Turkey maintains freedom of religion, and separation of mosque and state. Christianity's early history here is dramatically on display at places like Ephesus and Cappadocia. But there seem to be so few practicing Christians here, less than five percent of the total population, and in most urban areas like where we are living in Kayseri, we can't find a Christian church. Why?
My friend Bruce Johnson sums history up quite succinctly:
The large-scale disappearance of Christians from Turkey had to do with the Muslim conquests. Though Constantinople was in Christian hands until 1453, the rest of Turkey was conquered by Muslims long before. Even before the Turkic people came to what is now known as Turkey, Arabs conquered most of what previously was known as "Asia Minor." Christians left to go to Christian lands, or chose to become Muslims. To my knowledge, there wasn't much Muslim persecution of Christians. Muslims typically don't coerce people to accept their faith. Their record on that in the Middle Ages was much better than Christians. Syria is about 10% Christian, going back to ancient times, and Lebanon (which once was part of Syria) is almost 50% Christian. Many Palestinians are Christians as well, their faith going back to Biblical times.
"If you want to get an empathetic feel for reasons behind deeply embedded feelings some Muslims and Jews have toward Christians - and, for that matter, that some Eastern Orthodox Christians have toward Western Christians - if you haven't already, read some of the details of the Crusades. Things like Jews being burnt alive in their cities by the Christian armies, or the Christian city of Constantinople being conquered and looted and pillaged by Western Christians from our ancestral homelands in Northern Europe. Wikipedia article on Crusades gives an overview. Even more details can be found on specific numbered crusades (First Crusade, etc.)"
Religion is impossible to separate from culture, and in modern times, Christianity has been associated with Turkey's adversaries: the Greeks, the Armenians, and the Kurds. It was difficult for the Turkish republic to develop a sense of nationhood from those Christians who felt more loyalty to their ethnicity as Greeks, Armenians, or to the Kurdish Independence Movement than to the nation of Turkey. And so, Turkey has looked warily on Christian groups.
Update: Former U.S. President Bill Clinton has criticized Turkey for its shrinking Christian population. "While your population is growing, why is your Christian Orthodox community shrinking?" he asked. He specifically cited the forced closing, in 1971, of Halki International Seminary, an important school of theology for the Eastern Orthodox Church, and the continuing failure to reopen it. Located on the island of Heybeliada, the seminary is particularly important to the Greek Orthodox. Both the U.S. Congress and the European Union have suggested that Turkey's entry into the EU should be contingent upon the reopening of the seminary and greater respect for religious minorities such as Orthodox Christians. President Obama echoed this sentiment in his 2009 speech to the Turkish parliament.
"Do you think it is better for the Christian Orthodox community to fall under the influence of the Russian church?" Clinton asked.
Only three minority faith groups are officially recognized in Turkey, according to Religion & Ethics Newsweekly: Armenian Orthodox Christians, Greek Orthodox Christians, and Jews. "All three technically have freedom of religion, but there are many restrictions. For example, they are not allowed to train new clergy...Roman Catholics and Protestants don’t have official legal status but are allowed to operate."
Early one Sunday morning, Alex and I visited a humble stone house on Nightingale Mountain overlooking the Aegean Sea that is a Christian and Muslim shrine called the House of the Virgin Mary. Archeologists say the foundation was laid in the first century A.D., and remnants of the stone house date to at least 500 A.D. Residents of a nearby mountain village, descended from early Christians, have long believed that the stone house was where Mary, the Mother of Jesus, lived her last years.
The broadcast caused quite a stir in Turkey. Did it give the wrong impression? Some American viewers might assume that the restrictions on Greek Orthodox Christians within Turkey are part of the Islamic government's discrimination against Christians. That's not really the case. As I pointed out earlier, Christianity in Turkey historically has been closely linked with Greece, and incompatible with Turkish nationalism. Many religious groups, not just Christians, feel restricted in Turkey by the country's strict code of secularism. Click.
