Roman holiday for Turkish converts?

church-of-the-holy-sepulchre-insideThis is a strange one, I know. As a rule, your GetReligionistas focus our attention on the mistakes that mainstream journalists make, or the holy holes that they leave in stories, when they fail to "get religion." We also like to praise news organizations when they get it right, but whenever we do that readers don't leave many comments. So, you know, we have to focus on the negative.

With that as a prologue, please understand that I have no idea if the following Reuters report contains an hilarious error.

It could be that the story is completely accurate and that it is the leadership of the Turkish television station Kanal T that is responsible for this laugh-out-loud moment in the news. It could happen. Anyway, here is the top of the report:

ISTANBUL (Reuters) -- What happens when you put a Muslim imam, a Christian priest, a rabbi and a Buddhist monk in a room with 10 atheists?

Turkish television station Kanal T hopes the answer is a ratings success as it prepares to launch a gameshow where spiritual guides from the four faiths will seek to convert a group of non-believers. The prize for converts will be a pilgrimage to a holy site of their chosen religion -- Mecca for Muslims, the Vatican for Christians, Jerusalem for Jews and Tibet for Buddhists.

OK, did you get it? Do you know enough about life Turkey -- in the past and in the present -- to laugh? A clue: Remember that Istanbul used to be known as Constantinople or even Byzantium. We're talking about the city that literally looks up at the dome of Hagia Sophia.

Why would the station assume that the few Christians who still reside in Istanbul automatically decide to go to Rome? Isn't it more likely that Eastern Orthodox Christians would choose to go to, well, Jerusalem? Wouldn't the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (photo) be a more logical pilgrimage point than St. Peter's Basilica?

Now trust me, I know that there are many Protestants in modern Turkey and a few Roman Catholics. I also know that the Eastern Orthodox community, after decades of abuse and outright persecution, is tragically small. Here's a snippet of a column I wrote after my first visit to Istanbul:

The capital of Byzantium fell to the Turks in 1453. Yet 400,000 Orthodox Christians remained in greater Istanbul early in the 20th century. That number fell to 150,000 in 1960. Today fewer than 2,000 remain, the most symbolic minority in a land that is 99 percent Turkish. They worship in 86 churches served by 32 priests and deacons, most 60 or older.

Is this television show really offering a free ticket to Rome?

Meanwhile, the Reuters report does offer this insight into the politics behind the show. This is interesting stuff:

The makers of "Penitents Compete" are unrepentant and reject claims that the show, scheduled to begin broadcasting in September, will cheapen religion.

"We are giving the biggest prize in the world, the gift of belief in God," Kanal T chief executive Seyhan Soylu told Reuters. "We don't approve of anyone being an atheist. God is great and it doesn't matter which religion you believe in. The important thing is to believe," Soylu said.

The project focuses attention on the issue of religious identity in European Union-candidate Turkey, where rights groups have raised concerns over freedom of religion for non-Muslim minorities. Detractors of the ruling AK Party government, which is rooted in political Islam but officially secular, accuse it of having a hidden Islamist agenda, a charge it denies.

Some 200 people have so far applied to take part in the show and the 10 contestants will be chosen next month. A team of theologians will ensure that the atheists are truly non-believers and are not just seeking fame or a free holiday.

Ah, the religion beat. You can't make this stuff up.

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