By Chiara Santomiero
ROME, 10 FEB. 2010 (ZENIT)
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
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
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
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
to share them in simplicity
and in the organization of common moments of comparison and
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,
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
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
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
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
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
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]