“Their nation views them as traitors. They are Turks who love their country and their families. But that love is constantly questioned by a government which perpetuates the myth that Turks can only be Muslim.”
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Over the last millennia, extremist Islamic influence has eroded Turkey’s relationship with its Christian population, leading to increased acts of terrorism, discrimination, and hatred towards Christianity. Once a shining reminder of the early Christian church, modern-day Turkey has become a convoluted mixture of ethnoreligious persecution. The Turkish government perpetuates the antiChristian narrative by stirring up ethnic and religious hatred towards Christianity through hate speech. Persecution of Christians in Turkey will last as long as its own charged rhetoric allows. Turkey’s admission of large numbers of refugees in the past decade further complicates the situation, bringing new Christian communities into the fold of persecution. The Erosion Begins Turkey is a product of different civilizations and centuries of warfare and conquest. Many pivotal moments in church history occurred on Turkish soil, including
the first seven Ecumenical Councils and the Council of Nicea. It is even known as the birthplace of the early church. Notable followers of Christ, such as Paul of Tarsus, Timothy, Nicholas of Myra, and Polycarp of Smyrna, hailed from Turkey. The city of Constantinople, now Istanbul, became the capital of the Byzantine Empire and the headquarters of the Eastern Orthodox Church. This all quickly changed with the aggressive expansion of Islam. In the 7th century, Seljuk Turks captured half of Christian land, including the city of Jerusalem. At the turn of the millennia, Christians rose up to defend the Byzantine Christians from Seljuk Turks and recover the Holy Land in a 200-year conflict known as the Crusades. Both sides committed human rights abuses against each other, a reality that challenges interfaith dialogue and attempts at reconciliation tho this day. Turks’ bitter view of the Crusades presents a significant hurdle for evangelization, and for some Turkish Muslims, justifies the persecution of Christians. The Turks possession of Constantinople in 1453 marked the beginning of an attempt to completely eliminate Christianity in Turkey.
In a symbolic act, they forcefully converted a thousand-year old church and architectural wonder, Hagia Sophia, into a mosque. When the Ottoman Empire officially dissolved in 1923, the modern “secular” state of Turkey was born.
By Meg McEwen
An historical overview of Turkey’s relationship with the Church and its ongoing persecution of Christianity
20th Century Genocides In the 20th century, Christianity dipped from roughly 25% of the population to 2%, a direct result of government-supervised ethnoreligious cleansing. Most of the victims belonged to the Eastern Church. The Turkish government participated in an intensive, highly systematic killing spree, attempting to eliminate the Armenian people Leading up to this event, Armenians were treated as second-class citizens, abused by Muslims under the Ottoman Empire’s dhimmi system. Multiple international attempts were made to establish basic human rights for the Armenian people, but the government never enforced its agreements. The Armenian genocide left approximately one million corpses strewn across the parched path to the Syrian desert, a death march that remains largely controversial within the international community. Both the United States and Israel have failed to recognize the Armenian genocide, though many credible documents and eye-witness reports have surfaced regarding the tragedy. The Assyrian and Greek genocides also contributed to the plummeting number of Christians over the course of the early 1900s. Modern-Day Turkey Authorities consistently level hate-speech at Christians, keeping the spirit of enmity alive. Christians are not allowed to train their clergymen, and authorities rarely give them permission to establish a place of worship unless it is in a historical building. Christians are ostracized from society for choosing to opt out of compulsory religious classes. Churches find it nearly impossible to obtain legal standing as
