By John L. Allen Jr. | GLOBE STAFF MAY 10, 2014


When Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople meet this month in Jerusalem, the buzz probably will be about two milestones from the past: 1054, when Eastern and Western Christianity split, and 1964, when Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras embraced in the Holy Land to begin healing the division.

That historic meeting 50 years ago helped launch the modern ecumenical movement for Christian unity.

For anyone who understands the realities facing Christianity in the Middle East today, however, the most relevant date actually lies in the future — 2054, to be exact.

When the 1,000th anniversary of the East-West rupture rolls around 40 years from now, the question is whether there will still be an ecumenical patriarchate in Constantinople, modern-day Istanbul in Turkey, to mark it.

There’s every possibility that in the meantime, the historic “first among equals” in the Orthodox world will become another chapter of the slow-motion extinction of Christianity across the land of its birth.

Turkey may be officially secular, but sociologically it’s an Islamic society with a population of 75 million that’s 97 percent Muslim. Although it was a center of early Christianity, today there are just 150,000 Christians left, mostly Greek and Armenian Orthodox. They endure various forms of harassment, including difficulties in obtaining permits to build or repair churches, surveillance by security agencies, unfair judicial treatment, and discrimination in housing and employment.

The Greek Orthodox Halki Seminary is an emblematic case. Founded in 1844 as the principal school of theology for the ecumenical patriarchate, it was considered one of the premier centers of learning in the Orthodox world. It was forced to shut down in 1971 after Turkey barred private universities.

National law also requires the patriarch of Constantinople to be a Turkish citizen. Given the dwindling Christian community and the inability to provide theological formation, many believe it will be increasingly difficult to find suitable clergy to satisfy the requirement, and that eventually the office could lapse for lack of a qualified candidate.

Toward the end of 2009, the normally reserved and diplomatic Bartholomew appeared on CBS’s “60 Minutes” and shocked Turkey’s political establishment by saying out loud that Turkey’s Christians are second-class citizens and that he felt “crucified” by a state that wants to see his church die out.

That’s not just rhetoric, as physical attacks on Christians in Turkey have become increasingly common and brazen over the last decade.

In January 2006, a Protestant church leader named Kamil Kiroglu, a Muslim convert, was beaten unconscious by five young men. A month later, a well-known Italian Catholic priest, the Rev. Andrea Santoro, was gunned down by a 16-year-old Muslim in Trabzon. Three other Catholic priests were attacked shortly afterward in other locations.

In January 2007, a prominent Christian journalist of Armenian descent named Hrant Dink was assassinated in Istanbul. In April 2007, three Protestant Christian missionaries — two Turks and one German — were tortured, stabbed, and strangled in the Central Anatolian city of Malatya.

In June 2010, Luigi Padovese, the Catholic apostolic vicar for Anatolia and president of the country’s Catholic bishops’ conference, was killed by his driver and longtime aide, Murat Altun. Witnesses reported that Altun shouted “Allahu Akbar, I have killed the greatest Satan!”

These travails mirror the broader realities for Christianity across the Middle East. All told, Christians have gone from roughly 20 percent of the region’s population in the early 20th century to no more than 5 percent today.

Those who remain often face lethal threats. A coalition of more than 200 Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant leaders in America recently urged greater action by the US government to protect Middle Eastern Christians, an initiative spearheaded by Representative Frank Wolf, a Virginia Republican, and Representative Anna Eshoo, a California Democrat.

Therein lies the test for Pope Francis on his first outing to the region.

The question is not really whether he can contribute to ecumenical momentum, as his predecessors on both sides of the Catholic-Orthodox divide made that process irreversible, and his own humbler conception of the papacy is already accelerating the healing.

The real question is instead whether he can translate his popularity and moral authority into an effective mobilization in defense of persecuted Christians, not as a matter of confessional self-interest but as an urgent human rights concern.

Two year ago, a leading columnist for the Turkish daily Zaman complained that the Vatican wasn’t doing anything to demand that the investigation of Padovese’s death be “handled in a serious manner.” He wrote that if the Vatican would do so, it would offer “a huge contribution to the promotion of human rights and freedom of religion.”

Will a similar critique of Vatican silence be possible on Francis’s watch? Or will the world’s most popular spiritual leader spend some of his political capital on behalf of fellow believers, most of whom are impoverished and vulnerable, for whom he may be the last firebreak before annihilation?

Without trying to guess the answer, that’s at least the right question to ask when Pope Francis meets the patriarch during his May 24 to 26 outing to Jordan, Israel, and the Palestinian territories.

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