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NewsAttack on St. Mary's Church in Istanbul when US...

Attack on St. Mary’s Church in Istanbul when US Undersecretary of State meets Turkish Minister of Foreign Affairs in Ankara

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An armed attack took place on the morning of Sunday, January, 28 at the St. Mary’s Catholic Church  (Meryem Ana Doğuş Kilisesi, also known as St. Mary İtalyan Latin Katolik Kilisesi in Sarıyer, or ”the Italian Latin Catholic Church of St. Mary in Sarıyer”) in the district of Büyükdere.

Some media have identified the church with the famous St. Mary Draperis (Meryem Ana Draperis Latin Katolik Kilisesi), but the combination is not correct: the latter is located in Beyoğlu. Both are associated with Italy for purely historical reasons dating back to the Ottoman period: neither the Church of Sarıyer/Büyükdere (further associated with Italy due to its Franciscan administrators), nor the church of Beyoğlu are formally linked to the Italian Community of Istanbul, nor do they belong to any institution of our Country. 

The attack took place around 11:40 a.m. local time by two armed and masked men who opened fire inside the building. 

The Turkish Ministry of Interior affairs issued a brief press release In the immediate aftermath, according to which one of the attendees “was attacked by gun by 2 masked people and unfortunately lost his life”. Initially, it seemed that the shots had been intentionally directed at a single person  (a specific target), but even the versions of the incident differed in some details. According to the Governor of İstanbul, Davut Gül, the shooting was carried out on one person and no injuries were recorded. Injured persons were instead mentioned in the statement issued by the Mayor of the city, who sent them wishes for a speedy recovery.

A short video published online by Dirilis Postasi shows the moment of the entrance of the two assailants. Towards the end of the video it seems to see one of them hitting a specific person, but the interpretation is unclear.

At the moment the only available data are the initials of the victim, T.C., and the fact that he was a 52-year-old Turkish citizen. Some media outlets he was a homeless man who used to find occasional refuge in the Church.

Updates arrived 5 hours after the incident specified that he would have been shot dead for standing up and yelling at the assailants, who therefore would not have had him as an initial target.

The President of the Republic Recep Tayyip Erdoğan telephoned the Governor of Sarıyer District Ömer Kalaylı, the priest of the Church of St. Mary, Anton Bulai, and the Consul General of Poland in Istanbul, Witold Lesniak. 

More than 12 hours after the event, some media outlets reported  the arrest of 2 suspects, one  of Russian citizenship and the other of Tajik citizenship: they would be affiliated with the galaxy of the Islamic State  

The Mayor of the Metropolitan City of İstanbul, Ekrem İmamoğlu, stated on X: “We will not give opportunities to those who try to destroy our unity” (birliğimizi bozmaya çalışanlara izin vermeyeceğiz), adding that “there are no minorities” in the country.

There are at least 3 issues to be addressed in this event: unity and minorities in the politics of today’s Turkey, the international position of the Country with respect to Russia and Palestine, and relations with the Holy See.   

1: Unity of the country and minorities in today’s Turkey

What is important in the apparently neutral reference to unity made by the Mayor of Istanbul?

What does the concept of “unity” in republican Turkey refer to?

Unity is one of the main characteristics to which the Turkish republican State refers, and has been interpreted by Kemalism (the official ideology of the state) as a necessary element to achieve the objective of development of secular, progressive and “civilized” Turkey according to the cultural canons of the second decade of the last century. These presupposed  the annihilation of cultural and religious differences within the country.

In the Islamic context, on the other hand, religious affiliation is precisely the definition of identity

The Justice and Development Party (AKP) was born from religious demands and in the last 20 years it has operated a policy of significant demolition of the ideological structure of kemalism, through significant reforms often justified by referendum results. These reforms have also allowed  a freer circulation of identity and religion ideas in  the public discourse, and the (apparently paradoxical) recognition  of Turkey as a land of citizens of different languages and religions.

The acceptance of the aformentioned reforms by the electorate has prompted the Republican People’s Party (CHP), which considers itself the defender of Kemalism, to rethink and soften its position on the matter and to undertake over transformative path that has encountered several obstacles: first of all, the accusation of having denied the Kemalist identity, and then the difficulty of creating a new – but defined – identity.

The current Mayor of Istanbul, who belongs to the CHP, is one of the most successful personalities in this process, and has been able to present himself as  a convincing synthesis of a religious public figure but attentive to the protection of civil liberties.      

Last October St. Ephrem, the first Christian ( Syriac Orthodox) church built in Turkey after the beginning of the Republic, was inaugurated under the auspices of the President of the Republic himself. The celebration was attended by several Christian religious authorities of various denominations, including Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew and Cardinal Koch, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.

What are the effects of such an act of bloodshed in the discourse of the reconstruction of a plural Turkey?  

2.  the country’s position towards Russia and Palestine 

If, as it seems, the suspects are citizens of Russian and Tajikistan, and if they were to be considered effectively involved in the matter, the question of who may beneficiate from that attack on such a sensitive moment would arise: Turkey aligned itself with the Russian Federation in support of Palestine after the Israeli reaction to the events of last November. At the same time of the attack, U.S. Undersecretary of State Victoria Nuland was in ankara holding a meeting with the Turkish Minister of Foreign Affairs, Hakan Fidan. The Ministry’s website does not even leak the issues faced.

3. Relations with the Holy See

Relations between the Republic and the Holy See have historically been particularly sensitive. In the Cathedral of Istanbul there is a statue dating back to the Ottoman period, commissioned by the Sultan of the time, to thank Benedict XV for his commitment to the liberation of Turkish prisoners of war after the Great War. John XXIII was Apostolic Nuncio to Turkey at the dawn of the Republic. John Paul II was shot by a Turkish citizen. Regardless of the actual instigators of the attack in St. Peter’s Square, the positions of the Turkish extreme right (the Turkish-Islamic synthesis) towards Catholicism and the authority of the Holy See are well known. The St. Peter’s Square bomber was affiliated with them, and fringes of this political party have a weighty role in the current government of Turkey. 

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