Issue 45, July 2005

The Turkish Society's Perception of Interreligious Dialogue
in the Process of Turkey's EU Membership
Ali ÿsra Güngör

Turkey is a key country bridging the East and West due to historical, geographic, cultural, and geostrategic reasons. Living in this geography which attracts the attention of the rest of the world, Turkish society asserts an approach which readily makes use of its historical and cultural legacy with respect to intercultural dialogue as well. In other words, Turkish society's perspective which is devoted to its own historical, cultural, and social values, yet open to developments in the world, applies to the field of interreligious affairs.

The notion of interreligious dialogue is a more specific notion and project than the notion of "interreligious affairs. There are established networks between societies involving various religions and faiths. Although economic, political, and strategic factors have their specific influence upon this network of affairs, the beliefs and cultural values of societies have a particular importance.

Therefore, it is important for societies to enter into interreligious or intercultural dialogue without jettisoning their own values and to be open. It is impossible not to notice the need for interreligious dialogue. The ability of societies to make use of their knowledge and legacy in this respect, and, more importantly, the will they have to eliminate any obstacle for dialogue remain important.

To describe the Turkish society's interest in interreligious dialogue and its approach to it, we need to discuss its historical background, the activities performed by scholars, and the diversity found in their approaches, and examine the factors influencing all of these.

Interreligious Dialogue and Turkey

New theological discussions in the late 19th century and early 20th century have led to significant developments in the Christian world. Under the influence of these discussions, the churches reviewed their concept of mission and their approaches toward people of other faiths. Certainly, individual and institutional dialogues among practitioners of principal religions, especially those coming from the Prophet Abraham, are particularly important in terms of international relations. Therefore, it is worthwhile to examine how the Turkish society perceived the dialogue among Jews, Christians and Muslims.

After the Second Vatican Council (Vatican II), the idea of interreligious dialogue was monitored more closely in the Islamic world in general and in Turkey in particular. This was because this council led to expectations that a new era was about to begin in Christian-Muslim relations. While it is true the idea of interreligious dialogue was first pronounced by the Protestant Christians in the Edinburgh meeting held in 1910, it was however in the context of mission. The fact that Vatican II, its effects and its approaches to interreligious dialogue are studied in academic circles, specifically in chairs of the History of Religions, led in Turkey to greater interest in the positions taken in this council.

The history of the relations among these three principal religions is marked by a course of development with some fluctuations. The relations between Jews and Turks had a special place in history. The interest paid by the Ottomans to the Jews expelled from Spain in 1490 had here a special role to play. We think that traces of this affinity in Turkish-Jewish relations continued for ages.

As for the history of Christian-Muslim relations, the relations between Christians and Turks had peculiar characteristics. Although it is not easy to ameliorate the negative impact of the Crusades, today, very positive examples of dialogue can be seen. In our opinion, the life experiences of the Christian minorities living in Turkey form a concrete proof of it.

As we stated above, in Turkey, the notion of interreligious dialogue is associated particularly with the relations among Jews, Christians and Muslims. Due to cultural and strategical reasons, priority has always been given to the Jewish, Christian and Muslim relations in general, and to the Christian and Muslim relations in particular. Therefore, before moving on to the factors affecting the Turkish society's perception of the interreligious dialogue, it will be appropriate to briefly mention the consequences of Vatican II in Turkey and its effects on subsequent relations.

While the effects of Vatican II, held in 1962-65, were previously discussed in the Islamic world, its consequences for Turkey occurred after the 1980s. The reason why the council was much discussed in the Islamic world is that the positive statements about Jews were construed as an official recognition by the Vatican of the State of Israel. Indeed, these reactions were somewhat effective, and affected the council's statements about Muslims. In fact, the Jewish-Christian dialogue had also a direct effect on these developments. Be that as it may, the council marked a new page in the history of relations between Christians and Muslims, and its invitation to dialogue made to practitioners of other religions in general.

The studies concerning the content of the invitation to interreligious dialogue made in the council played a significant role in the Turkish society's interest and awareness in this field. These studies were also effective on the development of our dialogue culture, and our participation to this process. We believe that the experience obtained especially in the last 20 years in the field of interreligious dialogue in Turkey will be used in the relations concerning the future.

Ankara University has made significant contributions to interreligious dialogue. In the international scientific meeting entitled "Religions, Cultures and Tolerance" co-organized by Ankara University and Gregorian University in 1990, the ideas presented led to significant strides in this field. The agreement on academic and cultural cooperation made between two universities continues to make significant contributions to this field. The relevant units of Ankara University, especially the Faculty of Divinity, continue to provide support to the studies in this respect.

