It hardly needs saying, but spying did not stop with the collapse of Communism. But if spying continued, it naturally follows that so did betrayal. The haunting question provoked by every betrayal is, “Why?” Perhaps it was easier to understand during the Cold War. The globe’s ideological map was drawn all too clearly. However flawed the enemy might be, believing in their ideological stance always made it forgiving those flaws much easier. But what about today? Read more
A real gem this week. It’s on display in the painting studio at Chartwell, Churchill’s much-loved home in Kent. I couldn’t resist getting down his points verbatim when we paid a return visit over the summer.
It came as a shock when this was first pointed out to me. Or rather, to be more accurate, it was a shock when I first realised how true it was of me. For a pastor friend was pointing out how perfectly capable we all are of justifying any action to ourselves; and worse, how perfectly capable we all are of justifying any action in specifically spiritual terms. Read more
Just 3 nights in Istanbul hasn’t given a huge amount of time to see sights but I’ve had a few hours in between meetings. Managed to get to the old Chora Monastery (the most important remaining Byzantine church in the city, after the Hagia Sophia) and the vast Basilica Cisterns. Read more
Was in Istanbul last week doing some Langham training each evening. Which meant that I never got back to my B&B until quite late. Which also meant that I was able to pass some of the great sights after dark and when there were very few people around. Wonderful. Here are a few snaps.
- Top: Ataturk monument (Taksim Square); Blue Mosque exterior
- Bottom: Sultan Mausoleum (Hagia Sofia); Blue Mosque exterior
Most of the time i was in meetings – but I did have one free morning. So I was able to visit a couple of museums, the incomparable Istanbul Archaeological Museum and an Islamic Art Exhibition. Saw all kinds of things famous to those with an ancient historical bent. From the top:
- Statue of Shalmaneser III (Assyrian King, 858-824 BC); Bust of Augustus Caesar
- The Fountain of Life (in the Tiled Kiosk -Archaeological museum); Qu’ran calligraphy from AD1432 (Islamic Art exhibition)
Following on from yesterday’s post, Lewis offers a very helpful articulation of how the Western and Islamic worlds diverged so drastically over the last 500 years. From a situation of great and proud cultural preeminence, the Middle East seems to have stagnated and even regressed. How did this happen?
Hermetically Sealed Isolation
One factor was the complacent assumption that there was nothing to learn from those who were different from themselves (always a dangerous step). One illustration of this was the culture of learning foreign languages.
A translation requires a translator, and a translator has to know both languages… such knowledge, strange as it may seem, was extremely rare in the Middle East until comparatively late. There were very few Muslims who knew any Christian language; it was considered unnecessary, even to some extent demeaning. (p147)
So as Europe emerged from the medieval world into the flowering of learning we call the Renaissance, with its rediscovery of the texts of the ancients and the cross-fertilisaztion as well as tensions that arose from Europe’s different cultural identities, the Ottoman empire remained blissfully unaware. Very few European publications were ever translated, and the new-fangled printing press was largely absent, and in places even banned. Interestingly enough, this was not mutual. Various Arabic documents were translated into European languages by Renaissance scholars – including an important medical text about blood circulation that highly influenced one Dr Michael Servetus (yes, the very same person, familiar to those aware of some of the darker moments of Geneva’s Reformation history).
But the other way around? There’s hardly anything. And where there are translations into Middle Eastern languages, the reasoning is both obvious and revealing. For instance, medical treatises on the treatment of syphillis (called in the Ottoman world the ‘Frankish pox’) were fine for translation. (p39) After all ‘a European’ disease clearly requires European expertise! And then the only other major imports, acceptable for translation and assimilation, were European military strategy and the accompanying weaponry technology.
As time went on, then, the culture gap inevitably grew. There’s surely a lesson for all those who self-consciously avoid learning foreign languages – and even if people are not linguistically-minded or -gifted, to avoid engaging with other cultures is dangerously narrow.