religious congregations. Religious affiliation has been removed from ID cards but is still visible in back end systems, leading to government discrimination. Christians live in uncertainty under the surveillance of President Erdoğan, who recently used an imprisoned American pastor, Andrew Brunson, for leverage in hostage diplomacy with the United States. The president plans to reinforce the Muslim religion by pulling down public schools and replacing them with religious schools. Fifteen years ago, there were only 450 religious schools in Turkey. There are 4,500 today. The president expressed his desire to raise a “pious generation,” which will almost certainly translate into a “violent generation” in the aftermath. Levels of Persecution A large influx of refugees from neighboring, war-torn countries placed new communities of Christians under government pressure, with levels of persecution varying by ethnicity. Christian Turks face a high degree of persecution because the Turkish population is predominantly Muslim. There are 70 million people and 6,000 Turkish Christians, making it difficult for the Christians to practice their faith. In the culture’s understanding, Turkish and Islamic blood run in the same veins. The Turks consider Syrian and Iraqi refugees to be brothers, a remnant of the glorious former Ottoman empire. Christians in these communities are hated, marked as traitors to their heritage. Iranian Christian refugees land on the other side of the persecution spectrum; they are largely left alone, free to worship God. Even though Iranian Christians enjoy relative religious freedom, they fear that they
People who work closely with President Recep Erdoğan describe him as a stern patriarch who alternates between faithful piety and fiery oratory. Before Erdoğan, religion in Turkey remained primarily in the private sphere, and piety was hardly a defining feature of its secular government. But with Erdoğan’s climb up the political ladder, Islamism has come front and center. Erdoğan has transformed Turkey into an Islamic authoritarian state at war with Christianity. Erdoğan’s devotion to Islam is not surprising. He grew up in the Black Sea Region, known for its Islamic conservatism. Ironically, the Black Sea was once the heart of Christianity in ancient Turkey, but today, its Christians number only in the dozens. The fact that Erdoğan’s home community, and possibly even his own ancestors, used to be predominantly Christian makes his brand of Islamic nationalism all the more tragic. Islamist Worldview What does surprise is how quickly Erdoğan’s worldview and message gained traction among his countrymen. He rose from mayor of Istanbul in 1994, to the nation’s Prime Minister in 2003, to President in 2014. Many point to Erdoğan’s four-month imprisonment in 1998 as a defining moment. Charged with “inciting hatred” after reading a religious nationalist poem at a rally, he entered prison openly devoted to Islamism, but left claiming he would wall off his religion from his politics. Shortly after his release, he was quoted by the New York Times as saying, “Before anything else, I’m a Muslim. As a Muslim, I try to comply with the requirements of my religion… But I try now
very much to keep this away from my political life, to keep it private.” Because Erdoğan’s prison experience was one of luxury and comfort, some doubted its transformative effects. In fact, his jail sentence served to boost his profile, and his public charisma grew. In 2001 he helped found the Justice and Development Party (AKP), and two short years later he was elected Prime Minister. Defender of Christianity? A decade and a half later, Erdoğan remains in power (now as President), and Turkey looks radically different. For the first 10 years of his leadership, the country’s slide towards Islamism was hard to perceive. Erdoğan even seemed to defend Christianity at times. In 2007, when young Muslim extremists murdered three Christians operating a Bible publishing house in Malatya, one of the suspects was quoted saying, “Our religion (Islam) is being destroyed. Let this be a lesson to enemies of our religion.” Erdoğan said of the attack: “This is savagery.” Though such incidents make Erdoğan’s Islamism seem less blatant, his authoritarian bent remained clear. The tumultuous aftermath of the failed military coup in July 2016 led to a massive purge of journalists, government officials, teachers, and many others, displaying the draconian character of Erdoğan’s regime. The failed coup also testified to how drastically Turkey had changed, as much of the populace rallied to put down the coup. With the coup’s failure, Erdoğan purged his opponents, both real and perceived, emerging more powerful than ever. He brandished the strident style of his younger days as he took steps to solidify his grip on power. Islamism reemerged as a defining feature of his politics and rhetoric.
