Sunday, May 27, 2007

Thursday, May 24, 2007

John Edwards weighs in on the "Clash of Civilizations"

I am not a big fan of John Edwards. Ever since the Carter years, there's just been something about grinning Southern politicos that rubs me the wrong way. Being Southern, I can get away with saying that. We produce gifted writers and other eccentrics who make for interesting acquaintances and quirky guests at cocktail parties. But as Presidential material, well...., Southerners are just godawful. There hasn't been a decent Southern President since Andrew Jackson (Think about it: Wilson? Johnson? Carter??? Clinton? Bush the Lesser? And Truman doesn't really count as Southern). So, I am especially not buying what this particular pandering Southern demagogue is selling.

Edwards gave a speech the other day, here, at the Council on Foreign Relations, in which he took the administration to task for its use of the term "global war on terror." This is a legitimate criticism, as numerous commentators have long noted the inadequacy of this nonsensical phrase. For "terror" is not a thing, but a tactic, or a specific weapon in an enemy's arsenal. It would be the same thing as saying that there is a global war on, say, aircraft carriers. Edwards goes on to note that this approach " has strained American military resources and emboldened terrorists," and that it is "little more than a bumper sticker slogan used to justify everything from abuses at the Abu Ghraib prison to the invasion of Iraq." I would not argue with his assessment up to this point.

But then Edwards goes too far, in my view, and falls into the very same thing he accuses Bush of doing, by engaging in a little "bumper sticker," sound bite sloganeering himself. He says:

"By framing this as a war, we have walked right into the trap the terrorists have set – that we are engaged in some kind of clash of civilizations and a war on Islam."

One of my pet peeves is the rampant misuse of Huntington's "clash of civilizations" concept. Both camps are guilty. Briefly put, the thesis is that there are civilizational groupings in the world, that these broad civilizations have their own particular commonalities, agendas and self-interests, and more to the point, that there has been, is, and will be conflict along the civilizational fault lines. The theory provides no cover for the aggressive interventionism and nation-building of the Bush presidency, as Edwards charges. Rather, it informs a cool realism about where a civilization's real interests lie. In my view, it provides a helluva better way to read both past and present than this simplistic idea that everyone in the world really just wants to be like us. They don't.

Edwards' accusation is a cheap shot aimed at the sound bite. But Edwards also accuses Bush of a "war on Islam." Hardly. In my view, Bush has been too hesitant, from the very beginning, to make any linkage of this supposed "war on terror" to its ideological base (Islam). The terrorists are not absolute nihilists. Theirs is not a terror disconnected from ideology, but the fruit of a particularly virulent (and reoccurring) strain of Islam. At some point we coined the now-dated phrase, "Islamofascism." At the time, I thought this was a small step in the right direction, as it at least attempted to describe the virulent nature of the terrorism nourished within Islam. But in retrospect, this term is as unsatisfactory as the "war on terror."

Any leader, or prospective leader, should recognize the very real civilizational dimensions of our current difficulties, as well as its long, long historical context (which places 2001 in line with 732, 1071, 1291, 1389, 1453, 1571, 1683, 1923, 1948). One who doesn't is either ill-informed or foolish.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Through Their Own Eyes

I have just finished reading Through Their Own Eyes: Liturgy as the Byzantines Saw It by Robert F. Taft, S.J. I commend this book, which should have particular appeal to Orthodox readers and inquirers, as well as those interested in all things Byzantine. Taft, a Jesuit, is a leading scholar on Byzantine Liturgy. A stint in Baghdad during the middle 1950s started him on his life-long study. This latest work is taken from his 2005 lectures at the Patriarch Athenagoras Orthodox Institute; deftly combining the best of both worlds--a scholarly work with rich, expansive footnotes, yet written in a lively and engaging style.

Like a good historian, Taft relies on the commentary of the Byzantines themselves, as he says, the "man-in-the-street's view of the Byzantines' participation in the worship of their church." Taft finds that Constantinopolitan worship could be noisy, boisterous, even rowdy affairs. Evidently, St. John Chrysostom's laments were not isolated occurrences. And yet, the very popularity of the services fed this behavior. One is also struck by the all-encompassing nature of Byzantine worship. The cycle of fasts and feasts defined life for the East Romans, from the Emperor down to the shopkeeper. The enthusiasm for the Liturgy was palpable. Homilies were wildly popular. The populace packed churches, even though services could seem interminable. Communion itself could take up to 3 hours.

