A Turkish believer spotlights Turkey’s rich biblical history, the challenges faced by its present-day Church, and the fight for the soul of this influential country.
Today’s Turkey is the host of some 2000 years of biblical and Church history. Most of its visitors and even its citizens, could be forgiven for not realising how central its land has been in the emergence and development of Christianity.
The story of the land of Turkey goes all the way back to the Old Testament, with Mount Ararat, where Noah landed on dry land, remaining as a mysterious reminder of the land’s ancient links. Abraham lived in Haran, whose ruins are in Turkey today, and it was there that he received his call from the Lord to leave his native land. Ezekiel’s prophecy against Gog of the land of Magog is directed at this land. And ancient civilisations mentioned in the Old Testaments, like the Hittites, lived and disappeared there.
In the New Testament, we first start reading about parts of today’s Turkey in the Acts of the Apostles and in the Letters to the Christian communities emerging there. Ephesus, Colossae and Galatia are towns and regions in Turkey. The Apostle Paul was born in Tarsus and much of his ministry was in lands we call Turkey today. The seven churches of Revelation were all located here: Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamos, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea. It’s significant that the very first distinct Christian church and the first time the word “Christian” was used was in the ancient city of Antioch, or Antakya in present-day Turkey.
In fact, after the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70, the land assumed a central place for the development of Christianity. The first seven Ecumenical Councils and the discussions involved in them, between AD 325 and AD 787, played fundamental roles in shaping the beliefs and practices of both Catholic and Orthodox churches. Ultimately, they also led to the “Great Schism” of 1054 that has separated the Eastern and Western Churches ever since. All of these councils were named after and held in four cities that are in modern-day Turkey: Nicaea, Constantinople, Ephesus and Chalcedon.
Those who know their Church history will be aware of the importance of a group of theologians known as the Cappadocian Fathers. Basil, Gregory of Nyssa and Gregory of Nazianzus were central in developing the Christian understanding of the Trinity that was agreed at the Council of Constantinople in 381 and expressed in the Nicene Creed. Cappadocia was a major Christian centre with monasteries, churches and places of refuge carved in caves and underground in a remarkable landscape.
We can travel to Turkey today and see traces of those ancient cities and societies in many historic sites and in place names adopted by more modern cities.
A lost past
But this rich history also raises the question of what the legacies of these are to Turkish society today. Most Turks have no idea of the deep Christian and biblical history of their land. Nor are they aware that Turkey was home to a sizeable Christian community right up to World War 1, or that many remained as late as the 1950s.
Since then, policies of assimilation, marginalisation and population exchanges between Greece and Turkey have shrunk the number of Christians in Turkey to less than 100,000. This generous ballpark figure includes Armenians, Greeks, Assyrians, Syriacs, a small number of Levantine Catholics, and some 4,000 or so Protestants, most of whom are Turkish and first- or second-generation Christians. In a population of more than 80 million and with more than 99 per cent self-identifying as Muslims, Turkey remains one of the largest countries in the world with the smallest percentage of Christians.
Challenges for the Church
In the 1990s and early 2000s, many Christian groups sought to reach out and spread the Gospel in Turkey. Most of these initiatives have come to an end. Those involved found it difficult to conduct ministry both in a country that has a long and sensitive history and where state and public view Christian activities through a lens of historic mistrust and the belief that threatening Western agendas lie behind them.
Today, the signs are mixed. Events in the country in the last five years have brought many local believers to the point of thinking about leaving. There are fears of persecution in the wake of historic changes in politics and governance. Many foreign Christians are having their work permits or visas cancelled. Local believers and church leaders are asking whether traditional models of ministry and church planting by outsiders should change or alter substantially. Most recognise that the most important role to be played by foreign Christians is to support and enable locally led churches and to focus not only on teaching the faith but on ensuring an enduring presence and witness of Christians in the land.
Turkey is an influential player in the region, a major member of NATO, and a key country sitting on the intersection of geopolitics, geo-economics, and geo-energy fault lines. It is hosting the largest refugee population in the world, more than 4 million Syrians. It faces tremendous challenges from thousands of ISIS militants on its borders, and a separatist insurgency from the militant Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) that has claimed 30,000 Turkish and Kurdish lives. It has been seeing a serious deterioration in its democratic, human rights and governance standards.
On the international front, Turkey is directly involved with the conflict in Syria and now in Libya. It has long-running, unsolved stand-offs with Cyprus and Armenia, and occasional tensions with Greece. It has uneasy relations with an aggressive Russia and with neighbouring Iran, and at times with the Western alliance that seeks to keep Turkey closer to itself.
In domestic and foreign policies, there is a fight for the soul of Turkey and its place amid today’s many political and military challenges and alliances. But there is also a deeper fight in the soul of Turkey, in the legacy of its forgotten history and the small number of Christians who are trying to live their lives as peaceful and positive witnesses and to secure a future in their own homeland. If Turkey loses its Christian populations, like most other places in the Middle East, it will lose a deep part of its own story. And the global Church will have let down the lands that gave so much to it.