But hopefully, new respect for religious minorities is in the air, especially if Turkey wants to join the European Union. Government Seeks Ways to Reopen Christian Seminary
From the Holy Mountain: A Journey Among the Christians of the Middle East," by William Dalrymple. "From Booklist As a writer and as a traveler, Dalrymple treads the now-faint trail marked out by sixth-century monk John Moschos, who wandered the world of Eastern Byzantium, visiting the scattered Christian monasteries and hermitages and recording the rituals he saw and the preaching he heard in a book called The Spiritual Meadow. Unlike its predecessor, Dalrymple's account of his journey through the same regions leads, not to meditations upon the eternal God, but, rather, to insights into a dying culture. For whether among Surianis in eastern Turkey, Armenians in Syria and Israel, or Coptics in Egypt, Dalrymple finds only remnants of the Christian culture from which Moschos drew inspiration. The author cannot stop the often-violent persecution or the steady immigration, which are pushing Christianity to extinction in the land of its birth. Yet he can preserve the voices of the steadfast souls who guard the last sparks of a besieged faith. Thus, this book stands--like the chapels, monasteries, and tombs visited during the journey--as a monument to what once was. But Dalrymple also points the way to a better future by repeatedly stressing the similarities in origin and practice linking Christianity and Islam and by documenting real (though all too rare) instances in which mutual respect and tolerance bring the Muslim and the Christian together in prayer. Travel literature of real substance."
An online acquaintance writes from America that he is a proud "Islamophobe" and proud "Christianophobe," fearful of both fundamentalist Islam and fundamentalist Christianity. He cites Muslim terrorists on the one hand, and Christian evangelicals like Brit Hume on the other, who on Fox News had the temerity to proselytize that Tiger Woods, a man he does not know, should abandon Buddhism and convert to Christianity. Fervent believers, my acquaintance charges, have too little respect for secular societies, would abandon the separation of church (or mosque) and state, and impose their beliefs on others in a heartbeat.
While I agree that religious ferver can sometimes blind believers and cause them to take extremist positions, there is a disturbing trend in both the West and in Turkey to make religion a taboo subject, and we become afraid of people we do not understand.
It's easy to fear Islam or Christianity from afar, and to believe that religious "fundamentalism" is the enemy. Up close, it's more difficult. When you live among Turks, in my experience the most hospitable people on earth, who also happen to be Muslim, it's impossible to be an "Islamophobe."
I daresay fear of Islam and fear of Christianity generally comes mostly from ignorance, lack of familiarity, and from being overly influenced by negative media images. I realize I'm in the rather unique position of having lived with both faithful Christians and faithful Muslims, and I find far more commonalities than differences between them. I've found them both to be very loving and generous, "salt-of-the-earth" people, generous to a fault.In the teacher's lounge at the private school I teach at (vast majority of the students and teachers are Muslims), I saw a statement on a desk in English, probably pulled off the Internet by a teacher and probably written by an evangelical Christian. It expressed concern about teachers who reveal to their students that they are atheists, because that would have a corrupting influence on the ethical development of students who see their teachers as role models.
On Easter weekend here in Kayseri, Turkey, we visited an Armenian Christian Church downtown founded in 1191 that is being restored and where services are now being held occasionally (alas, but not Easter weekend). The church was reopened in November, 2009 -- 500 people attended, including Turkish President Abdullah Gul (who is from Kayseri). ttp://www.kayserikilisesi.org
Visiting the purported home of the Prophet Job in Sanliurfa, Turkey along with 15 Muslim teachers was a moving experience. Here lived a holy man venerated by Judaism, Chrisitianity, and Islam for his goodness, faithfulness, patience and perseverance. At one time a very wealthy man who was the envy of the community, Job (Ayoub) experienced trial after trial and tribulation after tribulation that made him question his faith, and question the existence and wisdom of God.
In the Quran, Ayoub is described thusly: "While Job was naked, taking a bath, a swarm of gold locusts fell on him and he started collecting them in his garment. His Lord called him, 'O Job! Have I not made you rich enough to need what you see? He said, 'Yes, O Lord! But I cannot dispense with your Blessing."
"Why, God, why? Why me?" Job asks. The answer he hears, essentially, is "Who are you, a mere mortal, to question the mysterious way of the Lord?" Job thinks on what God has said to him, and eventually declares "I know that my Redeemer lives" (Job 19:25). For his enduring faith and patience, God restores Job's good health by telling him to drink the well water and bathe in the spring next to his home.
As a tribute to Job, I dipped my face in the well water, as did several of the other teachers.