I appreciate Taft's commentary on the Eucharist:
"Holy Communion is a gift received, not something anyone-not even the presider-just 'takes'....for eucharistic communion is not the sacrament of one's private communion with the Risen Lord. It is the sacrament of our communion with one another in the One Body of Christ, a body at once ecclesial and eucharistic."

He sees marked contrast with contemporary worship norms. The Byzantines "participated in the worship interiorly, by contemplating the unfolding of the mysteries," an approach "foreign to western traditions today." Taft contrasts their adherence to taxis or order, where "earthly institutions, both ecclesiastical and temporal , were considered to mirror the order of the universe, the cosmic array created by God" with "people nowadays [who] do not see themselves as finding their place in a scheme of things larger and-yes-more important than themselves. On the contrary, they see the larger reality in terms of how they can exploit it for their own self-fulfillment."

Some of his conclusions are worth pondering:

In other words, the Byzantine Orthodox Christians base the realism of their liturgy on faith in the reality of the Risen Christ. Because the human Christ is humanity glorified, he is present through his Spirit to every place and age not only as Savior, but as saving; not only as Lord, but as priest and sacrifice and victim. This is because nothing in his being or action is ever past except the historical mode of its manifestation. Hence Jesus is not extraneous to the heavenly-earthly liturgy of the Church, but its first protagonist....But in the Byzantine Orthodox tradition , the basis for liturgical anamnesis is not psychological recall, but theophany, an active, faith encounter now with the present saving activity of Christ. For what Christ was and did, he still is and does; it is he who preaches his Word, he who calls us to himself, he who binds the wounds of our sin and washes us in the waters of salvation , he who feeds us with his own life, he who is the pillar of fire leading us across the horizon of our own salvation history, lighting our sin-darkened path....In this theology, church ritual constitutes not only a representation, but a re-presentation--a rendering present again--of the earthly saving work of Christ.

Taft concludes that for those of us today who are in Byzance apres Byzance, "there is no end but only what comes next."

Thursday, May 17, 2007

"Joy illumines our hearts"

...says Patricarch Alexy II of the Russian Orthodox Church of the ending of the schism with the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, here.

President Putin attended the ceremony, noting that the agreement was "'a nationwide event of an historic scale and of vast moral importance.'' Putin's role in this reconciliation is intriguing. A story, here, tells of Putin's 2003 visit with ROCOR leaders in New York City.

The atmosphere was tense, laced with nearly a century of mistrust and bitter feelings....The breakaway church had vowed never to return as long as the “godless regime” was in power.“I want to assure all of you,” Mr. Putin said at the meeting, “that this godless regime is no longer there....You are sitting with a believing president.”

Monday, May 14, 2007

Why I Don't Travel in May

I like to stay close to home in May, and this is a big reason why: my oakleaf hydrangeas are in bloom. I first discovered this most beautiful of all southern shrubbery on the Cumberland Plateau of eastern TN in 1997. As soon as I returned home, I ordered a couple from a mail-order nursery. Later I came across another Texas enthusiast who donated cuttings to a garden club sale. With his help, and later from my own cuttings, I have blanketed my yard with oakleaf hydrangeas, as well as pawning them off on neighbors and friends. I suppose there are worse obsessions.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Most Destructive Presidency in the Last 100 Years: Wilson? Bush? You Decide

Our current interventionist foreign policy is often characterized as "Wilsonian." Generally speaking, this is not meant as a compliment when used, and usually has reference to our dubious entry into the First World War, President Wilson's stubbornness, and/or his naive idealism in sweeping aside existing institutions and remaking post-war Europe and the Middle East. For me, the 20th-century was spent sorting out the mess started in 1914 and consummated in 1919-1923. And it is still underway, if you consider that "Iraq" was a colonial construct cooked-up between Britain and France. Daniel Larison at Eunomia, compares the Bush legacy to that of President Wilson. Despite everything, he concludes that Wilson was still worse.

