How the re-consecration of a Bulgarian church in Istanbul has gained a political slant

Photo: BTA

The re-consecration of the renovated Bulgarian St. Stephen Church in Istanbul gathered in the same place on Sunday not only religious but also political leaders from Bulgaria and Turkey. The ceremony in the church was attended by an official Bulgarian delegation led by Prime Minister Boyko Borissov; other attendants included Turkish President Recep Erdogan, Prime Minister Binali Yildirim, the Ecumenical Patriarch, the Bulgarian Patriarch, the Grand Mufti of Bulgaria…

In their speeches religious and secular leaders alike conveyed messages with a political slant which against the background of the starting Bulgarian Presidency of the Council of EU implied specific nuances.

The Bulgarian Patriarch Neophyte pointed out that the renovation of the church was achieved “thanks to the good neighbor relations and productive cooperation between our countries”.

So far, the list of the Bulgarian EU presidency priorities has not included normalization of relations between EU and Turkey but in Istanbul Prime Minister Boyko Borissov said that Bulgaria could insist on or even mediate for this kind of development. Whether this was mere courtesyon behalf of the prime minister prompted by rebukes coming from Ankara that the program of the Bulgarian EU Presidency had neglected Turkey by prioritizing EU integration of the Western Balkans only, without a mention of Turkey; whether Borissov simply repeated an intention which he had shared before, or there is something else, only time will tell.

Both the speeches during the ceremony at St. Stephen Church and the statements afterwards verbalized wishes for normalization of relations between Turkey and EU and in addition, they emphasized repeatedly the example of tolerance and good neighbor relations between Bulgaria and Turkey in spite of existing differences between them.

President Erdogan pointed out that „bad memories“ from history should not overshadow present-day relations, and Prime Minister Yildirim said that in the recent years Bulgaria and Turkey had even showed that problems do not divide but unite them. The latter claim in particular will most probably be commented with reservations, including ones coming from the nationalist partners of the ruling coalition.

President Erdogan made clear that he expected reciprocity from Bulgaria in the renovation and maintenance of historical sites built by the Ottoman Empire in its territory. In this vein of thought the head of state made a mention that he would join with pleasure the start of renovation of the only mosque in Sofia.

The political slant in the re-consecration of St. Stephen Church in Istanbul dominates reports in today’s Bulgarian press. Here is a headline in Sega Daily: “Borissov vows to work for warming up EU-Turkey relations.”

In an interview for the Bulgarian National Television this morning, Bulgarian Foreign Minister Ekaterina Zaharieva did not rule out a meeting to discuss relations with Turkey as part of the Bulgarian EU Presidency agenda, although such a discussion has not been planned so far. Her arguments are that there cannot be successful combating of terrorism and good protection of the EU outer borders unless Turkey is not only a NATO ally, but also a close partner of EU.

English Daniela Konstantinova

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