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Turkey in perspective

October 1998 | by David Winch

Ruins at Ephesus
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To the strangers scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia [Minor], and Bithynia … Grace to you and peace be multiplied’ (1 Peter l: l-2). Peter was speaking to first-century Christians inhabiting today’s Turkey. Similarly, the Lord of the Church sent John to minister in Ephesus (in western Turkey), and the Holy Spirit moved the missionary church of Antioch (in southern Turkey) to send Paul and Barnabas to Turkey’s ancient towns and villages.

In the early centuries of the Christian Church, God abundantly blessed these regions. In spite of persecution, the advance of the gospel emptied pagan temples, and West Turkey, or Byzantium, became, for a time, the most Christian place in the world. Later it was host to the early universal Christian councils of Nicaea, Ephesus, Constantinople and Chalcedon. By contrast, twentieth-century Turkey is a monument to Christ’s warning that the church which loses ‘its first love’ will be extinguished (Revelation 2:4-5).

God’s rod

The Turks, simple nomadic tribespeople who filtered in from the east, were ‘God’s rod’ to execute this judgement. In the momentous Battle of Malazgirt (north west of Lake Van) in A.D. 1071, the comparatively sophisticated Byzantine troops were decisively defeated by horse-riding Turks with their bows and arrows. (By this time, most of the Turkish tribes had come under the sway of Islam). Gradually, Turks spread over the settled lands of the broken Byzantine Empire, taking control of nominally Christian peoples who were content to accept both the administration and religion of their invaders. With the fall of Constantinople in 1453, the last glimmer of gospel light was extinguished.

Ottoman policy allowed some ‘Christian’ communities (Armenian, Assyrian, Greek) to continue in ghettos, keeping their religion and church buildings as long as they refrained from proselytising. This policy promoted the distinctively conservative, ritualistic and inward-looking character of Eastern Orthodoxy, which still clings to its archaic and unfamiliar languages. For four centuries Turkey was virtually forgotten by the church of the west.

From the 1840s onwards, however, it was amongst these minority non-Turkish ‘Christian’ groups that Protestant American missionaries first laboured. Their vision was that Muslim Turks might be reached by re-evangelised ‘Christian’, non-Turkish communities. In 1859 a surprise edict from the Sultan announced that all citizens were free to choose their own religion. Small Christian groups began to form among the Turks, until the authorities, taking fright, imprisoned and punished all Christian Turks, and deported the missionaries involved.

Twentieth century

However, during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the Protestant evangelical church experienced considerable growth within the minority communities. One writer says, ‘In 1905 the Swedish missionary evangelist, Fredrik Franson, visited Turkey for a preaching tour … He came to Marash for one night, but ended up preaching every night for six solid weeks. People from every background — Protestant, Catholic, Gregorian and Muslim — packed the church, clinging onto the doors and windows so that they could hear the Word of God. The church was crowded hours before the meeting was due to begin. Hundreds were converted as Franson preached on the need for repentance, the joy of obedience to the will of God, the transience of human life, and the certainty of judgement to come’ (Bruce Farnham).

Armenians marched by Turkish soldiers (Armenian genocide 1915)
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As in 1859, reaction against such developments came swiftly. Within three years, Franson was dead and twenty-seven of the local believers massacred. Within fifteen years the church building was burnt down. This occurred at a time when a paranoid Turkish government was either killing or deporting hundreds of thousands of Armenians. The pogrom had the effect of removing the revived churches and communities from Turkey.

Arriving in Turkey as newly-weds in 1966, Ann and I were warmly welcomed by small groups of non-Turkish, evangelical believers, but we could discover no more than two converted Turks! Readers will understand, therefore, that it is with a joyful sense of the grace and mercy of God that we report today’s signs of progress. We estimate that there are now about 2,000 truly converted Christians in Turkey. Istanbul has an estimated ten Turkish churches. Izmir has four or five churches, Antalya two, Bursa, Gaziantep, Trabzon and Antakya one each. Even Diyarbakir, at the centre of Kurkish troubles, has a small gathering of Christians. Other major cities have small gatherings of Turkish believers too.