The Wilson and Bush administrations have many things in common, and once we started to see Bush’s galloping Wilsonian idealism in action it was easy to imagine his Presidency ending in just as much failure and public repudiation as Wilson’s had done....Inflexibility defines both men, but ... Mr. Bush’s errors have proceeded from knowing little and being interested in even less, while Wilson’s were the errors of presuming to know and see all (even when he didn’t know much at all about the peoples and lands he was helping to divvy up).

So why was Wilson worse? Larison explains:

Both certainly drank deeply from the poisoned well of optimism, but unfortunately for the world Wilson’s optimistic preaching was received by a weary and disillusioned world as a new hope rather than the misguided folly that it was. With the benefit of the experience of the 20th century, most nations were less willing to embrace similarly unrealistic talk of hope, reform and liberation when Mr. Bush was offering it.

And as bad as Iraq is, and as gloomy as the prospects appear (whenever we leave), Larison finds Wilson's legacy from World War I even worse.

As large as Iraq looms on the scene today, as politically significant as the war is today, and as much as it will sour the public on intervention in the near future, I think we may be surprised at how quickly the effects of the war pass away and recede into the distance. Calamitous and awful as it has been, it still remains a war on a relatively limited scale and will wind up having a primarily regional impact.... The disaster of Wilson’s intervention was global in nature, and it has continued to shape the history of the world ever since, almost entirely for the worse. If the outbreak of war in 1914 was the most significant turning point in modern history (and it was), marking the end of old European civilisation and ushering in all of the horrors of the 20th century, American intervention in 1917-18 ensured that the consequences of the Great War would be even worse. Princip’s bullet murdered nations, but Wilson’s overzealous conscience ruined whole continents.

He concludes:

Mr. Bush’s legacy of failure will probably not be so enormous, but will be, like so much else he has touched, of minimal effect and importance. Despite high ambitions and overblown rhetoric that mimic Wilsonian pretensions, mediocrity and smallness have been the chief characteristics of Mr. Bush’s policies. Watching Mr. Bush trying to follow in Wilson’s disastrous footsteps is like watching someone of the stature and ability of Mussolini trying to reconstitute the Roman Empire. Their ideological eyes are far bigger than their political stomachs. Wilson really inaugurated and launched the idealist-interventionist school of American foreign policy, ensuring misery for many generations of Americans and foreigners, while Mr. Bush’s bungling will not even manage to kill off this dreadful thing.

I find little to argue with in Larison's sobering and insightful article.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Thanks, Mr. Cheney

While driving into work this morning, I was listening to a news report from Iraq. I heard a clip of our Vice Decider giving a pep talk to the troops. Cheney told them that what they were doing was "making the world a safer place for their children and grandchildren." My heart goes out to our troops, doing a Herculean work, in an impossible situation. But such worn-out platitudes are now meaningless. No one is listening to either the VP or the Commander Guy. Everyone is looking for the exit.

Later in the day, I read this, and this. And I had to wonder what the children and grandchildren of these people will think of Mr. Cheney's claim? For this is a consequence of our mad gamble--the destruction of a society, in this case a Christian society. In 1979, Iraqi Christians numbered 1,684,000. They were a minority certainly, but a respected and unmolested group, more or less free to live out their faith. Then in 1991 came the 1st Gulf War, 12 years of sanctions, and now the current conflict. At the time of our invasion, their numbers were down to 750,000 or so. Today they are perhaps half that. And now the latest pogrom.

The general lawlessness of the country outside of the Green Zone and Kurdistan has swept away what ever protection Iraqi Christians ever had. Al-Qaeda militias now have free reign to cleanse neighborhoods of Christians. By slipping a note under a door, the terrorists give Christian families 24 hours to either convert to Islam, leave with no luggage, or be killed. And so they are fleeing.

The head of the state agency governing churches noted that "the Christians are soft targets. They don't react with violence." Exactly so. They don't react with violence. I wonder why this is so? They are no different ethnically from their Sunni and Shiite neighbors. They are all Arabs. Could it be that the difference lies in their respective faith systems? This is hardly Christian triumphalism to make this claim; merely realism.