In the dialogue process of last the 20 years in Turkey, factors affecting almost every society's approach such as historical background, religious conceptions, cultural interaction and international affairs as well as activities of missionary religions and religious movements have been continually discussed. The discussion on this subject is monitored more closely in Turkey. Social, cultural and strategical effects of the activities conducted in Turkey by Christian missionaries and members of other religious movements and their connection to interreligious dialogue have always been points of interest. There is a huge volume of academic studies on the connection between missionary work and dialogue. Most of these studies are theoretical.

Academic studies and reviews made in Turkey on interreligious dialogue play a significant role in the illumination of the Turkish society. There are various reasons behind this interest. The Turkish society's perspective on the interreligious dialogue can be categorized in three broad groups: positive, negative and cautious. The positive approach to dialogue activities in Turkey is marked by self-confidence and a desire to closely monitor the developments in the world as well as to contribute to intercultural dialogue. The negative approaches are basically fed by the consequences of certain unfortunate historical events, missionary activities, lack of knowledge /misinformation, and certain unfortunate international developments. And the cautious approach is characterized by an attempt at establishing a balance between the national sentiments of society and the desire to participate in the dialogue process established between practitioners of religions.

Factors Affecting the Turkish Society's Perception of Interreligious Dialogue

The Turkish society's perception of inter-religious dialogue is in one way common to the Islamic world in general but has because of the unique characteristics of Turkey and Turkish nation particular features.

Historical Background

Dating back to the emergence of Islam, the relations among Jews, Christians and Muslims have undergone various changes in the historical process.

Initially, Muslims established good relations with Jews and Christians. They were “the People of the Book” (Ahl al-Qitab). Yet, both parties occasionally defended their religions and criticized each other, as well. The relations in the early era, especially between Christians and Muslims, continued in the form of mutual discussions and finally refutations. The negative attitudes by Byzantine writers against Islam continued for extended periods in Western Europe. Examination of Islam by Christian scholars began in the 12th century. The refutations against Islam continued in 15th and 16th centuries as well, and meanwhile, the Qur'an was translated into Latin.

Negative attitudes against the Catholic Church in the Enlightenment period in the west were extended to other religions, and therefore, Islam. However, in this period, there were some positive attitudes toward Islam as well. With a view to gaining new followers in the face of this negatives attitudes against it, the Church engaged itself in intensive missionary activities. This led to an increase in the number of studies on Islam and Muslims. The studies by Louis Massignon (1883-1962) are one example.

Until the Vatican Council II, there have in general been two negative developments which were deeply engraved on the collective memory of Muslims: the missionary activities targeting Muslims, and the Crusades. Turks prevented Christians from progressing during the Crusades, which had negatives effects on the relations between Christians and Turks. Thus, the negative traces of the Crusades21 continue to have effects on the perception of the Christian West by Muslims in general, and by the Turkish society in particular.

The missionary activities by the Church have always been disproved by Muslims. The missionary activities targeting Turkey has certain unique characteristics. The geographical and geostrategic position of Turkey, its acting as a bridge between East and West, and its historical and cultural structure played a significant role.22 It is a disturbing fact that historically, missionary activities had always ulterior motives other than only spreading the message of the Bible and were accompanied by economic and political activities. Indeed, the churches have acknowledged the negative effects of the missionary activities in the past, and worked on new methods of mission. That's why today, churches establish close relations between "mission" and "interreligious dialogue", "inculturation", "adaptation", and "liberation theologies”, and develop new projects on this subject. The historical experience influencing Turkish society's perception of the interreligious dialogue is apparent here. The skeptical attitude assumed by some Muslims about interreligious dialogue is fed by doubts concerning the associations between mission and dialogue.

Muslims, especially the Turkish society, have some observations concerning the content of the invitation for dialogue from the Christian world. First, the Catholic Church does not officially consider interreligious dialogue as an alternative to missionary activities. Rather, Catholics stated theologically that mission and dialogue are intertwined. The Protestants have a somewhat different approach in this respect. Although for the Dialogue Unit (1971), established by the World Council of Churches (WCC), the relation between dialogue and mission is important; the Unit rather emphasized the elimination of social and practical obstacles before interreligious dialogue. Second, the approach by Orthodox Christians toward interreligious dialogue is marked by socio-political motives. Third, dialogues between Jews and Christians, between Jews and Muslims, and between Christians and Muslims are different from each other in terms of content and character. In all these relations, the traces of the historical background continue to be an effective factor.

Christians and Jews living in Turkey have made significant contributions to interreligious dialogue. Many people acknowledge that ignorance or misinformation about the other leads to enmity. Therefore, the positive contributions by Jews and Christians living in Turkey as Turkish citizens contribute to the proper recognition of Turkey and the Turkish society in the international arena. Except for some minor problems, the Jews living in Turkey are in general treated in a friendly manner by the Turkish society. The tolerance that the Ottomans assumed concerning non-Muslims was exemplary for the approaches in the Turkish republic.

