Friday, June 29, 2012

An Interfaith Journey in Turkey

House of Mary
by Rev. Laura Barclay

Another stop on our family vacation was Selcuk, Turkey, formerly known as the biblical city of Ephesus. Our tour guide John informed us that the country is 99% Muslim, the government is secular, and the culture is very modern due to the influence of their first president and the founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Our first stop was the House of Mary, where Vatican historians believe that Mary was brought by the disciple John during the final years of her life and is now an official pilgrimage site for Roman Catholics. Outside the house, there is a plaque with verses from the Koran honoring Mary, stating that she is "chosen...above all women (Chapter 3 verse 42)."

Ryan and me at the Ephesian Theater where Paul preached.
In the heart of Ephesus, John told us the story of Paul preaching to the Ephesians in the 25,000 seat theater, as I watched Muslim archaeologists work with great care around the perimeter of the site. John stated that the Ephesians would have made their living making and selling idols of the Roman gods. Paul's message to worship one God and put away idols caused a riot. Standing on the stage of the theater, I tried to imagine 25,000 people ready to riot and throw me into prison. John's storytelling ability's greatly aided my imagination. At the historic St. John’s Basilica where John the Apostle supposedly started a church and was buried, I heard the call to prayer at the neighboring Jesus (“Isabey”) Mosque in the same valley as the ruins of the Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

The people of Turkey were proud of their shared heritage with Christians and eager to protect our religious sites and educate visitors. Everywhere we went, we were offered refreshments and hospitality. They are proud of their democratic, secular, forward thinking government that provides good roads, public education, freedom of religion and universal healthcare. John related that the people are also eager to educate about stereotypes. He is frequently told by Westerners that he doesn’t “look Muslim or Arab enough” because he has blue eyes and lighter gray hair, or that he doesn’t dress like a Muslim because he is wearing a polo shirt and khakis. Turkish people, he stated, as well as other groups in the Middle East have separate and distinct cultures than what is represented on the news about the Middle Eastern world.

I was also surprised to learn that while the governments of Turkey and Greece have their differences, the people are remarkably similar in culture, eating and drinking the same foods and living very similar day to day lives. Turkey has also recently decided against joining the European Union because their economy is doing well and they are afraid that joining the E.U. would devalue their currency, among other things.

The positive nature of interfaith relations in Turkey is a wonderful testament to our shared Abrahamic heritage and the healthy relationship that can come from respectful dialogue, desire to find similar ground, and genuine care for one another’s beliefs. I hope that the rest of the world can learn from this example, especially in light of recent attempts to ban mosques in the United States, where freedom of religion and conscience is a founding tenant of both our country and our Baptist faith.

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