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July 14, 2008

8

Turkey, Christians and religious freedom?

by Mark Meynell

I’ve just come back from an extraordinary week’s travels. What a privilege. 3 days in Turkey and 4 days in Romania, in both places with a view to helping local church leaders develop preaching movements for their respective countries. I think i should blog about them separately because of their marked differences – there are only 3000 evangelicals/protestants in the whole of Turkey (nat. pop. = 70+ million) and roughly half a million in Romania (nat. pop. = 23 million). My entire time in Turkey was spent in Istanbul, which has to be one of the most beguiling and overwhelming cities on earth (and it’s crazily big – 20 million residents!) – i got trigger happy with my camera and so took 100s – I’ve added collages of Bosphorus views here (one from each side). And the folks i spent time with were inspirational. But the context for living as Christians in that part of the world is far from it.

Turkish Secularism Or Turkish Democracy?

Inevitably, a key element of our discussions in Turkey was the extent to which religious freedom that exists there. I am by no means an expert and so could only pick up a few things here and there in my short visit but the 20th Century background is key. After the 1st World War and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, a new political reality was forged by Mustafa Kemal (dubbed Atatürk or Father of the Turks) when he sought to create a new secular Muslim state, influenced by enlightenment values. He was both a soldier (left, one side of his monument in Taksim Sq) and statesman (right, the other side). Ever since there has been an inevitable tension between secularism (defended by the military) and Islam (adhered to by the vast majority of Turks).

This was shrewdly summed up by one of the folks I spent time with this weekend, and is perhaps understood by way of contrast to what in Europe and North America we are used to. In the west, it is almost axiomatic that secularism and democracy go hand in hand, and western countries, to varying degrees, attempt to keep religion at arm’s length. That might be more acceptable to post-enlightenment protestants especially, but it is hardly going to wash with an Islam that has no concept of public/private or sacred/secular distinctions.

So in Turkey, if you want secularism, you are effectively opting for military rule; if you want democracy, you are opting to support a government that will increasingly ‘Islamify’ the nations institutions and culture.

But here’s the catch – if you’re Christian, you are caught in between both stools:

  • The military regards you as subversive and not truly Turkish (even if you are Turkish) because they are seeking to sustain secularism.
  • Then the Muslim powers-that-be oppose your very presence in what should be the global heart of Islam (the Ottoman Empire used to control the entire Middle East after all); the Turkish flag is emblazoned with the Crescent moon of Islam, and the Old Sultan’s Palace in Istanbul, the Topkapı, houses amongst other things, the Sacred Trusts of Islam (like Mohammed’s sword, beard, cloak and a handwritten letter).

The Fate of Christians in Turkey

For generations, Christians in Turkey were almost by definition not Turks. There were thousands of Greeks and Armenians who were predominately orthodox. The Armenian genocide is a rightly matter of wide concern and horror even to this day. But far less well known has been the drip-drip of hostility, oppression and ostracism of Christians within Turkey. I cannot vouch for these stats at all, so don’t quote me – however, they fit more or less with what a number of people told me last weekend.

  • In the early 1970s there were over 8500 Orthodox churches in regular use as places of worship in Turkey. Now there are only 500 or so – the rest were forcibly taken over by state authorities.
  • In the second half of the 20th Century it was estimated that there were over 20,000 Greeks living in Istanbul. There are now barely more than 1000. I’ve no idea how it was done – but a range of intimidation tactics was certainly used to make sure people knew they were not wanted.
  • I gather that if you are a Christian, certain professions like being a practising lawyer are barred to you.
  • Whenever you buy a building, you have to indicate what use it will have (eg residence, business, school etc). It is impossible to do this for a church. In fact there is only one building in the whole of Turkey registered as a Protestant church. A number of Istanbul protestant churches therefore end up renting the chapels of western consulates for their services. Those that do use other buildings live on the edge.
  • It is not possible to set up a seminary in Turkey because of restrictions. Being a pastor is not really recognised in law and so because they don’t really exist, they don’t need training! Anyone therefore wanting to do this is allowed to give them “instruction” (because ‘instruction’ doesn’t necessarily lead to anything) but they cannot give them “education” with its implication of recognised degrees and status. Muslim leaders have even offered their own training institutions to church leaders with the suggestion that they train Christian pastors and priests on their behalf! Can you imagine what would happen if Anglican colleges in the UK offered that to Regents’ Park Mosque!?
  • Then of course, there has been the recent Malatya murders. One can’t help but wonder whether or not this only hit the headlines because one of the victims was German, and thus caused the Turkish government acute diplomatic embarrassment.