Spengler, in writing on Syrian poet Ali Ahmat Said, here, observed that:

...the inner life of Westerners [or eastern Christian] is profoundly different from that of Muslims, as different as the concepts of a God of Love who exalts the humble, and Allah who loves the strong and rewards the victorious.

And so it is.

I have no particular insight into what will emerge from the wreckage of Iraq (other than an independent Kurdistan). What is clear, however, is that baring a miracle, the 2,000-year old Christian presence in Mesopotamia is drawing to a close. Future historians will duly note our role in their disappearance. To learn more of the plight of Iraqi Christians, bookmark this site.

And the on-going conflict may very well impact American Christians, as well. I know that these higher gas prices may force some local churches in my area to curtail one of their winter Colorado ski trips for their youth. Lord have mercy on us.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Another Lifeboat Leaves

This is interesting. Noted Baylor University professor Francis Beckworth has suddenly resigned as president of the prestigious Evangelical Theological Society. The society claims 4,100 members and is perhaps the premier association of its sort among evangelical Protestants. On April 29th, Beckworth was quietly received back into the Catholic Church of his youth, and he knew this would not sit well with the society's membership.

What precipitated this move was a friend's suggestion back in January that he begin reading the early church fathers. Yep, that will do it. I know.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Thinking Bloggers

A few days ago, Notes from the Underground tagged me for a Thinking Blogger award. I wasn't sure what to do with it, for frankly, my reaction was "Who, me?" Then Hilarius tagged me as well. So here goes.

First, the Rules:

1. If, and only if, you get tagged, write a post with links to 5 blogs that make you think;
2. Link to this post so that people can easily find the exact origin of the meme;
3. Optional: Proudly display the 'Thinking Blogger Award' with a link to the post that you wrote (here is an alternative silver version if gold doesn't fit your blog).

Now, my guidelines: First, I don't think I should list those who tagged me (as otherwise I would). Second, I don't think I should include our blogger priests (as otherwise I would). This eliminates Abandoned Mind, Glory to God, Orthodixie and Second Terrace. Third, I will not list those who write professionally, which cuts out Crunchy Con, Eunomia and the White Path. Nor will I tag my choices, as they can see it when they visit here. I don't anyone to feel compelled to respond. Finally, I don't think I will display the "Thinking Blogger Award." It is not that I am not honored. But sometimes I just want to be cynical, sarcastic, silly or tacky--hardly "Thinking Blogger" material. With that being said, my 5 are:

1. Dixie
2. Ochlophobist
3. Oh Taste and See
4. Scrivener
5. Water and Spirit

Friday, May 04, 2007

Four Saints Meme

I have been tagged here by David Bryan to answer a meme regarding a favorite blessed saint, four favorite saints, and someone I'd like to see glorified as a saint. This is the first one of these for me, and I think I will change the guidelines a bit. First, as I am still a little unclear on how a blessed saint differs from other saints, I will pass on that question. Likewise, as I do not feel qualified to comment on who should be glorified as a saint, I will say little about that. Finally, it will be hard to stop at 4, so I will disregard that suggested number. The saints I mention are not listed in order of priority, but rather in the rough chronological order that I became aware of them--as they impacted my journey to and in the Orthodox faith.

St. John of Rila (Ivan Rilski)

On June 10, 2003, I entered the church at the Rila Monastery in southwestern Bulgaria. I walked out a changed man, or at least one with the seeds of change within me. St. John of Rila (876-946) is the national saint of Bulgaria, and the monastery he established at Rila is a symbol of Bulgarian nationalism, particularly during their 500 long years under the Ottoman yoke. This church also contains his relics.

Converting to Orthodoxy was the farthest thing from my mind when I entered Rila. I was a firm, iconoclastic Protestant, albeit with keen ideas about how Protestantism in general--my own religious heritage in particular--should, indeed, must change. But I had never challenged the underlying presuppositions of the Reformation. I have related my experience at Rila elsewhere in these pages. So, I will only say that I encountered something new and altogether unexpected--something special, something Holy. I suppose I caught a glimpse of what I had been yearning for in my church--real authenticity. For we made not insubstantial claims for ourselves, though it was as if we had to keep reminding ourselves of it--and deep down, in our heart of hearts, I suspect few really believed it. At Rila, what I saw-- shorn of all intellectual and Enlightenment rationality--simply was the Church. So, in an unusual sense, St. John of Rila awakened me, and was my introduction to an Orthodox faith. When I was received into the Church, I took his name.

