The Bridge Between the Christian and Muslim Worlds

( [email protected] ) Jul 28, 2004 09:53 PM EDT

LONDON - The last enlargement of the European Union (EU) was carried out in May when 10 countries from Central and Eastern Europe entered the Union. It has been commented as the end to the Cold War in Europe because the Union is not dominated by West Europe anymore. However, Turkey, which has been applying for membership to the EU since 1987, again failed to be part of the union. Due to its strong Muslim background, discussions continue to be very sensitive and critical.

Europe has a heritage of a strong Christian heritage. During the EU's establishment and constitution, the Pope and denominations across the continent actively intervened to urge secular leaders to maintain Europe’s Christian backbone. They even claim that “Europe is not Europe without Christianity”. Coincidently, most of the current 25 member countries in the EU are of Christianity majority. Therefore, the failure of Turkey to become part of the EU has given an impression that the EU is to make a “Christian Club”, which contradicts its belief of respecting human rights, the rule of law, and the protection of minorities.

The Conference of European Churches (CEC), which groups more than 120 Anglican, Protestant and Orthodox churches throughout the continent, has published a paper about the issue by its Church and Society Commission.

“The decision about the future relationship of Turkey to the European Union is of principal importance to the Union,” the CEC paper noted. “This decision is closely related to the dynamics which influence life, character and cohesion of society within the Union.” Therefore, CEC concluded that “the decision needs considerably greater scrutiny, focusing not only on economic and political arguments but also those, which take into consideration the scope of social forces and relationships.”

The Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD), which represents a third of Germany’s 82 million people, is also conservative to the entry of Turkey. It believes it is not the geography that determines Turkey to be an European country. The key concern is how its Islamic background could be “Europeanized” as the influence of the religion over the concept of humanity is deeply embedded among the Turkish.

“The strengthening of democracy and the rule of law in Turkey, the promotion of peace and stability in the region, and the capability of the European Union to expand further, are all of central and equal importance in making a decision,” the EKD said.

For the Orthodox Church, Archbishop Christodoulos of Greece has similar concerns that Turkish culture was alien to European culture, “and, consequently, Turkey has no place in a unified Europe.” However, another powerful Orthodox leader, Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomeos I, has supported EU membership for Turkey.

The Russian Orthodox Church issued a statement in early July responding to the CEC discussion paper. It shows a rather positive attitude to Turkey’s entry to the EU. Even though the church pointed out “an absence of an open attitude to traditional religious and ethnic minorities” in Turkey, such as the restriction on the Orthodox Church and on the Kurdish and Syrian Jacobite communities, Turkey might be able to be a bridge between the Christian and Muslim worlds.

“The close vicinity of the Muslim and Christian worlds can create not only divisions, but can, in the process of overcoming them, help develop a model of peaceful coexistence between these two civilizations.”

It also noted, “the membership of Turkey in the EU is impossible without overcoming the existing contradictions between Turkey and neighboring European states. This is impossible, in its turn, without mutual recognition of wounds and offences inflicted, without a review of the historical past and concrete steps towards reconciliation and cooperation.”

Nevertheless, the Russian Orthodox Church raised a possible problem with regards to the special geographical position of Turkey - 80 percent of Turkey is in Asia and 20 percent in Europe. Therefore, admitting Turkey could lead to other Mediterranean states claiming a European identity and wanting to join the EU, and the EU might not have “sufficient grounds to deny access to such countries.”

The EU has promised to give a definite answer to the application of Turkey for membership of the Union in December 2004. The discussion is expected to continue until then with the active participation of churches in Europe. 2007 will mark the next step in the enlargement of the Union through the accession of Romania and Bulgaria. This will complete the large-scale accession of the countries of Central and Eastern Europe for which the Union and its new members have been working on for more than a decade.