A century ago, estimates were that 25 percent of Turkey was Christian. Today it is less than 1 percent. John, in his letters of The Revelation wrote to seven cities in this land. In the last hundred years century, the ancient roots of Christian life have not only been cut off but they’ve been torn up.
Walking the winding streets of Istanbul or riding the ferry from its Asian to European side, it’s not easy to recall that before the genocide of Armenian Christians and the takeover by Islam, this city and nation were prime centers of Christian presence.
Today an Islamic government with an odd kind of secularity is poised to join the European community. Under its current president, there is movement to exert a powerful influence in the Middle East.
Turkey was the heart of the Ottoman Empire. In the late 13th century its reach spanned the Mediterranean basin – countries in southeast Europe, Western Asia, the Caucasus, and North Africa, including the Horn of Africa. This Empire was intact until World War 1 when it was defeated and its lands reduced to the current Turkish borders. Most infamous of Turkey’s action in the recent past was the genocide of 1.5 Armenian Christians in the early 1900s.
Today Turkey seems to be in an empire revival-mode, with emphasis on being Turkish and reestablishing their greatness as a people. Alongside this is an affirmation of Islam. Although it is officially a “secular” state, non-Muslims are seen as infidels. A business person told me that even though he is on good terms with his colleagues, if he visits them in their homes, his eating plates go through a different process of being washed because he is considered unclean. In business or a public sector workplace, if one is known as a Christian, promotion is unlikely.
Yet today there is a small and growing community of Christians, most of them newly converted Evangelicals. Armenian Orthodox – who retain their ethnic identity – while having lived through a horrific century of death, are strengthening their presence and community. They, along with Roman Catholic churches are all small, and quite aberrant to Turkish nationalism.
In 1985 there were about thirty believers, that is, converts from a Muslim background. (Thus the acronym, MBB – Muslim Background Believers.) Today there are over 10,000. Meet Levent Kinran, a church leader emblematic of the work of the Spirit. His parents’ Muslim faith was at best nominal, and as a teenager Levent decided to look elsewhere for a faith that made sense to him. Let him tell you his story.
I came to know Jesus in 1987. I was seeking God, and since I was a Muslim, my first steps were to take Arabic classes, worship five times a day and try to become a better Muslim. However, as I was walking deeper in this direction, I began to question even the existence of God. I was feeling emptier and less fulfilled. At that time, I started reading a New Testament and was overwhelmed by Jesus Christ. His miracles, His teaching, His life and His love touched me very deeply. I realized with amazement that His authority and His claims about Himself were all true and that He was the Son of God!
When I discovered His endless love for me and His dying on the cross – because of his love – I seriously considered responding to His call. However, being in the Muslim world, considering the call of Jesus is quite a challenge. There is a decree, which commands that anyone who denounces Islam is to be killed. But the more I was convinced of Jesus Christ, the more aware I became that I could not live without His truth. As a result, I accepted Him as my Savior and my Lord. His love, His peace and His joy have been unlike anything I had known, and are greater than any suffering.
Today Levent is the Deputy Chairman for the Association of Protestant Churches of Turkey (the terms “Protestant” and “Evangelical” are interchangeable). He also pastors the Anatolian Protestant Church which is part of the Vineyard Christian Fellowship.
How are Christians fairing?
In a country with such a complex history and intersecting social, political and religious issues, the following are helpful to our understanding.
- Its declaration of being a “secular” state is curious. While Turkey doesn’t allow religious symbols in government, the minister of religious affairs pays the salary of imams and other costs of the Muslim faith. This means that Christians through their taxes pay for the operation of Islam.
- While the genocide of Armenian Christians has been denied, more recently there has been some public mention of the tragedy. Even so, Armenians worldwide continue to grieve their loss while the Turkish government refuses to acknowledge its complicity.
- In recent months, the government has turned one-third of all public schools into Koranic schools. This forces Christians, and others not wanting this intense Islamic education for their children, to either send them to a costly private school or simply submit.
- It is nearly impossible for a congregation to get a permit to build a house of worship. This is important missiologically, for in the Islamic world, not to have a church building makes it difficult to sustain an ongoing public witness. It also creates confusion among Muslims as to the church’s identity if the church doesn’t have a place of worship.
- During the Ottoman Empire, Turkey was a world power. While this was lost in the early 20th century, nationalism still profoundly affects governmental planning, and Islam is very much intertwined with national identity. Indeed, to be a Turk one is assumed to be a Muslim. To be otherwise is “unpatriotic.”
- There has been a modest increase in religious freedom following the killing in 2007 of three Christians of Zirve Publishing House. Although the trial has dragged on, it has given religious rights advocates opportunity to press the case for fair treatment. This international publicity has prodded the government to take note of the Christian community.
As Turkey changes, certain dynamics provide opportunity for increased witness. Generations born after 1980 grow up in a different world: free elections, greater allowances to make their own choices, a shift from rural to urban living, and an explosive media. They comprise 60 percent of the population, are better educated and not as aware of their past. This makes for a generation less rooted in their historic culture and more open to change. In my visit, Sat 7, a media ministry across the Middle East was awarded a channel on a Turkish satellite, a possible major breakthrough in broadcasting.
As in other Muslim communities, their experiences of visions and dreams trigger contact with Christians as they seek explanation for what they have heard or seen. A pastor said that at least once a week, a person came to his church complaining of oppression, asking for prayer and deliverance.
Christians are a tiny minority in a country who at times are treated harshly by its religious majority. Even so, to witness their joy in meeting together is deeply moving. One Sunday morning I saw uninhibited smiles and open displays of affection. I was awed by the sheer beauty of their fellowship and the telltale signs of love and enthusiastic conversations. Evident was a heartfelt thrill of being together with those joined by the love of Jesus.
Turkey, a geostrategic land bridge connecting Europe with Asia, is a place where many Christians are investing their lives as they seek a rebirth of the Gospel witness.
Brian C. Stiller
The World Evangelical Alliance