Prophet Job lived in 8th century BC. According to information on a placard at the cave, he came from "good genes," (my words) -- a prominent family. His grandfather was the Prophet Lot (remember Lot's wife? She turned into a pillar of salt for dwelling too much on the past rather than the present or the future), his great uncle was Jacob and his great great uncle was Abraham. "He is known to have been born somewhere in Palestine or Mesopotamia," the placard said. "He was tested with wealth and an abundance of children. Later on, he was infected with diseases. He showed great patience with all these difficulties, (but finally) he reached the climax point of faith and patience. When his illness began hampering his prayers, he begged God, saying, 'Oh Lord, I am hurt, indeed, and you are the most merciful."
"And God responded to him saying, 'Tap your feet on the ground. There it is, the fresh water to drink and get washed.' When Eyuub drank the water, he miraculously got healthy again. He lived another 160 years with his new children. He is known to have lived in this cave for seven years before he got healthy again."
"Prophets are exalted people who are chosen and sent to people for salvation. Then our duty is to read the lives of these exalted people and apply their teachings to our own lives. May God not deprive us of their intercessions!"
I call this cave in Sanliurfa Job's "purported home" because there are places in present-day Israel (in a Palestinian town), Oman, and Lebanon that also claim to be his home. If they're all correct, Job sure was a man who liked to travel.Historians do believe Job (Ayoub) was a real man who actually existed, not simply a composite and not simply a "myth to live by." Learn more about Job (Ayoub) from this Google search. Related:
The Byzantine era began when, according to Greek legend, a colonist named Byzas visited the Oracle of Delphi, who told him to head east and found a town, Byzantium, which he did in 667 BC. His town grew into Constantinople, capital of the Eastern Roman Empire. After the fall of Rome in 576 A.D., Byzantium became the capital of what was left of the Roman Empire. Probably the greatest emperor of Byzantium was Justinian, who is pictured at left below with his wife Theodora, both of whom are considered saints of the Orthodox Church. During his 30-year reign, Justinian aspired to restore the Roman Empire to its former glory. He was only partially successful in that effort, but he did commission the building of many architectural marvels which endure today, including Hagia Sophia, the Great Palace of Constantinople, and the eerie Basilican Cistern:
In the 800s, Byzantium expanded north as far as the Danube River, east all the way to the Caucasus, south to Crete and even Syria. It influenced cultures far beyond its borders: to Kiev in the North, Egypt in the South, even Rome, itself.
The Byzantium period lasted for more than one thousand years. It began to decline during the Fourth Crusade (1202-1204), when it was sacked by Christians from the West, leading to the "great schism" between the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches. Less than 250 years later, in 1453, the Byzantine period ended when Constantinople fell to the emerging Ottoman Empire. With Christian enemies in the West and Muslim enemies in the East, there wasn't much of a way for Byzantium to survive.
Byzantium influence on Turkey continued until the 20th century, when the nations of Greece and Turkey were eager for ethnic identities clearly separate from each other. They engineered a population exchange of their Greek Orthodox and Muslim populations, approximately two million people. As hard as it was for families and individuals, it may have prevented civil war between Christian and Muslims.
You can still see the echoes of Byzantium in the chapels of Cappadocia, with their ancient frescoes and in villages where Greek architecture and Greek-style homes survive.Building the Byzantium Dream, Part 5 Youtube.com page.
And if you want to learn about the rather sad state of Orthodox Christianity and Byzantium in Turkey today, watch this "60 Minutes" report. Of course it's not just in Turkey that Byzantium and the Orthodox Church have faded. Russian, Ukrainian and other Eastern European Orthodox Christians were brutally repressed by the Soviets in the 20th century. The Orthodox Church in the world is a shadow of its former self. Yet it is still the second largest Christian denomination (after the Roman Catholic Church). See Eastern Orthodox on Wikipedia.
In researching the history of Christianity in Turkey and the Middle East, I see comments from Christians deploring their religion's fading place in the region of its birth. They direct their resentment at Muslims. But they would do well to study history, especially of the Great Schism between Eastern and Western Christianity. If Christians did not spend so much time fighting amongst themselves, their lands might not have been conquered by Muslims. In 1054, the Church began to "split along doctrinal, theological, linguistic, political, and geographical lines, and the fundamental breach has never been healed. The Crusades, the Massacre of the Latins in 1182, the capture and sack of Constantinople in 1204, and the imposition of Latin Patriarchs made reconciliation more difficult. This included the taking of many precious religious artifacts and the destruction of the Library of Constantinople." Attempts have been made to reconcile somewhat since the 1960s, but by then it was centuries too late.
