Stating that the broader expansion of freedoms in Turkey has also positively affected religious freedoms specifically, he said he welcomes the opening of new mosques and holding religious services at historic places. “We do not deserve to be referred to as a country where religious freedoms are restricted. We regard the demands of members of other religions as integral to freedom of religion. Meeting these demands and opening churches or other places of worships would not bring harm to Turkey. Similarly, a country that allows opening mosques does not Islamicize. There are many mosques on Rhodes, in western Thrace and Macedonia which have yet to be re-opened. It does no harm to anybody to meet the needs for a place of worship of Muslims there, or Christians or Jews somewhere else. On the contrary, it contributes much to social tolerance,” Bardakoğlu said on Tuesday during a fast-breaking (iftar) dinner organized for journalists in Ankara.
A historic religious service was held at Sümela Monastery in the Black Sea coastal province of Trabzon on Aug. 15. Three-thousand Orthodox Christians gathered for the service at the ancient monastery early in the day, which came after the government allowed a church service to be held there once a year in a gradual loosening of restrictions on religious expression. The service was officiated by İstanbul-based Fener Greek Patriarch Bartholomew. Pilgrims from Greece, Russia, Georgia and other countries traveled to the monastery, which currently serves as a museum. Around 500 pilgrims were admitted to the monastery, and the remaining participants watched the event from large screens set up outside Sümela.
After the service, Patriarch Bartholomew offered his thanks to the Ministry of Culture for its willingness to open the monastery for an annual service. He said the opening of the monastery doors for a religious service was an act of courtesy on the part of the Turkish government.
Touching upon another controversial issue surrounding religious freedom in Turkey, Bardakoğlu said a former Roman Catholic church in Tarsus, which was confiscated by the state in 1943 and is now a museum, should be turned back into a house of worship and that such a move would be a very positive step toward expanding religious freedoms. “Giving some the opportunity to represent Turkey as a country restricting religious freedoms is not correct. When I went to Tarsus, I said that there is nothing wrong with reopening St. Paul’s Church, which is now a museum. I said it would even be a positive step for more freedom of religion in Turkey. We want religious freedom not only for Muslims and Christians, but for everyone,” he said.
Directorate’s efforts in Pakistan
Bardakoğlu also spoke about the Religious Affairs Directorate’s efforts to extend a helping hand to flood-stricken Pakistan. Stating that the world still fails to realize the gravity of the situation in Pakistan, Bardakoğlu said the directorate will, for the first time, carry out an aid campaign in the next two weeks. Noting that the directorate collected money for Pakistan after Friday prayers in mosques last week, he said congregations will again be asked to help Pakistan this Friday. Bardakoğlu underlined that they are acting very carefully in transferring aid to Pakistan. “We give importance to accounting for all the money we receive. We believe in the importance of transparency,” he said.