Facing the Future

Persecution is never far from the surface, either from the state or from the neighbourhood. One tiny example – it’s petty in one sense. You see the Turkish flag everywhere. But in a little church I visited last week, the street was festooned with Turkish flag bunting, presumably because in their midst was a little Christian community. The implication was clear: if you’re Christian, you can’t be Turkish, because Turks are Muslims. So what did the church do in response? Well, they bought a huge Turkish flag and they now hang it from their meeting place. Gloriously gracious but absolutely the right response. We might be Christian but we’re Turks too, it eloquently proclaims. And i think this is the interesting thing about what’s happening. For in contrast to previous centuries and decades, where Christians were effectively foreign or at least ethnically different, this is no longer the case. Turks are becoming Christians, in their ones or twos. And this is fantastic – but to some, it’s intolerable. So for the future of the Turkish church, these brothers and sisters are the greatest hope but also at greatest threat – because the phenomenon of Turkish Christians shouldn’t actually exist, if Turkish Muslims are to be believed. We must pray for them. Now, i repeat, i was only there for a few days – and I may have got some or much of this wrong. But there was no doubt, that in all my conversations with people, the issue of the stresses faced by Turkish Christians was a key subject.

Religious Tolerance because of Europe?

It seems to me that just as the secular west completely fails to understand what tolerance should be (see this blog, passim) so does Islam. I, as a creedal Christian, absolutely uphold the right of people to express their views and religion. I don’t have a problem with people building mosques in England (although the proposed super-mosque at the Olympics site is different and seems merely to me to be a power-play). But talk about double-standards! Freedom for Muslims to proselytize in the West does not bring Christian freedom even to exist and grow in the Muslim world. This was a point that Ed Husain in his book The Islamist makes as well.

And as i’ve been thinking about all this, there comes the timely post by Cranmer about the plight of Coptic Christians in Egypt. They are apparently on the verge of extinction.

It all makes me wonder – I am by nature more Eurosceptic than not – but i do think that enlargement is a great thing for a number of reasons. The more countries that join, the more the absurd super-state ideals of some are rendered increasingly inoperable. And should Turkey ever be allowed to join, it would hopefully provide a powerful protection for the Christian minority there to grow and flourish. But that looks far off – there are far too many vested interests both in Europe and Turkey to make it desirable, despite the political, economic and justice advantages that it could bring. Europeans are terrified of the thought of 70 million Turks suddenly having freedom to live and work anywhere, and the Islamic groups in Turkey fear their influence being undermined.

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8 Comments Post a comment
  1. Livewire
    Sep 25 2008

    I read this with interest as I’m moving to Turkey in a few days time. I hope to be able to worship without fear of intimidation, and my Turkish friends have assured me that this is possible. I have found Turkish people to be happy to discuss their religion, and that of others, although none of my friends are particularly devout Muslims. However, my experience is that Turks are, in general, fiercely proud of their country, including the fact that they are Muslim. I wish my own country had some of their pride! I have read a number of articles about Christianity in Turkey, and my feeling is that it is easier for a foreigner to worship, than for a Turkish convert. Thank you for this article, I hope that in time Christians (all faiths, actually) will be able to worship freely.

    Reply
  2. Duncan M
    Oct 20 2008

    Istanbul 20 million?, where did that statistic come from? It’s plain wrong. The whole of Istanbul province has got 11 million, the city itself with 7 to 8 million people. No way has it got 20 million, that is a stat plucked out of thin air!

    Reply
  3. Oct 21 2008

    Hi Duncan
    Sorry about this – i’d had it on good authority from people i was visiting – but clearly 11.5 million is the more accurate figure.

    Reply
  4. Duncan M
    Nov 16 2008

    Thanks Mark. Your blog is really good to read. Thanks for all your work at All Souls – I (along with thousands of others) have been blessed by its ministry over the years.

    I have a great interest in cities and urbanisation, and get very frustrated when the media (which filters down to others) overexagerate city size to make a point. Eg Lagos Nigeria it is quoted has around 15 million, but the 2006 census counted 7.8 million in Lagos city and 9.1 million in Lagos province. Or Sao Paulo and Mexico City, two of the world’s largest often quoted in the media as having 25 million when they actually have around 16-18 million. It all depends on boundaries drawn, but most if not all the overexagerations are wild upper limit fantasies, largely drawn from old population prediction data ie Sao Paulo, Mexico City, Rio and Calcutta, to name four cities are sometimes quoted in the media as having current populations (of 25, 25, 19 and 18 million respectivley) based on the predicted populations of those cities from old UN population projections from 1980 (as of 2000 those cities had populations respectively of 16, 18, 10 and 13 million) but you will still get the old predicted populations trotted out.

