from Poland.

About the bishop (sidebar)

Born in Milan, Italy, Bishop Luigi Padovese joined the Capuchins in 1964 and was ordained in 1973 after studying in Italy and Germany. 

As an expert in patristics and theological history, he became a professor at Rome’s Gregorian University in 1995, also directing his order’s publishing output until he was sent to Iskenderun in 2004 on Turkey’s southeastern border with Syria. 

He also was president of Caritas Turkey.