While on the subject of translation, another revealing moment comes in the underlying assumptions of the Ottoman Sultan, Murad III, as he wrote to his enemy’s enemy, Queen Elizabeth I (a letter which bizarrely enough was the subject of very recent diplomatic niceties):
In the correspondence between the Sultan of Turkey and Queen Elizabeth of England at the end of the sixteenth century, the letters are mostly concerned with commerce, but they do occasionally refer to the common Spanish enemy, a shared concern of London and Istanbul at the time. It would be an exaggeration to call this an alliance, and it was certainly not on equal terms. In the documents, the sultan, addressing the queen, uses language indicating that he expects her to be “… loyal and firm-footed in the path of vassalage and obedience… and to manifest loyalty and subservience” to the Ottoman throne. The contemporary translation into Italian, which served as the medium of communication between Turks and Englishmen, simply renders this as sincera amicizia. This kind of diplomatic mistranslation was for centuries the norm. (p22)
Tolerance & Freedom
I’d often heard the Islamic claim to be a tolerant religion. And I confess that it had always been hard to see beyond the negative image painted by the Taliban, now, of course, a byword for profound intolerance. Yet the truth is that there is clearly some historical validity to this claim, as proven by the way people voted with their feet.
The confrontation between Ottoman Islam and European Christendom has often been likened to the Cold War of the second half of the twentieth century. There are indeed some similarities between the two confrontations, but also significant differences. Perhaps most notable among these is the movement of refugees. In the twentieth century this movement was, overwhelmingly, from East to West; in the fifteenth, sixteenth and even in the seventeenth centuries, it was primarily from West to East. Surely, the Ottomans did not offer equal rights to the subject – a meaningless anachronism in the context of that time and place. They did however offer a degree of tolerance without precedent and parallel in Christian Europe. Each religious community – the Ottoman term was millet – was allowed the free practice of its religion. More remarkably, they had their own communal organizations, subject to the authority of their own religious chiefs, controlling their own education and social life, and even enforcing their own laws, to the extent that they did not conflict with the basic laws of the Empire. While ultimate power – political and military – remained in Muslim hands, non-Muslims controlled much of the economy, and were even able to play a part of some importance in the political process. (p33)
I found this was very striking indeed.
Lewis does note, however, that many of the more aggressive propagators of Islam today would have little time for such attitudes. And furthermore, this tolerance and equality was by no means uniform (nor, to be fair, was it anywhere else). This is clear from the prevailing status of 3 groups of people, who, down the centuries, have suffered wherever they have lived: foreigners (or in an Islamic context, infidels), slaves and women. Lewis goes to some length to analyse their respective situations (and though he doesn’t draw the parallel, it reminded me of that old Jewish, Pharisaic prayer “Lord I thank you that I was not born a Gentile, a slave and woman.”) and makes this observation:
According to Islamic law and tradition, there were three groups of people who did not benefit from the general Muslim principle of legal and religious quality – unbelievers, slaves and women. The woman was obviously in one significant respect the worst-placed of the three. The slave could be freed by his master; the unbeliever could at any time become a believer by his own choice, and thus end his inferiority. Only the woman was doomed forever to remain what she was – or so it seemed at the time. (p67)
And therein lies a strange tension that is current in the Middle East. Lewis nicely articulates this as the difference between Westernisation and Modernisation. Thus:
[Western dress has] become powerful emotive symbols of cultural choice. They are especially so in Turkey and Iran, the two countries that most clearly formulate the alternative choices and alternative futures that confront the Muslim – and not only the Muslim – Middle East. For men to wear Western clothes, it would seem is modernisation; for women to wear them is Westernization, to be welcomed or punished accordingly. (p76)
But this is where the biggest difference with gospel equality truly lies. And for me, this was the most revealing thing of the book…
But no grace…
It is often said that Islam is an egalitarian religion. There is much truth in this assertion. If we compare Islam at the time of its advent with the societies that surrounded it – the stratified feudalism of Iran and the caste system of India to the east, the privileged aristocracies of both Byzantine and Latin Europe to the West – the Islamic dispensation does indeed bring a message of equality. Not only does Islam not endorse such systems of social differentiation; it explicitly and resolutely rejects them. The actions and utterances of the Prophet, the honoured precedents of the early rulers of Islam as preserved by tradition, are overwhelmingly against privilege by descent, by birth, by status, by wealth, or even by race, and insist that rank and honour are determined only by piety and merit in Islam. (my highlights)
The realities of conquest and empire, however, inevitably created new elites and in the natural course of events these sought to perpetuate for their descendants the advantages that they had gained. From early until modern times there has been a recurring tendency in Islamic states for aristocracies to emerge. These are differently defined and arise from varying circumstances at different times and in different places. What is significant is that the emergence of elites or casts or aristocracies happens in spite of Islam and not as part of it. Again and again through Islamic history the establishment of privilege was seen and denounced by both severely traditional conservatives and dubiously orthodox radicals as a non-Islamic or even an anti-Islamic innovation….
… none of these movements ever questioned the three sacrosanct distinctions establishing the subordinate status of the slave, the woman and the unbeliever. (p82)
So therein lies the problem. There will always be a clear set of distinctions in the community – and I don’t just mean slaves, women and infidels. I mean an even more profound and alarming distinction. That formed by personal merit. For in the Christian gospel (as Galatians, for one, is at pains to make clear) the true reason why there is no status distinction whatsoever between Slave & Free, Jew & Gentile, Male & Female is the double whammy of our creation in the divine image, and the wonder of divine grace. (Galatians 3:28-29) In other words, a religion of grace alone can bring true equality, in a way that a religion of merit and works never can.
Not on our watch…
This is certainly a fascinating book and I learned much. I don’t think I’m much the wiser in answering the specific question of the title, though. Perhaps the book is too short (at only 160 pp) and the issue is so deep and complex. Or perhaps the question is not quite the right one. As a description of how (as opposed to why) the shifts in balances of power happened, this is a helpful analysis. What’s certainly clear is that history is messy, that the Christians in history certainly didn’t get it all sorted, and that there were many aspects of Islamic culture and history from which there is much to learn. This thought did cross my mind though: ‘Christian’ societies fared little better, and were often much worse, than other cultures as soon as they lost their moorings in the gospel of grace.
Pray that we never allow that to happen under our watch.
I’d not really appreciated before quite how controversial Bernard Lewis (left) is seen in some circles (perhaps especially because he was regularly consulted by the Bush administration – though others had before him). But one of the foremost western scholars of Islam is a Jewish, British-born and now naturalised American, professor emeritus at Princeton. He has written many books and offered profoundly nuanced and scholarly reflections on the knotty issue of Islam’s relationship with the wider world – which is of course perhaps the biggest unresolved question of our times. He is feted or reviled (depending on your perspective) as the originator of the phrase (so famously taken up by Samuel Huntington in his book of the same name) ‘the clash of civilisations‘.
I’m returning to Turkey next week for a few days and so wanted to read this book, on the recommendation of a friend I was with in Albania last month. It was written in 2000/2001 on the back of a series of lectures (and summarised in this 2002 article from Atlantic Monthly) – but then published very soon after 9/11. Pretty timely, then.
A very provocative question!
Lewis asks a provocative but very significant question. How did the centuries-old Islamic civilisation, which was by any measure, an extraordinary historical phenomenon – fall so behind the rest of the world? It’s all the more surprising when it is recognised that they had been at the forefront of scientific, artistic and philosophical development, when the rest of Europe and many parts of Asia were in chaotic turmoil. Of course, the ‘Dark Ages’ is in many ways an unfair misnomer. But Europe wasn’t a patch on the Ottoman and Persian empires for example. And then from, say, the 1450s onwards, the tables started turning. As Lewis says:
… the Renaissance, the Reformation, the technological revolution passed virtually unnoticed in the lands of Islam, where they were still inclined to dismiss the denizens of the lands beyond the Western frontier as benighted barbarians, much inferior even to the more sophisticated Asian infidels to the east. These had useful skills and devices to impart; the Europeans had neither. It was a judgement that had for long been reasonably accurate. It was becoming dangerously out of date. (p7)
One example, which seems to remain to this day, is the issue of economics and manufacturing.
Later attempts to catch up with the Industrial Revolution fared little better. Unlike the rising power of Asia, most of which started from a lower economic base than the Middle East, the countries in the region still lag behind in investment, job creation, productivity and therefore in exports and incomes. According to a World Bank estimate, the total exports of the Arab world other than fossil fuels amount to less than those of Finland, a country of five million inhabitants. Nor is much coming into the region by way of capital investment. On the contrary, wealthy Middle Easterners prefer to invest their capital abroad, in the developed world. (p47)
I suppose the one exception to this is investment in property (as opposed to Middle Eastern oil revenues). But as Dubai’s recent meltdown has shown, this is built on sand (in more ways than one). To make matters worse, the cultural climate underpinning the business world leaves many things to be desired. Lewis offers this astute, if somewhat barbed, observation:
The difference between Middle Eastern and Western economic approaches can be seen even in their distinctive forms of corruption, from which neither society is exempt. In the West, one makes money in the market, and uses it buy or influence power. In the East, one seizes power, and uses it to make money. Morally there is no difference between the two, but their impact on the economy and on the polity is very different. (p63)
It’s hard to deny the truth of either claim – though why restrict it to the Islamic Middle East? It could certainly be said to be true of many parts of so-called ‘Christian’ sub-Saharan Africa, as we discovered more than once when we lived in Uganda.
The problem with Islamic Secularism
The book’s title question is certainly a loaded one, presupposing, for example, that the west went right. And towards the end of the book, it’s clear from his perceptions of so-called fundamentalist Islam (a description he takes issue with) that there are many from Bin Laden down who feel that Islam failed precisely when it attempted to assimilate western development.
A good illustration of this problem is the wildly divergent attitudes to secularism, which was perceived by some in the Islamic world as (rightly or wrongly) being essential to European success. The problems were inherent at the start it seems:
Secularism in the modern political meaning – the idea that religion and political authority, church and state are different, and can or should be separated – is, in a profound sense, Christian. Its origins may be traced in the teachings of Christ, confirmed by the experience of the first Christians; its later development was shaped and, in a sense, imposed by the subsequent history of Christendom. The persecutions endured by the early church made it clear that a separation between the two was possible; the persecutions inflicted by the later churches persuaded many Christians that such a separation was necessary.
… in this, the practice of Christianity was in marked contrast with both its precursors and its competitors. (p96)
Of course, as a Christian, it is interesting to read this analysis. For many are alarmed about what is perceived as a creeping secularising agenda in European and American society, whereby religious faith (and Christian faith in particular) are being deliberately privatised and marginalised. But that’s a whole other issue!
And yet, despite its Christian origins, I was very struck by the fact that one of the reasons why Muslims started taking secularism seriously was the 1789 French Revolution (which came at a time when Europe’s social, political, economic and cultural development was far outstripping the Ottoman world). The urgency to catch up and not be left behind was growing – but the attraction for some in the revolution was that it wasn’t Christian.
The first Muslim encounter with secularism was in the French Revolution, which they say, not as secular (a word and concept equally meaningless to them at the time), but as de-Christianised, and therefore deserving of some consideration. All previous movements of ideas in Europe had been, to a greater or lesser extent, Christian, at least in their expression, and were accordingly discounted in advance from a Muslim point of view. The French Revolution was the first movement of ideas in Europe that was seen as non-Christian or even anti-Christian, and some Muslims therefore looked to France in the hope of finding, in these ideas, the motors of Western science and progress, freed from Christian encumbrances. These ideas provided the main ideological inspiration of many of the modernising and reforming movements in the Islamic world in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. (p104)
Yet the problem with such secularising agendas is that they run completely counter to an Islamic worldview – where there is no dualism between civil and sacred, for example. The attempt to force the distinction is one reason why there has been such a strong reaction against it:
The arch-enemy for most of them is Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the Turkish Republic and the first great secularising reformer in the Muslim world. Characters as diverse as King Faruq and Presidents Nasser and Sadat in Egypt, Hafiz al-Asad in Syria and Saddam Hussein in Iraq, the Shah of Persia and the kings and princes of Arabia, were denounced as the most dangerous enemies of Islam, the enemies from within.
[Muhammad ‘Abd al-Salam Faraj, the ideological guide of the group that murdered President Sadat of Egypt [wrote]:
Fighting the near enemy is more important than fighting the distant enemy. In jihad, the blood of the Muslims must flow until victory is achieved… There can be no doubt that the first battlefield of the jihad is the extirpation of these infidel leaderships and their replacement by a perfect Islamic order. From this will come release. (p107)
This culture clash (and I use the word only because Lewis does) over the appropriateness of secularism explains a great deal about the tensions we see around. I’ll follow this up tomorrow with some other things i picked up from this fascinating book.
Some good friends have been involved in this great project, a 30 minute documentary called The Jesus Accounts. Filmed in Istanbul and in the UK, it is designed to help those who are sceptical about the NT documents (especially those from a muslim background). It draws on the expertise of a number of excellent NT scholars. It helpfully explains the background to the spread of the first manuscripts, giving details of the creation of papyrus and vellum parchment. Real highlights include the John Rylands fragment in Manchester, and footage of St Catherine’s monastery at Sinai in Egypt, where the Codex Sinaiticus originated.
The production values are excellent and the content stimulating. It is thoroughly recommended. Here is a 90 second trailer to whet appetites.
It’s coming out soon, so click here to register interest in getting hold of it.
There is a play on words that gets lost in translation from Turkish into English. I am by no means a Turkish speaker (as if), and I only discovered it when looking up information about the town in which Orhan Pamuk’s celebrated 2002 book is set. Pamuk won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2006 and the citation said that he:
in the quest for the melancholic soul of his native city has discovered new symbols for the clash and interlacing of cultures.
One of my reading habits/disciplines is to try to read about every place I work in or visit. One of the dangerous joys of living near the unsurpassed Daunt Books is that it feeds this habit perfectly! If you don’t know it, Daunt’s warrants a visit to London W1 all by itself. Its genius is simple – a travel bookshop that groups fiction, history, maps and guidebooks altogether, by country and region. Now why don’t they all do that.
Because my Langham Partnership work takes me to Turkey twice a year (see various previous posts), I’ve been reading quite a lot about the country and its history over the last few months. I picked this book up there as a result and couldn’t put it down. Some may be familiar with Giles Milton’s other books (like Nathaniel’s Nutmeg and Big Chief Elizabeth etc) and he is a wonderful writer. This is no exception, though the focus is of a particularly dark chapter in European history. Read more
After lunch yesterday, and before our next meeting, one of my Turkish friends and I wandered through the mayhem of Beşiktaş’ backstreets. In the middle of the market place is an old Greek Orthodox church (they have a web presence of sorts here). You’d miss it if you didn’t know it was there – the only indication is a chi-rho symbol above the lintel of an old door set deep in a white-washed wall. Apparently, there is a cool, tree-covered courtyard on the other side (see right), which is no doubt a real refuge from the fierceness of the midday sun.
But I say ‘apparently’ because we never made it through the door. The Muslim shopkeeper next door advised us that the church never receives visitors but we tried our luck anyway. And there was just a voice on the intercom who said “we’re closed – we only take visitors from 9-11 on Sunday mornings”.
Now if you know anything about the fate of Orthodox Christians since the fall of the ottoman Empire, then you’ll know that this siege mentality is entirely understandable. 1000s upon 1000s of ethnic Greeks were forcibly removed from the new Turkey (see despatch 3) – and having been a large, thriving community, the Istanbul Greek community is now minuscule.
But one thing that has changed is that Turkey is experiencing the relatively new phenomenon of Turkish Christians (if an Ottoman Muslim converted, he/she was simply executed as was the one who evangelised). And they face incomprehension, opposition, and sometimes vicious hostility. I’ve touched on this in a number of previous blog posts, of course.
But as various people have related their experiences of all of this to me, i’ve been greatly impressed by people’s willingness to face suffering. That it will happen goes without saying here. But how you respond to it… well that’s a different matter. In Antakya, one believer described the nightmare the family have because of their neighbour: Constant abuse and insults shouted from the upstairs rooftop living area. To which the believer said, we have to love him. The reason is obvious: even though we might be treated as enemies, Jesus commands us to love our enemies.
And then it struck me like a thunderbolt. It’s completely obvious – and I’m sure you’ve thought of it often. But i’m slow of brain and it had never occurred to me. In order to love your enemies, you’ve got to have enemies! Of course, I DO NOT mean we go out looking for enemies! Jesus is simply getting at the point that people in the world treat us as their enemies. And you will only have that if you are out there. You see:
- Loving your enemies is a discipleship imperative that you can only obey WHEN YOU HAVE ENEMIES.
- And you’ll only have enemies if you are out there trying to do your best to live for Christ, flaws and all.
- And you can only show your love for those who treat you like this if you try to be in relationship with your enemies..
I understand the siege mentality completely. And I can so easily see myself succumbing to it. But a locked door and an intercom will never provide opportunities to love, however hostile the people we encounter are.
My Turkish brothers and sisters have showed me that – and i have found that a profound challenge.
I have a bit of a thing about panoramas. So here are a few I’ve compiled this time around.
The Mountains near Samandağ (pronounced “Samandar”)
Appropriately enough, I’ve just finished Louis de Bernières’ Birds Without Wings while here in Turkey. And I have to say that it is quite simply one of the most breathtaking and moving novels I’ve ever read.
It’s crafted on an epic scale (600+ pages), and has a fascinating dual focus:
- at the MICRO level, we get to know and love the many and varied inhabitants of Eskibahçe, a small fictitious town near the Aegean coast (placed not far from Telmessos, now called Fethiye)
- at the MACRO level, we follow the determined but bumpy path of Mustafa Kemal, as he forges the modern Turkey out of the embers of the defunct Ottoman Empire, becoming the father of the new nation, Atatürk. Read more
On Sunday, I had the joy and privilege of being able to preach at a small Anglican church that meets in the Swedish Chapel in Istanbul (it is on the compound of the Swedish consulate – many independent and newer churches have to meet in diplomatic or foreign-owned buildings because it is so difficult for Turkish Christians to get access to property in Turkey). They are a small group, but they have been meeting (in various different shapes and forms) here for a number of years.
Engin, the pastor, told me about a Sunday in the early 90s: he was leading a service when an elderly man came in half-way through and sat down at the back. And for the rest of the service, he was silently weeping. Afterwards, Engin went to talk with him to find out what, if anything, was wrong.
It transpired that he was an Armenian Christian who had been a member of a small community of believers that met in the building back in the 50s. He had since emigrated to the USA where he had been living since. He was just passing through Istanbul on business that weekend, so he decided to pop into to see if anyone was still meeting in the chapel. He was overwhelmed by what he found – because back in the 50s, he had prayed that the day would come when Turkish believers would be meet in the building. Back in the 50s, that seemed almost like an impossibility – simply because there hardly were any. But in the 90s – and since – the prayer has been wonderfully answered. Amazing!
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.