Now and then one stumbles across a treasure simple and plain but of inestimable value.
I didn’t find it while traversing the steps of the many mosques in Istanbul—not in Hagia Sophia nor in the Sultan Ahmed, called “the Blue Mosque.” Nor did I find it among the used classic book section in the Grand Market. Quite simply, it came as a gift. At first it took a moment for me to see its genius and unpredictable potential. But first a word about the place and circumstance where I received this gift.
Turkey has received its share of public attention in recent months. The media gave a full view of the insults hurled back and forth between Turkey’s President Erdogan and America’s Donald Trump. In 2016 an attempted coup put the whole country on edge with accusations that Turk citizen Fethullah Gulen, now living in the USA, was responsible for the coup. America refused to extradite him. Seemingly linked to this spat, the Turks imprisoned Pastor Andrew Brunson from Izmir, where he served two years before being released.
More recently, the grisly murder and dismemberment of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, reportedly at the hands of the Saudi police within the Saudi embassy in Istanbul, added to the bizarre twists and turns of intrigue in this ancient/modern society.
That’s current history. During the past 100 years, Turkey has undergone a huge shift. A powerhouse for centuries, the Ottoman Empire controlled much of Eastern Europe and parts of Western Asia and North Africa. World War I put an end to that, but not before the genocide of Armenians left 1.5 million dead. In early 1900, 20 percent of Turkey was Christian. Today it’s less than a half of 1 percent. In a population of 83 million, only 5,000 Turks attend Evangelical churches.
While Turkey is Islamic, under its first 20th century president, Ataturk, it pointed itself toward becoming a secular republic. Promising a political system without a singular religious domination, in recent years it has rekindled its Islamic allegiance, pushing a kind of religious nationalism in line with a seeming will to be restored to its former grandeur. The Brunson affair on its face seemed to be a religious move; however, local believers see the pastor was caught in an international political chess game. For Christians, life continues to be complicated, impossible to get government recognition so as to purchase a church site. Yet there is overall freedom to witness, worship, teach and do outreach. Even with their meagre minority status, Evangelicals continue to sow the seed of faith in soil that often seems rocky.
What then was the Jewel?
It was a small hardback book with what looked like an ancient painting of Jesus on the cover. Not unlike what a tourist might buy at a book table in a European cathedral or basilica. Its title told the story: Christianity: Fundamental Teachings. At the bottom they noted the writing group, The Joint Commission of Churches in Turkey. (Published by the Bible Society in Turkey, 2018.)
When I flipped open its cover, I was astonished that it was authorized by five heads of Christian churches: Roman Catholic, Armenian Orthodox, Syriac Orthodox and Evangelicals, as well as the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople.
This is a historic first. Where have these Christian communities – making up 95% of the world’s Christian population – done a joint venture in publishing what they commonly agree is the Gospel?
Running my finger down the list of chapters, I saw they had sought to give a full summary of the Gospel. But how, for example, could Roman Catholics and Evangelicals agree on the means of receiving salvation? To satisfy my questions I read on. As I did, it occurred to me, that this could have been written by John Stott or Jean Vanier.
Keep in mind that Turkey is the land and cultural bridge between Europe and the Middle East. Unless you’ve personally faced the harsh realities of religious suspicion, it is hard to describe the deep divisions and strong feelings that often prevent Catholics and Orthodox from having fellowship. In some Middle East countries, Roman Catholics experience opposition from the Orthodox. Throw Evangelicals into the mix and feelings are intensified. In Iraq six Orthodox leaders signed a public letter excluding Evangelicals from joint association. A pastor noted, “We get more opposition from the Orthodox than we do from the Muslims.”
Yet in this centre of ancient Christianity, where so many have been killed and the Christian communities have for centuries despised each other, here in this treasure of witness, they wrote:
We dedicate it to the movement towards communion, mutual love and respect as proof that the points uniting us are incomparably greater than those dividing us, and as a memorial to such constructive dialogs that spring out of love.
As I held this special tool of the Spirit, I learned it came about that as they worked together, they discovered in each other an authentic witness of Christ and the loving presence of his Spirit and when they did, they chose to lay aside their historic animosities.
Might this be a prototype for Christians in other countries?
In a land where the Gospel almost died, it may have been their desire for common action that triggered the book’s composition. Even so, as I read, I found myself wishing in silent prayer: “Lord Jesus, may it be that leaders in other countries will lay aside grievances and jealousies and together make common witness to their world of you.”
Brian C. Stiller
Global Ambassador, World Evangelical Alliance
Author: Brian Stiller