St. Ignatius

Two months after returning from Bulgaria, I happened to pick up a small unread book I had purchased years earlier: Early Christian Writings: The Apostolic Fathers. I chose to read St. Ignatius, primarily because his 7 letters were short. The historical context of his biography was not lost on me. Martyred in 107 A.D., Ignatius was a younger contemporary of the Apostles themselves. As I lay in bed reading, I suppose you could say the scales fell from my eyes. The hierarchical nature of the Church was clear. The sacramental nature of what we called "the Lord's Supper," was most evident. We had been taught such things were digressions, obscuring the purity of the original "1st Century Church." Hardly. I realized that they were the accepted belief and practice of the early church. A nagging question lurked in the back of my mind. If what I had been taught was so off-base on these subjects, then what else had we missed? Did all those verses that had been explained-away actually mean exactly what they said? St. Ignatius taught me that the church is Apostolic, its worship liturgical, and its communion sacramental. So, I have a special fondness for St. Ignatius, whose writings 1900 years later, started me down the road to Orthodoxy.

The Most Holy Theotokos

What Orthodox list would not include the Most Holy Theotokos and Ever-Virgin, Mary? After my experience with St. Ignatius, I began reading various Orthodox materials online ( NOT necessarily recommend for inquirers). I soon discovered that there was such a thing as an Orthodox Study Bible, which I purchased. I began reciting the Morning and Evening Prayers, reading the Psalms, as well as the daily Lectionary readings. Within a few months, I had also located a small monastery, which I was to visit several times. A young monk there, Fr. A____, was a great support and encouragement. In what amounted to a confession on my part, I laid out for him my struggles, desperation, lukewarmness, etc. He pointed me in the direction of some beneficial reading, and then he said, "Ask the Theotokos to intercede for you. She will help you." At that point, I was still very hesitant to embrace anything that smacked of Mariology. But I took his advice. And she did. This was perhaps the best advice I have ever received. In my personal experience, the difference was almost quantifiable. And since that time, the Most Holy Theotokos and Ever-Virgin, Mary has been the most cherished of saints for me, and the one that I beseech most often to intercede for me.

St. Ephriam the Syrian

By early 2005, I had become familiar with St. Ephraim the Syrian. Perhaps it was his noted prayer during the Lenten season. Later, I discovered a little blue book: The Spiritual Psalter from the works of our Holy Father Ephraim the Syrian, excerpted by Bishop Theophan the Recluse. These prayers, in my opinion, are the most sublime Christian writing outside of the Psalms. They accompany me on my travels. It is my gift to the newly-illumined. It is my Lenten reading. The humble St. Ephraim has revealed to me the depth of my own fallenness. From his prayers, I begin to comprehend the nature of true repentance. He has shared with me the unfathomable mercies of our Lord. And St. Ephraim meets me in unexpected places. Last year, I sought out the 4th-century Church of the Virgin Mary amidst the twisting maze of alleyways that is old Diyabakir in eastern Turkey. Behind the compound walls, a remarkable 3 families of Suriani Orthodox Christians hold out in the center of this teeming, seething Muslim metropolis of Kurdish discontent. The Suriani churches have far fewer icons than other Orthodox churches. In fact, this ancient church, outside of the altar itself, had only one; my companion St. Ephraim.

St. John of Damascus

Upon becoming Orthodox, I have come to appreciate St. John of Damascus. This 8th-century saint was a true defender of the faith--whether in his hymnology, his defense of icons, his refutation of Islam, his exposition of the Orthodox faith, or countless other writings. As St. John lived and labored in a newly-Muslim world, in the first generations after the onslaught of Islam, his witness and life's work is timelier now than ever. St. John of Damascus is also the patron saint of our mission.

