Turkey, Christians and religious freedom?
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.