Turkish pastor Zekai Tanyar is a former chair of the Evangelical Alliance in his country. In the first half of a two-part interview he offers SAT-7 an update on the life of the Protestant Church in Turkey.
How are current events affecting the Church in Turkey?
The situation in Syria and Iraq hasn’t had negative effects on the Church apart from seeing so much human suffering. There are 1.5 million refugees from Syria and Iraq in Turkey. What did happen is that some of the churches in South Eastern Turkey – around Diyarbikir, Mardin and Van – took a very active role in channelling humanitarian aid to refugees, particularly Yazidis.
There are only three to four churches in this vast area, so their efforts have been tremendous (with the backing of the wider local church). They have left many church activities aside to help these desperate people.
Outside of that there’s gradual growth in all of the fellowships, some new ones popping up here and there. Of course, it’s very different from the early 1980s when the number of Protestant fellowships was a handful in a country three times the size of Britain. Even now in Eastern Turkey, the size of Britain, there are only six or seven churches and they are very small fellowships.
Do any of the historic churches have a presence in these areas?
The Mardin area is a major area of the Assyrian Orthodox Church. The area still has several monasteries which date back to the fourth century and are still operating. Elsewhere, there are only a handful of Orthodox and a handful of Catholic churches that have some form of presence. Apart from Mardin, which is a big, historic town, they’re mostly rural, traditional areas where there’s not much industry, mainly farming and some tourism, but it’s a major transport route into Northern Iraq.
A lot of the Assyrians moved to other countries. Some left during the  genocide, but many have moved out since the 1970s. There has been economic pressure and political pressure on them, in some cases to get their land. Some of it is harassment, some leave purely for economic reasons. Many are now in countries like Germany and Sweden.
There are hardly any Armenians in that area. The First World War was a major tragedy for the peoples of this region. Some were even assimilated into families from that era and became Muslims. A small number are now rediscovering their roots and a few are going back to being Christians. Many are descended from children or women taken in by families. More and more biographies are coming out of people who have discovered that their grandmother or some ancestor was Armenian.
The good thing is that the atrocities, the whole tragedy of what happened, has been written and talked about much more in the last 15 years. Some authors have publicly said this was a genocide and, praise God, there is much more openness to discuss it.
As Protestant churches we are a mix of Muslim Background Believers (MBBs) and Armenian Evangelical churches. We’ve always related closely and there is no animosity at all as far as the churches and believers are concerned. When there were hardly any MBB fellowships, that’s where some Turkish believers were going and some fellowships are still mixed.
If the Church of Christ does not live in repentance and forgiveness who will?
The wonderful thing is there have been steps to find reconciliation with churches outside Turkey. We recently had a gathering in Istanbul with about 20 church leaders from US Protestant Armenian Evangelicals and about 20 or so from Armenia. We had a couple of days of real reconciliation, forgiving and asking forgiveness, acknowledging hatred. It was a healing process and we hope that such steps of deep reconciliation will spread more widely. If the Church of Christ does not live in repentance and forgiveness who will?
Changes and challenges
We estimate there are currently around 100 Protestant churches throughout the country, about 50 per cent of them house fellowships. Others will have some sort of meeting place. Most churches rent a shop floor or an office.
A new law since 2005 allows churches to register as associations and there are now around 30 of these. Before that the churches had no legal identity as such, but our efforts as churches and EU stipulations prompted Turkey to change its association laws to allow the formation of associations that were religious in character.
In theory, as an association you can rent a public building but if you say you are using it for worship authorities back pedal because they are afraid of being accused of cooperating with missionaries. Any type of missionary activity is seen as anti-state, anti-Turkish, a danger to the country. People don’t want to be seen as cooperating in supporting the propagation of Christianity. So, although it’s not illegal, you can’t just rent a community hall or a village hall.
There are a few churches in Istanbul where there are old, historic church buildings that are in little use and their custodians allow Protestant churches to use these. There are a few Armenian churches and an Anglican church where they allow churches to meet, for example. But outside Istanbul few such buildings exist.
How can SAT-7 TURK’s arrival on Turksat help change these perceptions and the misinformation about Christianity?
It’s a major step. For those people involved with it it’s been a lot of effort and lots of prayer. It is a spiritual breakthrough. It’s going to help to chip away at the prejudice. It would be unrealistic to expect things to change overnight. We’re talking of centuries of prejudices and fears. These are great big thick walls, but every time people see and hear and think, “Oh, I didn’t know that”, “I didn’t see [Christians] like that”, it chips away so every bit helps. And I’m sure that for some people it will go further than just having a change in their view but it will make them seek the Lord by hearing the Bible, biblical truth and testimonies directly.
It takes more courage to go into a bookshop and buy a Bible whereas in the privacy of your home you can switch to a channel and watch without other people raising their eyebrows. Sadly, most bookshops won’t stock Bibles or will have just one copy, so it’s not as if they can find it easily. Mind you, nowadays there is always the internet: we even have Bible Correspondence courses out there. The stigma of showing interest in Christianity is much stronger in a more rural area. In cosmopolitan Istanbul nobody cares but in a smaller town, you won’t find a Bible in a bookshop. But on SAT-7 not only are you finding a New Testament but also getting teaching on it. So I’m sure when we look back and and if we can track it, you will probably see a major step up in response to the Gospel in the coming years at in the same way that in the 1980s a new translation of the Bible saw a step up in responses and in growth of the believers. I am sure this is going to have a similar if not greater effect because it’s a much wider spread thing. Also we’re sure there are lots of secret believers out there so it will help strengthen them.
Read second part of this interview – supporting new Christian believers through the pain this brings to families