The Istanbul fraternity at the service of ecumenical and interreligious dialogue

“Dialogue is about everyday life, friendship, sharing one’s life and faith”. These are the words of Br Eleuthere Makuta Baharanyi, guardian of the Istanbul fraternity, committed to ecumenical and interreligious dialogue since 2004. Of Congolese origin, the friar received the missionary call after being ordained a priest but had never met a Turkish person in his life before arriving in Istanbul. “I believed that my experience in Turkey would go well, and then I had the chance to learn the language, integrate into society and make friends”, explains the friar. What makes the difference is, in fact, the human relationship that drives one to build relationships and dialogue beyond religious differences. This is precisely the daily mission of the nine friars in Turkey, serving in two houses 450 km apart in Izmir and Istanbul.

“We are an international fraternity”, explains Br Eleuthere, “and we share daily life, despite our different backgrounds: South Korea, Congo, France, Pakistan, Indonesia, and Italy. Each one has its own particularities, which can be seen every morning, during breakfast time, because everyone behaves according to their own culture. Daily coexistence is very delicate, but we try to intensify our fraternal relations. Dialogue starts first in our fraternity and then moves outside”.

The friars in Istanbul provide pastoral care for three churches for the Italian, French and Korean communities and migrants from Africa and Asia (especially Afghanistan).

Dialogue with Muslims

“Our church is frequently visited by Muslims who come even if only out of curiosity”, says guardian Br Eleuthere. Some seek prayers or advice. Others come to have curses cast away and have no real understanding of Christianity”. Therefore, the friars” role is also to try to make their creed known, giving the correct information to those who ask for it. “We have to learn from each other”, the friar explains. From Muslims, we have to learn seriousness and respect for religion because a true Muslim lives the principles in which he believes. Then there are also the fundamentalists, but those – as the Muslims themselves say – are not true Muslims”.

The dialogue established by the friars with the Muslims occurs firstly with the friary employees, friends and then also with the authorities of the local mosques. Once a year, the guardian of the fraternities, for example, goes for prayer at the cemetery with the imam and a Protestant pastor.

During the month of Ramadan, sacred to Muslims – which ended last week – the friars are invited to participate in iftar, sharing meals to break the daily fast that lasts until sunset.

At the institutional level, the friars in Istanbul also organise annual missionary formation courses, held in October, at which they invite top Muslim religious experts to speak.

Collaborating in dialogue also means working together for charity: thus, Br Eleuthere often runs to help the imam of the nearby mosque distribute food parcels.

Relations with the Sufi community, with whom the friars have shared several trips abroad, are also excellent. “With the Sufis, we went to Konya – an important city for their spirituality – and then accompanied them to Assisi and the Vatican”.

Support for prisoners

The Sufi community also periodically makes a financial contribution to the fraternity’s activities, which include supporting female inmates in a prison not far from Istanbul. “They are foreigners who are detained for drug trafficking or other offences and have asked for spiritual assistance”, explains Br. Eleuthere. “The imams visit the Muslims, but the Turkish Ministry of Justice has asked us to take care of the Christian women detainees, mainly from South America”.

These women need to talk and pray and are often suffering from depression. They are cared for by a diverse team consisting of Br Eleuthere, a Sacred Heart missionary nun, a Protestant pastor and an Armenian nun. With a small budget at their disposal, the religious also try to provide for the basic needs of the women prisoners for personal care, to help them not to lose their dignity, even under challenging conditions.

Over the past two years, coinciding with Covid, prison overcrowding in Turkey has increased, so some prisoners have been granted bail. “From one day to the next, we discovered many of them were living on the streets”, says Br Eleuthere. So, we decided to accommodate 38 people (this time also males) in a part of the friary that we had to renovate. Now at least half of them have managed to free themselves and are giving us a great example of solidarity: those who receive an income sometimes go back to prison to bring money to those who are still detained”.

The work between different Christians, side by side to care for the marginalised in society, is a daily miracle of ecumenism in a reality where Christians are the minority.

The paradigm for ecumenical and interreligious dialogue in Turkey is gratuitousness because we have no demands”, says Br Eleuthere. We could disappear overnight, and we know that our work is like that”.

 

Beatrice Guarrera