Turkey's small Roman Catholic community hopes to mark the 2000th anniversary of the birth of St Paul by improving the status of the country's Christian minorities, as well as reopening a church at the apostle's birthplace in Tarsus in the south of the Muslim-majority country - writes Jonathan Luxmoore.
"This anniversary is certain to attract large numbers of pilgrims, who will obviously need a church where they can feel at home and pray," Bishop Luigi Padovese, the Catholic Church's apostolic vicar of Anatolia told Ecumenical News International. "A government commission is now formally considering our request. But senior officials have agreed we should be able to worship here. After all, we're not missionaries - we are merely answering the needs of church members."
The Italian-born bishop was speaking on 8 January during preparations for a pilgrimage to St Paul's burial place in Rome to mark the anniversary year, which formally begins on 28 June.
Padovese said a pastoral letter concerning the anniversary would be read in all Catholic churches on 25 January, the anniversary of the saint's conversion to Christianity. Talks on ecumenical initiatives are also underway with the Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople and other denominations that make up Turkey's 120 000-strong Christian minority.
However, the church counted on officials in Tarsus, nearly 920 kilometres (570 miles) south of Istanbul to make facilities available for pilgrims from around the world, said Bishop Padovese. He said the church had asked to be allowed to make regular use of the Mediterranean town's 12th Century St Paul's Church, which is now a state-owned museum.
"The local authorities are aware of their town's significance for Christians and proud that one of its citizens was once a key figure. On the other hand, they aren't prepared for an increase of religious tourism with its special requirements," said the 60-year-old Franciscan bishop who belongs to a seven-member bishops' conference that includes leaders of Turkey's Armenian, Syriac and Chaldean Catholic communities.
Pope Benedict XVI has declared 2008 the "Year of St Paul" in honour of the saint, who was raised as a Jew named Saul in Tarsus and who took part in the persecution of Christians, but who later changed his name to Paul after experiencing a vision on the road to Damascus.
Paul made three return journeys through Anatolia between the years AD 47 and 57, preaching the Gospel and writing letters to the Galatians and Ephesians, before he was arrested in Jerusalem and beheaded in Rome in AD 65 during the persecution of Emperor Nero.
Most of Turkey's 71 million inhabitants are Sunni Muslims, and the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has pledged to respect religious freedom, a precondition for its possible membership of the European Union. However, the 32 000-member Roman Catholic Church is still demanding juridical recognition, including the right to own property and benefit from association status.
A 65-year-old Italian, Adriano Franchini, became the latest Catholic priest to be attacked when he was stabbed in the stomach by a young assailant a week before Christmas, while a Protestant pastor, Ramazan Arkan, survived a similar knife wound at Antalya on 31 December.
With kind acknowledments to Ecumenical News International - www.eni.ch