Religious Conceptions

Turkey is undergoing a process of significant change and transformation. This process can be considered both as birth pangs in view of a new civilization and as a struggle by a nation for survival in the swirl of globalization.

In Turkey, there have been intensive discussions about “religion” in general and “Islam” in particular since the 1980s. It can be argued that this is accompanied by a total change in mentality. It is true that a process of rationalization, though slow, is experienced in the field of religion. Unlike other countries with Muslim populations, Turkey is undergoing a significant change in terms of religion. If this process is reinforced by scientific knowledge, the desired mentality change can be assured.

In Turkey, 98 % of the population is Muslim. Adoption of the Islamic faith by Turks has a history of approximately 1200 years. The Turk-Islamic civilization bestowed by the Seljuks and the Ottomans to humanity is the result of amalgamation of genius and culture of Turkish people with Islamic faith and world-view.

Academic studies concerning the religious life in Turkey are scarce as are the studies to identify the religious geography of Turkey. Sociological studies concerning the various religious groups in Turkey are yet to be performed.

Intellectuals expected to produce ideas to direct society in Turkey have come to ignore the phenomenon of "religion", especially in the recent century. Some have argued that "modernization" or "becoming contemporary" necessarily implies "westernization", or "being a westerner." For some scholars, Turkey failed to raise "pious intellectuals" who can provide direction for the society in the field of religion. Ultimately, tradition has come to be perceived as identical with religion, and religion itself has become an issue.

The perception of interreligious dialogue by Turkish people needs to take into account that there is here as well as in the Christian world some exclusivist, inclusivist and pluralistic approaches. But the theological foundations for these approaches are not discussed as in the West. There are differences in the religious concept of society between the churches and the official religious institutions in Turkey. Turkey is a secular country and at the same time one cannot disregard the religious communities in Turkey having concept of society.

The basic source for Muslims is the Qur'an. The information provided by the Qur'an about the Christians provides the basic criteria for Muslims. In this context, Muslims can find both positive and negative statements about Christians in the Qur'an. The fact that the Qur'an gives a privilege to the Christians among "the People of the Book" and defines them as closest to Muslims implies a positive atmosphere as regards the Christian-Muslim dialogue. It is known that the Qur'an uses more negative statements concerning the Jews. Although Muslims take these Qur'anic criteria as a basis in general, they can find support for their approach towards Jews and Christians considering other sources of Islam as well. It is important that practitioners of religions understand and construe their own sources correctly. The Turkish society oriented itself toward the West quite early. It is open to modernity, reason, science, technology, and development. Yet, it is anxious about protecting its sensitivity for national issues. In the face of globalization, the Turkish society is attempting to define its position as other societies do it.

The Turkish society makes use of academic studies and monitors the developments in the world, and thereby the developments in the Jewish and Christian world. Therefore, Turkish society is aware of the fact that churches enter the interreligious dialogue within the framework of their theological perspectives and that ecumenical dialogue attempts in the Christian world are associated with the notion of mission. Ultimately, neither the proposal for keeping away from the dialogue process nor the idea of entering it without preparations is favored. Turkish society wishes to enter this process with awareness. This approach applies to individuals as well as at institutional levels.

Cultural Interaction

Today, the importance of culture is re-discovered. In the process of cultural interaction by societies having different beliefs, every society's desire to make its own religion central gives another dimension to competition. Indeed, there have been reactions to so-called responsibility assumed by various Christian churches, especially the Catholic Church, in saving all people in addition to considering itself central. Indeed, all religions consider themselves central. Yet, as we stated before, Muslims criticize that the missionary activities historically performed by churches occasionally include economic and political motives as well. Historical and contemporary cases of proselytism are also criticized. The fact that Judaism notwithstanding some historical cases of proselytism lacks a general missionary idea makes the dialogue between Jews and members of other religions different in nature. Christian churches consider "mission" as their raison d'être, and does not regard mission and interreligious dialogue as alternatives. Although there have been certain changes in the churches' concept of mission in different periods, this subject has always led to tensions in Muslim-Christian relations. Muslims define their idea of disseminating the Qur'anic message as "da’wa" (notification). For them, Islamic da’wa is different from Christian mission in terms of purpose, method and content. Therefore, Muslims think that the insistence by churches on missionary activities is not compatible with the spirit of interreligious dialogue.

Although Judaism, Christianity and Islam are different, they have common points in their humane values and basic action principles. Such principles as valuing human life, blessing family, not telling lies, not stealing, being honest, preserving trust are common to almost all religions. Societies having a religion, knowing that other people have other religions should communicate that they will act in accordance with the foregoing principles. Accordingly, we can and should be able to develop our relations in the atmosphere of confidence.

