Vatican ambassador: After Turkish coup attempt, uneasy hope remains

by Joshua J. McElwee

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The Vatican's ambassador to Turkey says that while there continues to be an atmosphere of unease in the country following July's coup d'état attempt, there is hope the dramatic event is helping unify Turkish citizens around efforts to safeguard their democracy.

"In Turkey right now there is a lot of uncertainty," said Archbishop Paul Russell, the Vatican's apostolic nuncio to Turkey and Turkmenistan. "But there's a hope that this event … as painful as it has been, that somehow it can bring people together."

"The entire people of Turkey are absolutely united to defend their country and their democracy," said Russell, speaking in an NCR interview Wednesday. "There are many divisions but this event really brought people together, the whole population."

"It's something quite extraordinary," he said. "The hope is that these values which unify the people of Turkey can be built upon for greater good in the future."

Russell, an American who was appointed to his role representing the Vatican by Pope Francis last March, was referring to the July 15 attempt by members of the Turkish military to seize power from President Recep Erdoğan. The coup failed after Erdoğan called on Turkish citizens to take to the streets to express support for the country's constitution.

The Vatican nuncio spoke of being in Ankara, Turkey's capital, on the day of the attempt. He described military fighter jets flying over the city at a low altitude.

"The July 15 coup was an event which was very traumatic for the people of Turkey," said Russell. "We heard the bombings, the explosions. It was a night of fear; I'd say even terror, and a night of blood."

Turkish authorities have said that around 300 citizens were killed by members of the military during the attempt.

"Innocent people were killed that night by their own countrymen, by their own military," said the apostolic nuncio. "I don't think the trauma of that event can be exaggerated."

"My heart goes out to those people who were killed and to their family members who are suffering their loss," said the nuncio. "I, and I think the Holy See, is in solidarity with the people of Turkey and praying for them, for healing and a return to a more normal sort of life."

Following the coup attempt, Turkey declared a three-month state of emergency granting Erdoğan sweeping powers. Tens of thousands of people the government says are suspected of having ties to groups who supported the attempt have been fired from government jobs. Twenty-eight mayors accused of having ties with such groups have been replaced.

Erdoğan has alleged that Fethullah Gülen, a Turk and former associate of the president who now lives in the U.S., orchestrated the coup attempt. The Turkish government has asked for Gülen's extradition.

Russell said that while Turkey's response to the coup attempt may seem exaggerated, that "they're doing the best they can to try to find balance" in handling the situation.

"It seems there is a consensus that Fethullah Gülen is either directly responsible, as claimed by the government of Turkey, or his followers are either directly or indirectly responsible," said the nuncio. "The government of Turkey is absolutely convinced that he is directly responsible for the coup and there seem to be many indications of that."

"The people following him were for many years involved in working for state institutions, in great numbers," said Russell. "This is why such a large number of people have been suspended from work or detained or arrested."

"It seems shocking to people from the outside, but from the point of view of Turkey I think the government is trying to do what is correct in this situation," he said.

Asked about the post-coup-attempt status of Eastern Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, who is based in Istanbul, Russell said the Vatican's Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity "is in good contact with him."

Russell also praised Turkey's handling of the continuing migrant crisis. Many of the reported million-plus refugees and migrants headed to Europe in 2015 to escape conflicts in the Middle East went through the country.

"Turkey has welcomed three million refugees," said the nuncio. "This is a very huge number and a big responsibility."

"The problem is coming from outside of Turkey in Syria and that situation, in recent days, seems to be somewhat more hopeful," he said, referring to a recent ceasefire agreement between Syrian government and rebel forces that was brokered by the U.S. and Russia.

"If a solution for Syria can be found, this will very much help the millions of people that are fleeing for their lives from an impossible situation," said the nuncio. "Everyone's heart should go out to these people. These are families and children."

Russell, who was born in Massachusetts but raised in Michigan, entered the Vatican's diplomatic service in 1997. Before being appointed to his current role, he was serving as head of the Vatican's diplomatic mission in Taiwan. He also previously worked as a staffer at the apostolic nunciature in Turkey from 2000-2002.

The nuncio said he sees his embassy's main role in this time of uncertainty as simply being present to the Turkish people.

"The church doesn't have any other purpose than to be present and to be present in places which are very meaningful for our faith for 2,000 years," he said, referring to the fact that many sites important to the history of Christianity are in Turkey.

Russell referred particularly to Tarsus and Antioch, places where St. Paul lived and preached, and Ephesus, where Jesus' mother Mary is said to have lived her last years.

The Vatican's role in Turkey, said the nuncio, is "just to be present in a place which has always meant a lot to us and to continue with humble presence and humbly serve the people."

Russell said Turkey has a "very privileged place" due to its geographical location between continental Europe and the Middle East, and can be a meeting place for different cultures.

"The church always wants to bring people together," he said. "I think the Holy See is aware that what we need in the world today is better understanding. And we need to meet each other with respect and we need to deepen our mutual understanding."

"We need to avoid misunderstandings and we need to find ways in which we can work together, not only for our own good but for the good of all humanity," he said.

"I'm hopeful that the Holy See and the Republic of Turkey can find ways to work together to bring people together in our own areas and provide opportunities for encounter, which will benefit not only our mutual relations but all of humanity," said Russell.

The apostolic nuncio said the point of departure for his work is the witness of Pope John XXIII, who before being elected pontiff served as the Vatican's apostolic delegate to Turkey and Greece from 1934-44.

Russell cited John's autobiography Journal of a Soul, in which the pope spoke of his enjoyment of his role in Turkey.

"It's quite extraordinary that this man -- who was certainly a man of the church, from a conservative Italian background -- went to that country and his heart was very open to the people of Turkey," said the nuncio.

"He sincerely, truly loved them in a very deep way," said Russell. "This has to be an example for all of us. His witness is very alive."

[Joshua J. McElwee is NCR Vatican correspondent. His email address is Follow him on Twitter: @joshjmac.]

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