The 40 Martyrs of Sebaste

The story of the 40 martyrs of Sebaste is a bit of Christian history that you just never hear about as a Protestant. Our milksop American culture, with a faith that often seems "3,000 miles wide and 2 inches deep," does not know what to make of a story of 40 soldiers who chose to freeze together in a lake rather than renounce Christ. Their witness greatly encourages me. This particular icon of the 40 martyrs (12th-Century Svanetian) is one of my favorites, portraying the pathos of their situation, as well as their unity in Christ in martyrdom.

St. George

Even as a Protestant, I had at least a superficial knowledge of St. George. Now I have become more familiar with his story, and ask for his intercession. I have found that this Cappadocian soldier has always been extremely popular in the Middle East and in the Caucasus. This silver icon is from the 12th-Century Church of St. George in Iperi, Svaneti, Georgia. In Georgian iconography, St. George is often depicted spearing the Emperor Diocletian, rather than a dragon.

St. Peter the Aleut

As an American Orthodox Christian, the story of St. Peter the Aleut resonates with me. He was one of 14 Aleuts imprisoned by the Franciscans of northern California for being heretics and schismatics. After refusing to convert to Catholicism, Peter was subjected to horrific tortures, leading to death. Peter remained faithful. His constant reply was "I am a Christian." Peter's witness, maintained to the end, is as ours will have to be. St. Peter the Aleut pray for me.

St. John Kochurev

St. John Kochurev was one of the earliest new martyrs of Russia. He was apparently the first clergy murdered by the Bolsheviks in 1917. Prior to returning to Russia, he had been a much-loved and effectual parish priest in Alaska and in Chicago. To the extent that Orthodoxy takes root in North America, we can look back to the labors of Fr. John Kochurev. His witness is especially poignant in light of the blood-drenched and largely Godless 20th-Century which his martyrdom heralded.

St. Grigol (1899-1942)

I only recently learned of Fr. Grigol (Peradze) of Georgia. In February, I posted about Lives of the Georgian Saints, a wonderful book which contains his story. Grigol (Georgian for Gregory) Peradze was an academic who become known as an expert on Georgian history and culture. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s he lectured in Berlin, Paris, London and Warsaw. Grigol Peradze also helped spirit away many Georgian national treasures from the hands of the Soviets to safe-keeping in Paris. In 1931, he was tonsured as a monk, and then a priest. Fr. Grigol founded the Church of St. Nino in Paris, as well as a Georgian language journal, while continuing to lecture. He remained in Paris after the Nazi occupation. In 1942, Grigol was arrested and deported by the Gestapo for sheltering and assisting Jews. In Auschwitz, late in 1942, an inmate killed a guard. The Nazis made the entire barracks strip and then herded them out into the snow until someone would admit to killing the guard. Fr. Grigol stepped forward and took the blame, in order to save lives. The Nazis set their dogs upon him, then doused him in gasoline and set him afire. St. Grigol pray for me.

Now, as to those I believe should be glorified as saints, the names of Fr. Arseny, Fr. Seraphim Rose and Alexander Schmemman come to mind.

Finally, it seems like a lot of the usual suspects have already been tagged. I tag Hilarius, though I suspect he has probably already been chosen.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

This is interesting:

The grave of Hungary’s last communist ruler, Janos Kadar, was pried open and his remains and his wife’s urn were thought to have been stolen, the police in Budapest said. The marble cover stone of Mr. Kadar’s grave was removed and his coffin was broken. Graffiti that read “a murderer and traitor may not rest in holy ground” was nearby. “The bones appear to be missing, and it also looks like his wife’s urn is gone, too” said a spokesman for the police, Endre Kormos. Mr. Kadar ruled Hungary from 1956, when Soviet troops crushed the anti-Communist uprising, until 1988 when he retired. He died a year later in July 1989, less than a year before the country’s first free post-Communist elections.

I recall that the Bulgarian government itself destroyed the mausoleum of Georgi Dimitrov, founder of the Communist regime there. It was as ugly as one could imagine, and located directly across from the old Royal Palace on Prince Alexander of Battenberg Square. It took a week and 4 attempts, but the eyesore was finally dynamited. One would hope that someone in Moscow was taking notes for the Lenin Mausoleum.