In Turkey today, non-Muslim religious minorities represent less than one percent of the population. Out of a total Turkish population of 75 million, there are about 85,000 Christians, mostly Orthodox from the Armenian, Syrian or Greek tradition, and a few thousand Catholics and Protestants. Surprisingly, there are also about 25,000 Jews . Most religious minorities are located in Istanbul, but smaller communities reside in heavily European west coast cities like Izmir.
In a country overwhelmingly Muslims and unaccustomed to religious diversity, I often encountered curiosity about Christianity as I taught students and traveled the country. In my experience, most Turks are very accepting of religious differences. Numerous friends and acquaintances made a point of telling me that Christians and Muslims worship the same God.
Occasionally, I'd encounter a child who'd tell me I'd "burn" (in hell) if I didn't become a Muslim. Children would say this out of genuine concern, that they didn't want me to burn, therefore "repeat after me: there is only one God, Allah, and Mohammed is his messenger." If I simply repeated what they said, they would look at me with great relief, as if our religious differences had dissolved into nothingness.
In a global economy, as more non-Muslims come to Turkey, I can imagine a time in the not-too-distant future when conservative cities such as Kayseri will be diverse enough to support an English-speaking congregation of Christians.
But non-Muslim religious minorities have to tread carefully. Historically, there's a deep suspicion of missionaries going back to the Crusades of the 1300's, and the conflicts with Greek and Armenian Christians in the early 20th century. Turkish nationalists, who represent less than 15 percent of the population, tend to be particularly intolerant of Christian evangelism, seeing missionaries as a growing threat, an effort to divide Turks and turn them against one another. Their fears seem highly exaggerated, since officially, there are only about 50 Christian missionaries in all of Turkey, and most of them are trained to soft-pedal their religious outreach beyond expat communities.
In this environment, it's interesting to examine the perspectives of Christian ministers who've spent years in Turkey.
"American pastor James Bultema talks about why he and his family have settled in Turkey, about his doctoral research project on the emerging Turkish Protestant Church and about the venture of establishing an international church and cultural center in the city of Antalya," reports Today's Zaman, a newspaper financed by the Gulen Movement, a Muslim group that promotes interfaith dialogue. The article was called "A Journey of Great Challenges and Great Rewards."
Scotsman Billy Watson of Antalya Living conducted this video interview with Bultema in 2008:
As part of his doctoral thesis, Bultema profiled Muslims who became Christians.
Bultema operates St. Paul's Cultural Center in Antalya.
We in the West think of choosing religions almost completely as a personal choice -- a decision one makes to believe or disbelieve. And yet, history and culture play an enormous, unseen role in individual choices. One's religion is often determined by accident of birth. If you're born in Turkey, odds are you're going to be a Muslim, culturally if not devoutly. If you're born in Italy, odds are you're going to be a Catholic, culturally if not devoutly. If you're born in America, odds are you're going to be a Christian, culturally if not devoutly, and specifically a Protestant, as 50% of Americans identify as Protestant. although America is increasingly a land of religious (and irreligious) diversity.
When I visit Istanbul, history's influence on today's cultural and religious landscapes is striking. I begin to ponder the "what ifs" of history:
What if the walls of Constantinople hadn't held repeatedly through Byzantine history? Beginning with the attacks of Attila the Hun in 447, Western Europeans (and consequently, America) might be Muslim today. Terry Richardson writes:
History is full of “What ifs,” but it's worth pondering on the significance of the effectiveness of the Lands Walls of Constantinople. If Attila had breached them in 447, would the city have survived as a Christian entity or would the eastern half of the Roman Empire (later known as Byzantium) have collapsed? The Byzantine Empire is seen by most scholars as an effective barrier between the Islamic world to the east and Christian Europe to the west. But had Constantinople, capital and lynch-pin of this great empire, fallen to the besieging Arabs in 717-718, would the tide of Islam indeed have flooded its way across to the Atlantic and left Europe a largely Muslim continent? This is pure speculation of course, but there is no doubt that this incredible defense system played its part in determining the course of world history.
The walls of Constantinople were ultimately breached twice, disastrously for the Byzantines: