Pastor Ramazan Arkan leads two congregations in Antalya, southern Turkey, just 12 miles from where Paul and Barnabas planted a church in New Testament times. He shares his own journey to Christ and how a growing church is reaching out to many young seekers in this city of two million people.
Like most people, Ramazan Arkan is often faced with the question “What do you do?” When he answers that he is a pastor, they always follow up with another one: “Where do you come from?”
They cannot believe that anyone can be a Turk and a Christian, he explains. Turkish identity is very much wrapped up in the country’s main religion – even though most Turks are actually quite secular.
Today Ramazan pastors Antalya Evangelical Church, a growing church of two congregations in the south coast Turkish resort of Antalya. But he once shared his fellow Turks’ misconceptions. “I used to believe what people taught me and was very dedicated, practising my religion every day,” he says.
It was at high school, when atheist and communist friends threw questions at him he couldn’t answer, that Ramazan began to study his religion and scriptures more closely. “I thought it would give answers to all my questions and doubts,” he says. “But in fact the opposite happened.”
The answers that his spiritual leaders gave to his questions were unconvincing so for a time Ramazan drifted into atheism. A turning point came through a close friendship with a Christian work colleague.
“I had never met a Christian until that time and we argued over many things,” Ramazan remembers. “Every time I lost because everything I thought I knew about Christianity – from society and television – was all wrong. I told myself that if I read the Bible I could show my friend he was wrong too: maybe I could find some contradictions in the Bible.”
So Ramazan obtained a Bible from his friend and began to study it. He also accepted his friend’s invitation to go to his church, even though he admits he was more interested in finding a girlfriend than meeting God!
In fact, there were no young women his age among the small fellowship of 15 people. But they were so kind to him that he carried on going for the next two and a half years. “I liked them because of their friendship and because of their lifestyle,” Ramazan said.
At age 20, like other male citizens in Turkey, Ramazan began a year’s military service. He didn’t enjoy it and suffered with depression. But then the verses he had read in the Bible came back to him. “I was on a night duty and started remembering verses of invitation from God,” Ramazan explains. He said he became very aware of God’s presence and felt like Jesus’ hand was on him. As a result, Ramazan bowed down and gave his life to Christ.
“After that, everything changed,” Ramazan says. Straight after finishing military service, he returned to that small church and was baptised. Ramazan quickly began to serve in the church and was given occasional opportunities to preach.
“I felt God was calling me to something bigger,” he says and shared this with the church leaders. As there are currently no Bible schools in Turkey, he trained within the church and through a correspondence course. Three years later, he became the church’s pastor.
Now, after 17 years of leading the church, he sees how God has grown a tiny fellowship begun in 1990 by a Swiss couple, to a flourishing, mission-minded church of over 180 people.
“Until 1999, we were 12 people meeting in homes or similar places,” Ramazan says. But when an international church for foreign workers and tourists opened a purpose-built cultural centre in the old town of Antalya, Ramazan’s Turkish congregation began to rent the premises. At that time there were only 22 members, but numbers started to increase rapidly.
The cultural centre was the first modern church building in Antalya and received lots of media attention. Although some of it was negative, God used the coverage to spread awareness of the church to many who were curious to see what Christianity offers.
Ramazan explains that older generations have been influenced by religious and nationalist leaders who have long claimed, “Christians are trying to destroy our culture and land”. Young adults, however, are far more open-minded. Many have been unhappy with changes introduced under the governments of President Erdogan’s AK Parti (Justice and Development Party). Aware that the party is led by conservative Muslims, some have begun looking for alternatives in other faiths, Ramazan says. “Almost all our visitors are young people.”
Learning from television
Ignorance and misinformation about Christianity has been entrenched since the birth of modern Turkey when national and religious identity were closely intertwined. Since Turkish language broadcasts began on SAT-7 in 2006, it has played an important part in challenging these views and in supporting Turkish believers, Ramazan says.
“Many people in my church watch SAT-7,” he says. He is excited that they have the opportunity to hear from other Christian leaders. “Our culture learns from television. Everything they see on TV is more real to them. I see that SAT-7 is becoming more and more professional and more and more interesting.”
Sections of the media also make many allegations against Turkey’s small Christian community (some 0.2 per cent of the population). “We don’t have a platform to defend ourselves,” Ramazan says, “but when people hear from SAT-7, then these ideas will change.”
And he thinks the channel’s potential to equip believers is just as important as its role in presenting the Gospel. SAT-7 helps to overcome the shortage of Turkish language literature and resources that enable believers to mature and live out their faith in a sometimes hostile environment.
The Antalya church is equally committed to outreach and discipleship. Its decision to start a second congregation just six years after moving into the cultural centre was sparked by two realisations. First, the interest of young people and need to reach out and, second, the recognition that church-planting gives more opportunity to train active disciples. Now, a second congregation meets in eastern Antalya, both churches have their own pastors, and Ramazan focuses more on mentoring and training leaders.
“Our vision is to reach more people in Antalya,” Ramazan says. “Two million people live here and there are only 450 Christians.” Some 250 of these have come from abroad, worshipping in the international church, in German and Greek Orthodox churches and in two recently established Iranian congregations.
The Antalya Evangelical Church has a vision to multiply churches and to split and plant a new congregation elsewhere in the city or in neighbouring towns every time it reaches 200 people. “Probably in four years’ time, we will start another church in the west of Antalya”, Ramazan says.
Visionary and enthusiastic, he points out that there were no Christians in the area until Paul and Barnabas preached Christ at nearby Perga during their first missionary journey in AD 46-48. He believes that God wants to build his Church again in Turkey.
“Christianity is growing in Antalya and not only here but in the whole of Turkey,” Ramazan says. “I believe that what God did two thousand years ago in this land He will do again. Now He has to use me and other people instead of Paul and Barnabas!”
- A recent government report found that many young Turks have become “deists” – they still believe in God but have given up on religion, or at least religion as they have known it. Pray that many of them will encounter the Good News of Jesus, through a friend, a church like Ramazan’s, or through SAT-7.
- “Most people in my church have been rejected by their own families,” Ramazan says. Turkish society is very relational and those who choose to follow Christ typically face intense family pressure leading some to abandon their faith. The ability of churches to be a surrogate family, offering hospitality, love and support can be vital for new Christians to remain and mature in their faith. Pray for this.
- Evangelical churches like the Antalya congregations often use Christmas and Easter as outreach opportunities. The Antalya church gets local authority permission to go out into a public place to sing and distribute New Testaments. The Turkish constitution guarantees freedom of religion and authorities will arrange police protection at these outreach events. Give thanks for these opportunities and pray for their effectiveness.
- SAT-7 TÜRK has a significant strategic role in explaining the Christian faith accurately to Turkish seekers, in being an on-screen family to isolated Christians, and in deepening the relationship of Turkish believers to Christ. Pray for the channel’s relatively small team and for its vision to impact Turkey increasingly for God.
- Pastor Ramazan recently became a member of a new board of directors of the Association of Protestant Churches in Turkey (TEK). A number of its members including new president, Ali Kalkandelen, are involved with SAT-7 as presenters or in other ways. Please pray for them as they manage many responsibilities and have this national leadership role.
Donate now to support SAT-7 TÜRK, SAT-7’s Turkish language channel that makes God’s love visible to Turkish-speaking people.