Revival of Ottoman Tradition In other words, Erdoğan declared himself openly at war with Atatürk, the founder of Turkey’s secular state. Erdoğan is a passionate historian and a great admirer of Abdülhamid II, known as the “bloody sultan” of the Ottoman Empire. Where Atatürk had cast off the Islamic authority of the Ottoman Empire, Erdoğan seeks to resurrect it, picking up where Abdülhamid II, the empire’s last effective sultan, left off. Said Erdoğan this past February, “Those who think that we have erased from our hearts the lands from which we withdrew in tears a hundred years ago are wrong… We are struggling so that a foreign flag will not be waved anywhere where adhan [Islamic call to prayer in mosques] is recited. The things we have done so far [pale in comparison to the] even greater attempts and attacks [we are planning for] the coming days, inshallah [Allah willing].” It is this open declaration of war that deeply troubles Turkey’s Christians. They know that their president’s view of history matters greatly when it comes to their future. They know that the way Turks in general view Christians is a product of how they interpret the close of Ottoman history. Explains one believer, “During the independent war we fought against lots of countries and some bishops blessed the Turks enemies. That’s why people started to hate Christianity and Christians. Also, some of the enemies’ flags had crosses, like Greece. And because of that people started to see Christians as an enemy.” Erdoğan has tapped into the deepest cultural fears of Turks and promised to resurrect 600 years of Ottoman history with himself as chief proponent. Indeed, he has positioned himself well. One year after the coup, he enacted constitutional changes that greatly reduced the role of parliament and consolidated power within his “executive presidency.” These changes came into full effect in June 2018, after Erdoğan “won” a hotly disputed early election. As his rhetoric increasingly demonstrates, Erdoğan views all opposition to his new authoritarianism as a “clash between cross and crescent.” More than any other leader besides Atatürk, Erdoğan has thoroughly transformed Turkey. The question is, what role do Christians have in Turkey’s future? Are they the enemies, as Erdoğan’s rhetoric suggests? Or are they second-class, dhimmi citizens, just as they were under Ottoman rule?
President Erdoğan’s Rise Signals Trouble for Christians
By Claire Evans
“Those who think that we have erased from our hearts the lands from which we withdrew in tears a hundred years ago are wrong…” – PRESIDENT RECEP ERDOĞAN
I was born in a country where Christianity is a deeply rooted, but deeply marginalized religion. Turkey, which today encompasses Asia Minor (or Anatolia), contains more biblical sites than any other region in the Middle East except Israel. Many Christian Apostles and Saints, such as Paul of Tarsus, Peter, John, Timothy, Nicholas of Myra, and Polycarp of Smyrna, among others, either ministered or lived in Turkey. The Seven Churches of Asia, the major churches of early Christianity, are in Anatolia. The first seven ecumenical councils were also held there. The first was convened in A.D. 325 by the emperor Constantine in Nicaea (Iznik). Today, however, only 0.2 percent of Turkey’s population of nearly 80 million are Christian. Centuries of Islamic Control The Islamization of the region began when Turkic tribes from Central Asia invaded the Armenian highland of the Greek Byzantine Empire in 1071 and started occupying Christian cities. Those Muslim tribes first established the Seljuk Empire in Anatolia and then ruled the Ottoman Empire (1299–1923). For centuries, Christians became dhimmis— third-class, tolerated citizens forced to pay a tax in exchange for “protection” under Islamic Sharia law. Then from 1914 to 1923, the Ottoman government and Turkish nationalist forces committed genocide against Armenian, Greek and Assyrian Christians. Approximately 3 million Christians perished. Many Greek Christian survivors were forcibly expelled from Turkey in 1923. But successive Turkish governments have aggressively denied that the genocide ever occurred and have continued persecuting Christians. From 1941-1942, the Turkish military attempted to force Christians and Jews—
including the elderly and mentally ill— to work under horrendous conditions in labor battalions. In 1942, a Wealth Tax was imposed to eliminate Christians and Jews from the economy. A savage anti-Greek pogrom in 1955 also targeted Armenians and Jews in Istanbul. In 1964, thousands of Greeks were forcefully expelled from Turkey. These policies all contributed to the annihilation of Christians in the country. Present-Day Discrimination Christians remain exposed to severe oppression in Turkey. Greek-speaking Orthodox Christians, for example, cannot freely obtain education in the Theological School of Halki, the main theological school of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople. The school was shut down by the Turkish government in 1971 and has not been reopened. Since that time, the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, the spiritual center of Orthodox Christianity, has been unable to train clergy and potential successors for the patriarch. The remaining Christian Assyrians are also struggling with many challenges. For example, they lack the official right to public education in their own institutions. In Istanbul, they are attempting to open a private elementary school although the government refuses to grant financial support. Meanwhile, both the government and some Muslim Kurdish locals in southeast Turkey continue to illegally seize their properties. Protestants are among the most oppressed Christians in Turkey. The government does not recognize the Protestant community as a “legal entity.” Hence, Protestants hold no right to freely establish and maintain churches. The Protestant community also faces discrimination in the training of religious leaders. Since current law prohibits the opening of religious training schools, the Protestant community relies on support from foreign church leaders. Sadly, several foreign religious workers and church members have been deported, denied entry into Turkey, refused residence permits, or denied entry visas. Violence Not Limited to the Past Several incidents in recent memory reinforce the very real threat of physical violence against Christians. In 2006, Father Andrea Santoro, an Italian Catholic priest, was murdered in his church in the city of Trabzon by a Muslim shouting “Allahu akbar” (Allah is the greatest). A year later, three Christian employees of the Zirve Bible Publishing House in Malatya were tortured and murdered by five Muslim assailants. Two of the victims were converts. In Anatolia, where Christianity was once the majority religion and thrived for centuries, Turkey’s state forces target and demonize Christian missionaries. And it appears that police, military and intelligence organizations are involved in the murders of Christians in the country. Turkey’s National Security Council has even argued that missionary activities should be regarded as a “national threat.”
