Epicentre of Christianity
or place of persecution?

State-sponsored marginalisation of Christians in modern-day Turkey

Built in sixth century Constantinople, the Hagia Sophia, originally a church, remains symbolic of the ongoing struggle between Islamism and secularism

Turkey, a country where east meets west, is frequently ranked among the top ten holiday destinations in the world. Istanbul, its cultural capital, spanning Asia and Europe, was, under its former name Constantinople, the centre of Eastern Christianity for more than 1,000 years. It was at Antioch (now Antakya) that the word “Christian” was first coined (Acts 11:26). Paul invested much of his ministry in Ephesus, equipping the early Christians through his letters to the early churches there, also in Galatia and Colossae, all of them in modern Turkey, as were the seven churches in Revelation chapters 2 and 3.

However, in 1453, the Ottoman armies conquered Constantinople. They seized the sixth century Hagia Sophia church, and used the building as a mosque. (In 1935 it was turned into a museum). Christians were subjugated under the Islamic Ottoman Empire’s discriminatory millet system, in which each religious minority community governed itself and their head was responsible to the Ottoman authorities.

From subjugation to genocide

In the late nineteenth century, subjugation turned to genocidal violence, which peaked in 1915. At least 3.25 million Christians (Armenians, Greeks and Assyrians) were murdered by the Turks, often using the minority Kurds to do the actual killing.

In 1923, Turkey became a secular republic, founded by Kemal Atatürk, who also abolished the Ottoman caliphate. Today, Turkey’s 81 million population is more than 99% Muslim, predominantly Sunni but with a large minority of Alevi Shias and Bektashi Sufis. Christians (approximately 32% in 1900) are around 0.2%, mainly from historic non-Turkish ethnic groups, but including some Turkish converts from Islam. There are also Christian refugees among the 3-4 million Iraqis, Iranians and Syrians escaping to Turkey from various conflicts, since the 1980s.

Since the end of the genocide, the status of the remaining Christians has fluctuated. The seizure of church properties by the state has been a recurring form of persecution for many decades. But in 2011 the government licensed a building in Van province used as house church by Protestant Christians (mainly converts from Islam), thus recognising it as a place of worship. However, the seizing of church buildings has intensified again in recent years.

The press is often hostile to Christians, and in 2009 the Ministry of Education introduced a new school textbook aimed at 13-year-olds, which encouraged discrimination against Christians.

Christians in Turkey worshipping together

The rise of the AKP

The situation has worsened in recent years, as secularism has given way to Islam, with the rise of the Justice and Development Party (AKP). Its founder, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (President of Turkey since 2014) has been outspoken about his desire to recreate the Ottoman Empire.

According to Armenian politician Garo Paylan, “hate attacks against churches and synagogues take place several times every year”. On 23 February 2019, vandals spray-painted the disturbing words “you are finish” in English and Arabic across an Armenian church, in Balat district. In October 2019, the AKP initiated an overt anti-Christian, and anti-Semitic, poster campaign in Konya that warned Muslims to “not take the Jews and Christians as allies” (a reference to Quran 5:51).

In 2019, President Erdoğan suggested that the Hagia Sophia should be used again as a mosque, having already supported reciting the Islamic call to prayer there in 2016.

Since Erdoğan’s premiership began, the secularism advocated by Atatürk has been diminishing in the public sphere. The rights of Christians to freely and safely practise their faith are being rapidly eroded, and a second-class status is being re-imposed on them.

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