If U.S. invades Iraq, what about UCC mission in Turkey?

If U.S. invades Iraq, what about UCC mission in Turkey?

October 31, 2002
Written by Staff Reports

Should the Bush administration invade Iraq, what impact might it have on the UCC's Middle East mission in Turkey? There probably will be "no organized violence" against the mission, asserts the Rev. Mick McCain, Global Ministries missionary executive in Turkey. His predecessor, the Rev. Melvin Wittler, now retired, concurs. Turkey, they point out, is a secular Western-leaning democracy with close ties to the United States. As a member of NATO, it is home to a number of military bases. But as Adil Özdemir, a Turkish Islamic scholar who has taught at UCC-related Bangor, Lancaster and Hartford seminaries, points out, "If you plant a wind, you harvest a storm."

Long history

The UCC has been a presence in Turkey since 1820 when Congregational missionary the Rev. Pliny Fiske said, "Let us go to the lands of the Bible to see what good we can do for whom and by what means." The Amerikan Bord Heyeti, as it is still called in the country, founded many schools and clinics of which three secondary schools, Uskudar Academy in suburban Istanbul, Tarsus American College and Izmir American Collegiate Institute remain. Also operating are the American Hospital in Gaziantep and Redhouse Press in Istanbul.

McCain says the Bord enjoyed good relations with the old Ottoman empire and its successor Republic of Turkey. "We never owned churches or evangelized," he says. Today all facilities are owned by a Turkish foundation, but the Amerikan Bord continues to supply personnel and administrative and financial support.

What may "harvest a storm" is the very volatile mix of Kurdish nationalism and oil. Over a 15-year civil war starting in 1984, the Turkish government battled the Kurdish Workers Party to keep the country intact, while the Kurdish Workers Party fought for an independent homeland.

Today, millions of Kurds in northern Iraqi, along the Turkish border, live in a safe sanctuary protected by American and British enforcement of a no-fly zone. But Kurdish leaders there are agitating for a post-Hussein Iraq divided into Arab and Kurdish interests with the latter financed by Kurdish control of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk.

"Turkey cannot accept this to be taken further," warns prime minister Bulent Ecevit, underscoring his government's concerns about Kurdish nationalism. He worries his border may again become destabilized.

Effects of civil war

The civil war, which devastated parts of southeastern Turkey after the first Gulf action, left a bad taste for everyone. Thousands were killed and whole villages were evacuated, many of them Christian. In addition, life at Mar Gabriel, a 1600-year-old monastery hard by the border of Iran, Iraq and Syria, was disrupted. Military patrols frequently entered the grounds looking for Kurdish terrorists and occasionally still do. The monastery took in a number of refugee families. And only this year, the first of 10 villages abandoned is being reoccupied by its former residents, according to McCain.

"The Kurdish problem is directly connected to Iraq," says Özdemir, the Muslim teacher and imam. "It's a national security concern." A sampling of Turks, from rug merchants and small businessmen to intellectuals, hotel owners and tourist guides expressed concern over Kurdish nationalism. There are, of course, many prominent Turks of Kurdish descent, and recently, the government has opened up more opportunities for Kurdish self-express including the language in schools and Kurdish television programs.

But the problem for Turkish citizens in general "does not lie with Kurds as Kurds," says Ken Frank, Global Ministries missionary and headmaster of the American Collegiate Institute in Izmir, a seaport city in western Turkey on the Aegean Sea and home to the southern command of NATO. "It is with those Kurds who take up arms against the Turkish government or who advocate a separate homeland for Kurds."

A war with Iraq could impact the Amerikan Bord. It certainly did after the first Gulf war. Former Bord executive Melvin Wittler's Istanbul office was blown up, by radical leftists he suspects. Later, he found a bomb under his car. "It was very scary," Wittler concedes, made more so by the fact that he was the coordinator for millions of dollars in overseas aid for Iraqi refugees.

What's the situation now as the world holds its collective breath to see what Washington will do? "It has already affected us," says Kenneth Frank of the Izmir school. "The talk about the war with Iraq makes it harder to recruit foreign teachers for our schools. "Our teachers feel they might be attacked," he notes, with foreign teachers feeling especially uncomfortable. Tensions have been exacerbated by the departure of at least one American teacher after 9/11.

Financial repercussions

There could be financial repercussions as well. Inflation in Turkey is 35 percent annually. After 9/11, tourism took a nosedive, and another war on the country's borders could sink an already shaky economy and ratchet up inflation even more. It would make it more costly to keep up the UCC-related institutions.

If war comes, there will be some financial help from Church World Service, relief agency of the National Council of Churches. CWS has sent $365,750 worth of school supplies to Iraq as part of a contingency effort to assist vulnerable citizens. If there is an attack, it is anticipated that schools will close, and children who receive the kits will at least have some supplies to carry on their work at home. The relief agency, which the UCC supports through One Great Hour of Sharing, is also ready to supply health kits, blankets and tents for Iraqis who may flee to Turkey. CWS sent a representative to the Amerikan Bord in Istanbul for consultation.

What about Christian/Muslim relations in a country 95 per cent Muslim but also the seat of the Greek Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople in Istanbul?

"Relations are better now between Muslims and Christians," says Bishop Samuel of the Syrian Orthodox Church at the Mar Gabriel monastery. But a new war? He shrugs. "I don't know," his voice trails off. "We must continue to love each other, respect each other."

In September of this year, a little band of 19 UCC pilgrims was retracing the steps of St. Paul in Turkey. Stopping to rest in the ancient Roman amphitheater of Ephesus, they sang "Dona Nobis Pacem."

As the words of that sweet melody floated out in the still perfect acoustics of the Great Theater, other tour groups stopped, listened and applauded.

Free-lance writer William C. Winslow recently returned from a month's tour of Turkey.

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