    Historically, as recently as 1970 only four cities had populations with 10 million or more (and hence were ‘mega cities’): Tokyo, London, New York and Shanghai.

    Reply
  5. jazee
    Feb 6 2009

    heyy livewire, are you in turkey already? maybe I can help you out with church contacts etc if you are searching for where to go, ok? drop me a line… jzbrdsw@yahoo.co.uk

    Reply
  6. Halston
    Mar 9 2009

    Mark, you’ve written an overall wonderful article here and as someone who’s himself been involved in the Turkish Christian movement, I salute you. I just have to express my strong disagreement and disapproval of the last part:

    “And should Turkey ever be allowed to join [the EU], it would hopefully provide a powerful protection for the Christian minority there to grow and flourish.”

    Mark, I’m sorry but this is dangerous wishful thinking. What you seem not to realize, is that if Turkey were given such free movement of peoples throughout the EU, this would utterly overwhelm the ethnic and religious character of half the countries in Europe, make many of them majority-Muslim and strongly decrease the incentives to provide Christian tolerance– if anything, it might threaten the very core of Christendom itself. This would hardly be a benefit to the Christians of Turkey. You’re quite right in noting the persecution that Christian Turks have long suffered– indeed, a very large fraction of the “Turks” who emigrated to the Netherlands, Belgium and elsewhere in the 1970’s and 1980’s, were in fact Christians (but recorded as Turks for official purposes). The last thing the Christian Turks need, in Turkey or elsewhere, would be for Christendom itself to fall apart.

    Don’t get me wrong, on an individual level most Turks are wonderful people– when I was working in Britain and the Netherlands to a lesser extent (perhaps in your own country for all I can tell), I ran into literally dozens of Turks at different places, and overall I have a lot of respect for them. But they simply don’t identify with their Christian host societies, even after 2 generations. In Euro 2008 and before, even 2nd-generation British and Dutch Turks were cheering for the Turkish football team over those in their own host countries. And unfortunately, most of them– again, we’re talking second-generation here– were intensely “in-your-face” Muslim, to the point of denouncing our Christian group and our own faith overall whenever the topic came up (which we tried to avoid, but which at times they brought up on their own accord).

    I’m sorry, but Turkish accession to the EU would be a disaster. I’m generally Eurosceptic myself, but I’ve long sensed that even the EU’s founders realised that it would evolve into something much looser and more federated than the grand schemes of its earliest proponents. We can see this now, as the thrifty Northern European nations (like the Netherlands, Germany, Poland, Czech Republic, Belgium and Finland) especially unite on frugal, low-debt solutions to the economic crisis, while more profligate Southern Europe tries to spend its way into deeper debt. This is essentially how I long suspected the EU would turn out, with the union in practice dissolving into a federated collection with some free-trade and obviously currency benefits– alongside a fairly united Northern/Central/Eastern European Eurozone with a good deal of economic (and cultural) unity, and a separate, largely French-dominated “Latin Europe” southern zone. Ireland, Britain and Iceland would go in their own directions.

    Whatever the future of the union, nobody is ever going to allow free movement of the Turks. They’d ethnically and religiously overwhelm small Christian nations like Cyprus and Ireland, and even larger European states with already-enormous and fast-growing Muslim populations (England in particular) would become close to Muslim-majority overnight. It was never a popular idea to begin with, and there are a million roadblocks halting it. Small countries like Cyprus and Ireland will never allow it, nor will Greece, nor will many other nations with referenda or other measures. If anything, the opposition has only stiffened, and Turkey is looking more toward a sort of “Turkic union” instead.

    The best way to protect Turkey’s Christians, is simply to make Turkey a respected trading partner outside the EU, and looked upon as a modern nation with modern expectations. Japan, for example, is a thoroughly modern nation outside the EU, but it offers considerable religious tolerance because it wants to be seen and respected as a modern nation. Turkey should be given the same basic regard– not EU membership, but just the respect and responsibilities of a modern nation.

    Reply
    • Mar 10 2009

      Thank you very much for your extended response – there’s certainly food for thought here. I wonder if you read Boris Johnson’s The Dream of Rome – he writes towards the end about the Turkish EU question and has some useful insights. I guess a lot would depend the degree to which membership entails freedom of residence. Thanks for your input though.

      Reply

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  1. Turkish Despatches June 09 – 2: the courage to be known… « Quaerentia

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