But really, this sort of thing is still distasteful, even for these old Communist thugs. The French monarchs, almost without exception, were buried in the Basilique Saint-Denis. The royal crypt, with its cadaver tombs, is as macabre a place as you would ever want to visit. During the French Revolution, the government opened all the graves, and the remains of hundreds of French royals dumped into a large pit. Only years later were the bones gathered up and re-interred in a common grave in the crypt. And of course, such was the fate of the last Romanovs.

So, such behavior has a long history. But those that do so today fall to the same level as the French anarchists of the 1789 and the Bolsheviks of 1917.

"...our bones have been scattered before the mouth of the grave." (Psalm 140)

Really, Mr. Erdogan?

The April 17th Der Speigel interview with the Turkish Prime Minister Reycep Tayyip Erdogan, here, is instructive, though a little dated in light of events of recent days. The discussion obviously focuses on Turkey's languishing EU bid, as well as the larger role the country now plays in the Middle East.

I am not at all ill-disposed towards Mr. Erdogan. But I am disappointed, though not surprised, to read of his quite obvious prickliness and irritation when the interviewer zeroed in on Turkey's infamous "Article 301" and their ill-treatment of religious minorities. Specifically, Der Speigel grilled the Prime Minister about the confiscation of church property and the closing of the Greek Orthodox seminary at Halki. Erdogan's answers were, charitably speaking, disingenuous.

Frankly, I doubt that Germany cares a whit about Greek Orthodox seminaries in Turkey, or anywhere else, for that matter. But they are fearful and uneasy about Turkey's prospective entry into the EU. So, the Halki controversy is being used to stall the EU bid. The continued attention could cause a resolution to the impasse, in the Patriarchate's favor; or it could unleash a reaction in Turkey that would further imperil the tenuous Orthodox presence there. The picture (above) of the Halki Seminary was one I took last year as the ferry to Buyukada passed the island of Heybeliada. A portion of the interview follows:

SPIEGEL: Brussels complains that the pace of reforms in Turkey has slowed. For example, you still have the infamous Article 301, which makes the denigration of Turkishness prosecutable and limits freedom of opinion. The EU is also demanding complete freedom of religion.

Erdogan: In Turkey the religious minorities have more rights than they do in Europe. What aspect of their faith are they not allowed to live out here? Do we tear down their churches?

SPIEGEL: Churches are not allowed to own property, they are not a legal entity. Churches have been expropriated from many Christian communities.

Erdogan: We changed the construction law. Before, there were only "mosques," but now we have "places of worship." New churches are opening. We wanted to change the law on religious institutions, but the president didn't sign it. Now we're sending it through parliament again. The courts have also started to return property of minority institutions that has been seized.

SPIEGEL: Why are churches still prohibited from training their own priests? The EU has been calling for the famous Greek-Orthodox seminary on the island of Halki near Istanbul to be reopened.

Erdogan: If they don't accept us into the EU because of Halki, so be it! This is a different situation. We have problems with Turkish law in this case. It used to be a high school, but now they want to transform it into a kind of university, but the high council for universities doesn't permit this.

SPIEGEL: Why are authors still tried in Turkey under Article 301?

Erdogan: I see that you are influenced by the Turkish press! Please check how many have been sentenced under this law or are in jail.

SPIEGEL: But people have been convicted. For example, murdered journalist Hrant Dink, who had Armenian roots, was sentenced to probation

Erdogan: I met the writers who say that Article 301 must be completely eliminated. I asked them: Do you want to make it easier to decry the state, the parliament or the prime minister? I am saying yes to criticism, but no to insults. There are similar laws in Europe -- but for us it is about Turkishness, and for you it is about the German nation.

SPIEGEL: But we are protecting the state, there is no protection for "Germanness." So you don't want to change 301?

Erdogan: I don't think it should fall completely. The article also protects the right to criticize.

Debating Season

Other than the last 5 minutes of tonight's GOP show, I have managed to miss both the dreary Democratic debate in SC and the cringe-inducing Republican stand-off in CA. I've had much more useful things to do, such as scrubbing the mildew out of my shower. But I really wish I could have seen this showdown. The French can be exasperating, I suppose, but they are never, ever boring.