The Turkish society believes in democracy and is open to contemporary developments. Therefore, it wants to enter the interreligious dialogue process with self-confidence, awareness and in an informed manner. If the values emerging from the communication among societies having different beliefs are considered as enriching contributions, Turkish people will make their specific contribution to it. The Turkish society should not find itself trapped between assuming a completely negative position vis-à-vis interreligious dialogue and participating in this process without preparations. Rather, it should participate in this process with awareness, take its place in this arena with its own values, and be open to developments in the world. Therefore, the developments which cripple mutual confidence in the field of interreligious dialogue should not undermine the positive future developments. In this way, mutual information in the field of religion, cultural interaction, and common academic studies will make significant contribution to the development of the dialogue culture.

Turkish-EU Relations

The application by Turkey for membership to the European Union has a long past. The official application filed by Turkey for membership to the EEC on 31 July 1959, and the Ankara Agreement concluded on 12 September 1963 are historical steps taken in this regard. Turkey completed successfully its "Transition Period", lasting approximately 22 years, on 1 January 1995, and accessed the "Customs Union" on 1.1.1996. Following the agreement on the accession partnership procedures, the Copenhagen criteria and harmonization agreements, in the summit held on 17 December 2004, the EU finally took the decision to initiate negotiations with Turkey on 3 October 2005. This decision marked a significant stage for Turkey.

Turkey showed its determination in spite of the long time span taken for its membership in the EU. In this process, economic and political criteria as well as social and cultural reflections are important. This process requires adoption and implementation of values such as democracy, human rights, freedom, equality, justice, freedom of speech and freedom of religion.

One important concept in the Turkish-EU relations is "integration." This is because integration requires harmonization and concretion in multiple aspects of the societies having established a network of intensive relations between each other. This integration is expected not only in economic, political and scientific fields, but also in social, cultural and, therefore, religious fields. For the societies having different religions and cultures, such harmonization has certain challenges. Here, the most important problem is the tension between the societies' desire to preserve their characteristics forming their national identities and the objective of providing the harmonization in question. Indeed, Turkey has an important position bridging the East and the West on one hand while it experiences the economic, political, social and cultural difficulties as part of membership requirements on the other.

Historically, religion has always been important for all societies. Religion has a function of both uniting individuals and societies and differentiating them. It is natural to make use of the uniting power of religion in order to ensure the dialogue among societies having different religions and cultures. At this point, it is important to take steps to minimize or eliminate tensions and enmities arising from difference in beliefs and cultures. The Turkish society has the ability to make positive use of its historical experience, religious conception and cultural legacy in the field of interreligious dialogue. Membership in the EU has positive effects on all these. The Turkish people are aware of certain difficulties accompanying the creedal and cultural differences, yet do not consider these as obstacles for membership to the EU.

Concerning the Turkish society's perception of the followers of other religions, the views of the Jews and the Christians living in Turkey provide significant hints. The historical tolerance displayed by Turks toward minorities is still valid today. The fact that in the Ottoman state, members of other religions were given high-ranking governmental positions is an important sign of Turks' approach and confidence. Certainly, Turkish society has very friendly relations with Jews and Christians today. Moreover, particularly after the 1990s, both Jewish and Christian Turkish citizens assumed significant roles in the international promotion of Turkey.

Yet, international relations have multi-dimensional and very complex characteristics. Circumstances may lead to that economic and political factors dominate social, cultural and religious relations. Certain issues which are purely religious and cultural end up as having political and economic aspects. For instance, in the process of Turkey's membership to the EU, the duties and responsibilities of the Fener Patriarch, his adoption of the title of ecumenical, the re-opening the Theological School of Halki has lead to some discussions. Also, treating the freedom of religion within the context of minority rights, and the missionary activities within the context of human rights and freedoms makes the society cautious. Nevertheless, Turkish society is bent to evaluate and adopt the EU criteria for its own sake.

In conclusion, the process of Turkey's membership to the EU has been influential in making the Turkish society more open to the world in the field of interreligious dialogue as in other fields. The Turkish society's desire to provide its own contribution to the common values of humanity plays a significant role in this. It is obvious that thanks to sincere religious followers, all religions in general, and divine religions in particular, will make significant contributions to the common legacy of humanity.


The process of Turkey's membership to the EU has been influential on various institutions in Turkey in economic, political, cultural, and scientific terms. The discussions concerning religion will be part of the process. The citizens of EU member countries are Christian while those of Turkey are Muslim. Therefore, the EU requires harmonic coexistence of societies having different beliefs and cultures. Turkey is aware of the significance of its position bridging the East and West due to historical, geographic, cultural, and geostrategic reasons. Therefore, Turkish society believes that to establish a religious dialogue with the societies living in the EU countries, with which Turkey is already cooperating in many fields, would be useful and will have to constructively address some of the hesitations in society, whether they arise from national sentiments and conflicts in international relations or result from treating the missionary activities within the framework of religious freedom.

Next article
Table of contents