Memory and life

Publish date 29-04-2021

by Claudio Monge

Turkish authorities razed the Christian church of St. George, an iconic structure known as Bursa's Hagia Sophia; historical church of the Armenian-Catholics put up for sale for 6,000,000 TL (approximately € 660,000); the Syrian Orthodox church of Mor Yuhanon (St. John), dating back to the 4th century and located in a suburb of the city of Mardin, was put up for sale on a real estate site, as usable for tourist reception activities (approximately € 800,000); a kebab restaurant in Şanlıurfa (Edessa) cooked a barbecue in the church of Germuş, which had already fallen into disrepair for years, due to illegal excavations by treasure hunters.

Here is a small collection of short news from recent months, easily traceable on the web, which would seem to suggest a dramatic drift in the public and private usurpation of places of faith and memory, relating in particular to minority churches in the land of Turkey.
Although the disappointment is sometimes understandable and the feeling of a lack of respect is also justified for the fact that not a few Christian places of worship (often part of larger real estate complexes) have been confiscated by the Turkish state or confiscated once they have fallen in disuse, by public or private institutions, or even transformed into a museum especially at the time of the fall of the Ottoman Empire, it seems inappropriate to us to speak of a precise strategy aimed at mortifying the communities and their memory.

Certainly there is a cultural and not just a political problem, precisely of an ideological interpretation of history resulting from the emergence of nationalisms that have largely destroyed the cosmopolitan and multicultural character of the empire, whose authorities saw diversity as enrichment by pragmatically encouraging , religious tolerance. Then there is a problem, entirely Turkish, of preserving an extraordinary stratified historical heritage: an incredible difficulty in contextualizing it in a historical process that is not always invariably degraded by low interests of the present. Finally, let's face it, there is also an ideological interpretation of history in which minorities fall more frequently, when they make their religious affiliation a reactionary element of identity, reducing, as in this case, the protection of places of worship and historical monuments in general, to a nostalgic preservation of the past.

This vision of history seems sterile to us: it makes the past a simple relic, a memory concluded in itself, often transfigured as something only to regret, embalmed in a mythical vision ... (the places of worship mentioned at the beginning were in ruins and for decades not used by the religious communities themselves!). In reality, it is indispensable to reflect on the meaning of conservation and above all of the evolution of identity over time: the meaning of the celebrated life, of the rites, is inscribed in time and the communities, through them, continue to renew the link between the sacred and the profane and the evolution of the latter must question the relationship to the former and, even more so, ritual practices. The present of the Christian heritage in the land of Turkey still testifies to an extraordinarily important past, but is currently exceeding the numerical reality of the many communities, denominations and rites that characterize the small Christian presence in the country. Undoubtedly, however, there is a geographical imbalance in the location of these privileged places not only of memory but also of Christian life, mostly concentrated in Istanbul and in the south-east of the country, but completely absent in the heart of Anatolia, where, however, in the present there are more than 200 Chaldean families of the Iraqi migration.

Christian communities should help themselves to get out of a posture of museum guardians of memory, to renew the vitality of a Christian life that unfolds in the present, first of all by meeting the needs of today's believers, often neglected not only in their need. ritual but also in the formation of a believing awareness in a sometimes very hard daily life, to be lived, among other things, in the midst of those who believe otherwise! We know that historical monuments have often been built on the foundations of pre-existing buildings (not infrequently used, among other things, as a quarry for the recovery of materials for subsequent constructions), witnesses of another history, not to mention other features. Who is willing to save things, places but also the memory of others?

Claudio Monge
NP february 2021

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