“Christians remain exposed to severe oppression in Turkey. “
The Systematic Eradication of Christian Civilization in Turkey By Uzay Bulut
Who Can Count the Cultural Loss? The destruction of churches and their use for sacrilegious purposes such as stables are among the physical outcomes of Christian annihilation and Islamic intolerance in Turkey. But even more alarming is the destruction of the immense knowledge and great cultural legacies of millions of Christians—including that of Christian saints, philosophers and other scholars. Throughout its long history in Turkey, Christian teachings served as an inspiration for philosophy, literature, ethics, philanthropy, architecture, music and theatre, among other fields. Anatolian Christians—both in ancient times as well as under the rule of Byzantines and even as dhimmis under the Ottoman occupation—made countless contributions to human progress in the fields of science, technology, medicine, art, law and politics. Today, however, the Turkish state does not even recognize the “Ecumenical” status of the Patriarch and Patriarchate, the spiritual center of the Eastern Orthodox Church. Meanwhile, the destruction of Christianity is accompanied by the rise of political Islam in Turkey. For example, 54 percent of the participants in a 2017 survey conducted by the progovernment MAK counseling company said “yes” to Turkey having “a religious leadership similar to the caliphate.” Sadly, Turkish governments have carried out their oppressive and destructive actions against Christians either with the active participation or the silent approval of the clear majority of the Muslim Turkish people. Never once in their history have Turkish people attempted to protest the government as Christian and other non-Muslim citizens of the country were and still are exposed to horrific injustices such as murders, pogroms, rapes, and various social pressures. Annihilating Christian peoples and cultures in Turkey has harmed not only Christians but humanity at large. Sadly, the West still looks away as Turkey’s rich Christian heritage is on the verge of disappearing forever.
