Reliving St. Francis' Meeting With the Sultan

Interview With Founder of Franciscan Center in Instanbul

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By Chiara Santomiero
 
ROME, FEB. 10, 2010 (Zenit.org).- When Franciscan Friar Ruben Tierrablanca's superiors spoke of a mission in Istanbul, they did not outline details. Instead, the friar was told, "You'll need a lot of imagination."

Thus was the invitation to found the International Franciscan Fraternity of Istanbul to promote ecumenical and interreligious dialogue.

The project Father Tierrablanca started with two confreres is now approaching its 6th anniversary. ZENIT spoke with the friar about the fraternity and the blessings and challenges of being a Christian in Turkey.

ZENIT: What is this project all about?
 
Father Tierrablanca: For several years the Franciscan Order, present in Turkey since the 13th century, planned a presence that would promote in a special way ecumenical and interreligious dialogue, following the example of St. Francis and his meeting with sultan Malik-al-Kamil in Damietta in 1219. The presence of several Christian Churches -- Greek Orthodox, Armenian, Syriac, Protestant in its different denominations -- makes of Istanbul an especially appropriate place for the promotion of ecumenical dialogue. Naturally, from this derives openness to a meeting with Muslim and Jewish communities.
 
The times for the realization of the project came to a head in September of 2003, when three of us, and later four, found ourselves in the convent of St Mary Draperis, in the central neighborhood of Pera, to begin this adventure. We took as a sign of Providence that four Friars Minor, who met there, came from four different countries and continents: Korea (Asia), Congo (Africa), France (Europe) and Mexico (America).
 
Already real for us was the challenge of coexistence between different cultures and languages, in a country that was not native to any of us. The fraternity was inaugurated officially in February of 2004 by the minister-general, Friar José Rodríguez Carballo.
 
ZENIT: And what do you do?
 
Father Tierrablanca: We move on several levels. Above all, we want to be a Franciscan presence for relations with the Christian churches. This willingness is translated in attention to festivities, religious ceremonies, important events lived by each Church -- to share them in simplicity -- and in the organization of common moments of comparison and prayer.
 
The week of intercession for Christian unity ended a short while ago during which, as usually happens everywhere, there have been joint celebrations in the different Churches. It was beautiful to see not only a greater participation of the faithful, but also a greater mix between them and the presence, in the celebrations, of Churches different from one's own. Moreover, for the first time, on this occasion the Eastern Churches used Turkish not Greek or Syriac for prayer: These are not steps of little importance. In a progressive way, we are acquiring increasing confidence in one another.
 
The Istanbul fraternity also has the objective of being a Franciscan presence in search of relations with Islam. Although we do not consider ourselves specialists in the matter, we engage in a constant and profound study of the religions with which we come into contact.
 
Another commitment is to offer brothers from all over the world periods of formation on ecumenical and interreligious dialogue. The direct experience of living together with other Churches and religious communities enables us to enter more easily into the spirit of dialogue. [These formation opportunities] are open to those who wish to attend and they are held in October, usually from the 17th to the 28th, because on the 27th there is interreligious prayer in the spirit of the meeting of Assisi, desired on that date by John Paul II in 1986.
 
The last aspect of our activity is to take outside of Turkey -- wherever we are invited to do so -- reflections and experiences related to our journey here.
 
ZENIT: A project that must be invented every day ...
 
Father Tierrablanca: All to be invented, all to be dreamed also. With a Franciscan spirit, one doesn't teach anything, rather, one learns.
 
From projects elaborated in an office, disappointments often derive. Perhaps we have not found all that we expected when we came here, but much more than we wanted. We discovered the desire of all Christians to have contact and this is the blessing of being few.
 
Dialogue with Islam is not always easy, but in Turkey there are good relations of friendship and hospitality compared with other countries.
 
ZENIT: Is it a burden to be a minority?
 
Father Tierrablanca: Minority smacks of statistics and complaint. The Church is not always more authentic and strong where all possibilities of expression are guaranteed. Here we have the occasion to live the faith in a radical profundity through recognizing ourselves brothers in Christ, centering the attention and spirit on the Trinitarian faith and with the Eucharist as a special point of reference.
 
We venerate together the saints of the Catholic calendar and of the Eastern Church: This opens us to the richness of the Christian tradition, that is, the communion of saints. Being few we have the possibility of knowing one another and of walking together with the desire of being a significant presence.
 
The situation of minority becomes a grace and the religious and Christian vocation is purified and deepened. All mental structures about "if" and "how" are broken down, something I had never dreamed of before.
 
ZENIT: Are your activities restricted?
 
Father Tierrablanca: To purify the faith also means to establish the order of priorities. All religious activity is prohibited by law -- this is true for all, including Islam -- except for the voice of the imam and the ringing of bells. One cannot celebrate in hospitals, for example, or in schools, and processions cannot take place outdoors, but it cannot be said that a faith that cannot be manifested in this way is less significant. There is greater liberty: nothing to defend, everything is gain.
 
Of course, difficulties exist. In recent years, the great growth of industrialization has created areas inhabited outside of the city, where Christians and Catholics also live and there are no churches. They cannot always come to the center; we can visit families but not more than once, otherwise this activity is interpreted as proselytism, running the risk of expulsion.
 
However, we do not live this with the weight it seems to have: On the other hand, neither Jesus nor Paul changed the Roman empire; they limited themselves to going ahead.
 
The Franciscan spirit is simplicity, joy and respect. We are guests and are grateful for this country's hospitality. The limitations do not prevent us from living our faith but help us to make the effort. The rules to be respected give us the space to do the things that can be done.
 
ZENIT: The Synod on the Middle East will take place in October. What preparation is planned?
 
Father Tierrablanca: We have read the lineamenta and we are planning the itinerary of reflection on the document. Precisely in these days there has been a meeting of the three houses of the Franciscan Family -- Friars Minor, Conventuals and Capuchins -- to have a conference together.
 
In view of the synod, thought was also given to a joint reflection with Muslims but perhaps it is too ambitious a project. Remaining, however, is the proposal of a meeting in mid-September together with exponents of the Muslim community and university professors for a reflection on the spiritual values -- with a more pastoral rather than doctrinal focus, so that the concrete life of the people and of all of us is at the center
 
I hope that the synod will help us to mature a shared thought on the most obvious needs today in the life of our communities: the need to return to the roots of the faith to give renewed vigor to the Church in Turkey and the need to broaden the ecumenical and interreligious dialogue at all levels, not only the institutional one.
 
ZENIT: You are Mexican and you have been in Rome a long time. How do you feel in this new and complex reality?
 
Father Tierrablanca: I have rediscovered the joy of "manifesting" ourselves as Christians. Here a "rahiq," a consecrated person, is much esteemed by the people, because there is great respect for consecration to God, beyond one's religion.
 
Those who know me know that I often say: "I was born at 50 years of age when I came to Istanbul."

[Translation by ZENIT]