A new show set to grace Turkish television screens will see a Muslim imam, a Christian priest, a Jewish rabbi and a Buddhist monk competing to turn 10 unbelievers into devotees of their own faith each week.
The show, "Tövbekarlar Yarışıyor," which can be roughly translated as "Penitents Compete," will appear on Kanal T starting in early September. The imam, priest, rabbi and monk will try to convert at least one person in every show.
Kanal T was launched in January 2008 with mostly female presenters in front of the camera and also has a chairwoman managing the media group.
Seyhan Soylu, a famous transsexual known as "Sisi," is the mastermind behind the new religion-themed program and will be moderated by well-known female newscaster Gülgün Feyman. The show’s producer is model Ayşe Önal.
Kanal T Deputy Director Ahmet Özdemir told the Hürriyet Daily News & Economic Review that the program is the first of its kind in the world.
"The project aims to turn disbelievers into [believers in] God," no matter which religion they choose in the end, Özdemir said, adding that he believes the program will also be useful for those who want to learn more about other religions. "When people heard that we were going to air a program called ’Penitents Compete,’ it was hard for them to see what it was all about, but many people are waiting impatiently [for the show]."
The program will only take place in the studio, unlike shows such as "Big Brother," where contestants are isolated together in a house. An eight-person team of theologians and producers, which Özdemir refers to as a commission, will be sifting through the applicants to check their atheist credentials.
Each week, a different group of atheists will appear in front of the religious leaders. The producers of the show are well aware that there is a chance none of the atheists will be convinced by the arguments presented to them. Yet if an ex-atheist is "persuaded" to start following one of the religions, he or she will have the chance to travel to that religion’s center, whether Jerusalem for Christians and Jews or Mecca for Muslims or Tibet for Buddhists.
"The commission will also follow them after the show. They can’t see this trip as a getaway, but as a religious experience," Özdemir said. "People are free to believe in anything they want. Our program does not have a say."
The yet-to-air program has already drawn reactions from many people, mostly Christians. Hakkı Devrim, a television commentator and columnist for daily Radikal called the idea absurd and said such a show insults religion.
"Religion is not a science, and it is not open to discussion," Devrim said, adding that the program offers atheists a chance to voice their own thoughts.
"If I had to describe it with a word, it would be ’unsuitable,’" said the columnist, who advised Kanal T not to take the risk of airing such a show in Turkey.
"It’s not worth the risk," he said.
Prof. Mustafa Çağrıcı, an Istanbul mufti and the provincial head of the Religious Affairs Directorate, partially agreed with Devrim, saying religions could be discussed, but not on such a television program. He said such an extreme program could create complications in peoples’ minds. "I don’t know about the legal or media process of it, but as an academic, I don’t find it right to discuss religion in such environments," Çağrıcı said.
Noting that the Religious Affairs Directorate is responsible for any appearances of imams on television, as well as the content of their speeches, Çağrıcı said if the imam participating in the show worked within the Istanbul borders, he would not have let him appear.
While the mufti believes that "Penitents Compete" will not contribute to public peace and could have negative consequences, sociologists believe the show reflects a social trend.
"It is the reflection of rising curiosity toward religion," sociologist Nilüfer Narlı from Istanbul Bahçeşehir University said, adding that for the past 10 years, there has been an increase in people’s interest in topics such as religion.
Narlı said people want to learn about different religions. "Though I’m not sure what the show will bring for Turkey."
The advertisements for the program read, "You will find serenity in this competition," "We give you the biggest prize ever; we represent the belief in God," "Believe, repent, God will forgive you" and "We reconcile opposite poles." The TV channel claims "Penitents Compete" is a gift for Turkey.
The Armenian and Greek Orthodox patriarchates declined to comment on the show.