One cool evening in Ankara, I joined four Turks for tea. All were university-aged converts, two of whom still keep their conversion secret. They gather almost every night and challenge one another to grow in their faith despite the many hardships they face. This night, in hushed but urgent tones, they were eager to unburden themselves about the crisis of identity they face as Turkish Christians. “Ankara is a dark place, a conservative place,” explained one woman. “It is spiritually depressing.” Tears welled in the eyes of another. She was unable to speak for several minutes. She looked toward her brother who nodded in assent about the spiritual darkness surrounding them. Ankara is the capitol of Turkey and its second largest city, a hub of rich history and culture. The palatial Presidential Complex and other government ministries are scattered among its neighborhoods. The mausoleum of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of modern day Turkey, is toured by millions
every year. When I visited, I was struck by the reverence on the faces of so many who had journeyed there. I wondered aloud why the man who invented the concept of Turkishness would be so admired almost 100 years later. What is “Turkishness?” “Most people show respect to Atatürk. I also like him and show respect to his ideas,” explained one of the Christians gathered at the café. He described his parents as terrorists, and said he was afraid to tell them of his conversion because they are Islamic nationalists. He added, “The most important one of Atatürk’s six principles is secularism, I think. Through the secularist system that he brought, we can have a choice to change to another religion from Islam. So I think Atatürk’s influence is really important and great for us who were Muslims before.” His friend has also kept his conversion a secret, but for a different reason—his family is committed to secular nationalism. He told me, “I became a Christian and immediately felt like I betrayed my country. I still feel that way.” “Turkish people believe that if you aren’t Muslim, you’re an enemy. When you ask people’s religion here, some people will say ‘I am Turk.’ Because people believe that if you’re Turk, you have to be Muslim,” he continued. Similar comments about Turkishness have marked every conversation I’ve had with believers in Turkey. Strong ideas about what it means to be a Turk have spread from their origin in Ankara all across the county’s 81 provinces. A fierce defensiveness about the Turkish national identity has been carefully cultivated. It has provided the fodder for Turkey’s transformation from a quasi-democratic state to a thoroughly authoritarian one. Turks to the World: “We Will Not Bow” In his 2014 post-election speech, President Erdoğan proclaimed, “The people gave a clear message to Turkey and to the world: What did they say? They said, ‘We are here.’ They said, ‘The Turkish people are impassable … We are the owners of this country. The people will not bow and Turkey is invincible.’” President Erdoğan won his 2018 election by further emphasizing that authentic Turkishness means a coming war between cross and crescent. The pressure of being true to the national identity is felt by Christian all across the country. Churches are so rare in Turkey that they are considered a foreign novelty, and are often visited by touring Muslims. One pastor
TURKEY’S YOUNG CHRISTIANS FEEL THE WEIGHT OF THE SPIRITUAL DARKNESS IN THEIR LAND
Turkish believers wrestle with the entrenched cultural belief that real Turks are and must be Muslim.
By Claire Evans
in Eastern Turkey shared that, “…they come to church and when I start talking, they are like, ‘Wow, you speak such good Turkish!’ And I say, ‘Well of course, I am a Turk!’” Free to Gather, For Now Back in Ankara, the four young Turks sitting in the café continued to contemplate how the idea of Turkishness had impacted their lives. It was clear that talking about their challenges with each other had greatly eased the burden. As we left the café, one pointed to a public square renamed after those who defended Erdoğan during the 2016 coup. Since the coup, state surveillance of Christians has increased and the idea of Turkishness has been further ingrained in Turkey’s citizens. These four believers are able to safely gather, for now. But so many others are not. Their families view them as apostates to their religion. Their nation views them as traitors. They are Turks who love their country and their families. But that love is constantly questioned by a government which perpetuates the myth thwill eventually face government pressure. The Turkish government is already actively relocating them to nationalistic cities with large Islamic communities, like the other refugee communities. Armenian, Assyrian, and Kurdish Christians endure a more intense form of persecution because they are nationally hated in Turkey for their religion and ethnicity. The Turks already persecute Armenian and Assyrians on an ethnic front, so the few Christians who survive within these communities truly endure the brunt of this persecution. In Southeast Turkey, a war is being waged between Turks and Kurds. Turks believe that Kurds are terrorists and thus seek to isolate the community to “protect” national security. Because they successfully established similar regions in in Iraq and Syria, they are labeled as unstable terrorists by the Turkish government (and the international community). The Turks frequently isolate and despise Kurdish communities in an attempt to repress a mounting rebellion. Christian missionaries have been imprisoned or deported while trying to minister and evangelize the Kurds. For this reason, the Kurds are an increasingly unreached ethnic group. ICC’s Involvement in Turkey Due to the extremely sensitive position of Christians in Turkey, we must be vague in describing our work there. But the brittle spiritual ground in Turkey has not stopped the Lord from paving a way for ICC to minister to persecuted Christians. ICC is building a nursery for MBBs (Muslim background believers) who leave their young toddlers at home alone while they work the only jobs open to them – those that require long hours and heavy labor. With the help of ICC, an illegal church is moving to a new location to safely accommodate its growing numbers. ICC also provides legal assistance to pastors who have been singled out by authorities because of their ministry work and advocates with the United States government to effect policies that may ease the pressure on Christians in Turkey.
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