Last Sunday, Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew I presided over the first liturgical celebration at the Turkish monastery of Sumela in nearly 90 years. The celebration raises awareness to the ongoing situation concerning religious freedom in the country, according to one Vatican expert.
The celebration took place on Aug. 15, the Solemnity of the Dormition of the Mother of God in the Eastern tradition, and the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the West. Liturgical celebrations had been prohibited at the monastery since it passed into the hands of the Turkish government in 1922.
The Sumela monastery, with a rich and colorful history dating back to the 4th century, was mostly destroyed at the beginning of the 5th century and was eventually made into a museum and tourist attraction.
For these reasons, Sunday's celebration on the mountainside in front of the partially-rebuilt Greek Orthodox monastery was significant.
The concession made by the Turkish government to allow a religious celebration in a previously "off-limits" site is not the first this month, according to Vatican expert Sandro Magister. On Aug. 5, members of the Syriac Orthodox Church were authorized to celebrate the Divine Liturgy in two recently-renovated churches in the Mardin region.
On Aug. 19, the Armenian Orthodox Church will also be allowed to celebrate the liturgy, with the permission of Turkish authorities, at a church renovated and made into a museum in 2007.
Magister wrote on Aug. 13 that the openness seen in these celebrations should not be mistaken. "The concessions made this August by the government of Ankara," he explained, "are being interpreted as a move on the chessboard of Turkey's problematic entry into the European Union, which is impossible without minimal standards concerning religious freedom."
The government is slow to open the doors to religious freedom, he added, in part because a large number of people, believed to be "secret Christians," are currently registered as Muslims and might come "out into the open."
As it is, last Sunday more than 15,000 people attended the liturgy at the monastery, including representatives from the Ecumenical Patriarchate and the Russian Orthodox Church, members of parliament from Greece and Russia, Turkish authorities and pilgrims of predominantly Greek and Russian origins.
In an article to mark the occasion on Tuesday, the Vatican's L'Osservatore Romano newspaper quoted Bartholomew I as expressing hope for the future of Christian relations with the Turkish government.
He said, "Let us pray that Our Lady of Sumela become the guarantor of the peaceful coexistence of the two peoples, Christians and Muslims who are now gathered at this sacred place, a place of pilgrimage for Christians and Turks, and that this our pilgrimage may become a bridge between the two peoples.
"Today it can truly be said that the Black Sea is once again the Good Sea."