Persecution

Turkish Christians have special problems to contend with in a Muslim society, which emphasises outward forms. Its tightly knit families exert pressure on their members to conform to religious and cultural norms. Converts to Christ can find themselves rejected and cut off from family inheritance or family help with education. They may have problems finding work and accommodation and, even when employed, face harassment and victimisation in their workplace.

Finding a marriage partner, too, can be a major problem for a believer. He cannot accept his family’s proposition of a Muslim partner. At the same time suitable marriage partners within the church community are often unacceptable to Muslim parents on class or racial grounds. In spite of all these problems, there is a high calibre of Christian discipleship displayed by a new generation of Turkish believers.

Political climate

The current political climate facilitates the recognition of churches. The Turkish Government’s desire to be accepted into the European Union has prompted real efforts to maintain a better human rights record. Gone are the arrests and beatings, which Christians experienced as recently as the 1980s. Instead, believers have a significant number of new freedoms.

But Turkish history is full of U-turns, and the fundamentalist Islamic party undoubtedly has a large following within the country. The churches must grasp the opportunities offered by present freedoms. The bombing of a Christian bookstall last year in Gaziantep, when one little boy was killed and others were wounded, is a reminder of present fragility.

A decade or so ago a Christian Turk set a precedent by applying to a court of law to have his identity card inscription changed from Muslim to Christian. The judge allowed it and great was the outcry. But nowadays this change can be effected by simple application to a government office.

A few years ago, when Sir Fred Catherwood visited Turkey on behalf of the European Parliament, he made representations to a government minister that the Turkish Protestant churches be officially recognised. It is now possible for a credible group of believers to register with the local authority as a Protestant church. Furthermore, Turkish authorities want Christian churches to be clearly identified.

Buildings

Instead of risking upsetting neighbours by having a Christian meeting in an apartment block, Christians are advised to find a suitable building for rent or purchase and to put a notice outside, for all to see, displaying their Christian identity. Some churches are considering the possibility of having their own building constructed.

There is a verse in the Koran which has often been conveniently forgotten, but now is officially quoted: ‘The monasteries, churches, synagogues and mosques where the name of God is often invoked and recited must be protected and not destroyed’. In an ancient city like Istanbul, many church buildings have thus been preserved. With the recent emigration of large numbers from the older non-Turkish communities (Assyrian, Armenian, Greek), occasionally one of their buildings becomes vacant and is then potentially available for use by a Protestant church. For example, an old Armenian Gregorian church building in the interior of Asian Turkey has become vacant, and the patriarch has invited the Istanbul Presbyterian Church to plant a Protestant church there, lest it be pulled down or ‘desecrated’.

Teaching

The training of Turkish church leaders is a key task. At least four colleges have been set up for this purpose. One is Pentecostal and two are ‘broadly evangelical’. The fourth college, attached to the Istanbul Presbyterian Church, is distinctively Reformed in its theological orientation. It aims to guide its non-residential students through suitable reading programmes. Teachers are available to monitor progress. This seminary has translated into Turkish and published such key books as The Westminster Confession of Faith and Berkhof’s Summary of Christian doctrine.

Christian publishing is not new in Turkey. The Bible Society has maintained a witness for generations, weathering many storms. Turkish vocabulary has changed much since the last translation of the full Bible. A ten-man committee has been working for ten years on a new translation of the Bible into Turkish from the original languages. It hopes to be able to publish it next year, in time for the new millennium. There are also four Christian publishing houses in Turkey.

Challenges

Christians in Turkey are working towards having ‘one church in every province and … one New Testament in every home’. Turkey has eighty large provinces and so far no more than ten provinces have true Christian churches. Christian radio broadcasts in Turkish, from Monte Carlo, Cyprus and the Seychelles, can be heard. At the same time churches are praying for the planting of a sister church in their nearest neighbouring province. The Presbyterian Church has been approached by representatives from three towns, each asking for a church to be planted.

As for ‘one New Testament in every Turkish home’, it is a major task to reach a population of seventy million. Two Christian agencies are organising teams who are going from house to house to distribute thousands of copies of God’s Word. Let us pray that the Turkish race, once ‘God’s rod’ on a church that had lost its ‘first love’, will increasingly become sons and daughters in the Church of Jesus Christ.