Church History

The Christian Church in Turkey

Turkey holds a place in Christian history right along side of Israel and Palestine. Its strategic position has made the area of prime importance throughout the course of history.  Many events recorded in Scripture take place here, and it is also the site of the early church centered on the Byzantine Empire.  Anatolia–that is the western two thirds of the Asian part of Turkey– is mentioned in the Bible through the Hittites, a formidable militant culture.  The area was part of the Roman Empire at the time Jesus was born.

The cities Phrygia, Pamphylia, Pontus and Cappadocia  in this area were represented at Pentecost,  which means Christianity had spread at least this far and Paul’s journeys took him through what is now Turkey several times.  The seven churches of Revelation which we are visiting on this trip are located in this area.  When Constantine split the Eastern and Western parts of his Empire, the Eastern capitol was placed in Byzantium and called Constantinople (now known as Istanbul).

Look at a map and note the familiar Biblical names of Harran where Abraham lived; Mt. Ararat where Noah’s boat landed; Antioch where the believers were first called Christians; Ephesus where a significant church was founded and where Paul’s presence caused a riot; Tarsus where Paul was born; Cappadocia where early Christians fled when persecuted; and Myra where St. Nicholas was born.

Ephesus is an unusually well preserved Roman city that was the site of an early Christian church.  It was here that Paul challenged the craftsmen who produced images of the goddess Artemis, by preaching Christianity.  The amphitheater where this happened is still in good condition along with the library and temples.

Cappadocia is a region where early Christians took refuge from Roman persecution.  It is dotted with natural volcanic rock formations that were carved into homes, chapels and huts for hermits.  Religious cave paintings are still visible inside some of the cones known as fairy chimneys.

The early Ecumenical Councils took place in this area and are known by the cities in which they were convened.  We hear of the Councils of Ephesus, Council of Nicea in 325 , the Council of Constantinople and the 451 Council of Chalcedon.  The decisions and events of these councils were the beginning of the definition between Roman Catholic and Orthodox traditions.  Even after Islam came to the area, Christians remained in large numbers for centuries and it was from Turkey that the Russians were converted to Orthodox Christianity.

Constantinople (now Istanbul) was founded in AD 330, at ancient Byzantium as the new capital of the RomanEmpire by ConstantineI, after whom it was named. The city was the largest and wealthiest European city of the MiddleAges.  An inscription on the column of Constantine the Great in Constantinople now Istanbul reads: “ O Christ, ruler and master of the world, to You now I dedicate this subject city, and these sceptres and the might of Rome.”

Christianity was declared as the official religion in 380, during the reign of TheodosiusI, and destruction of pagan temples was legalized that year as well. In 537, the great church of Hagia Sophia meaning Church of the Holy Wisdom was dedicated.  Ordered by the Emperor Justinian, it is quite an extraordinary and exquisite structure.  The huge levitated dome was an incomprehensible miracle to eyewitnesses at the time.  Paul the Silentiary, an officer in the household of Emperor Justinian is most famous for his hymn of praise for the Hagia Sophia.  In description of the vaulting, decorated with four acres of gold mosaic, he writes “the golden stream of rays pours down and strikes the eyes of men, so that they can scarcely bear to look.” While his description of the colored marbles moved him to poetry saying, “they looked as though they were powdered with stars…like milk splashed over a surface of shining black…or like sea or emerald stone, or again like blue cornflowers in the grass, with here and there a drift of snow.”

The Orthodox religion worked powerfully on the emotions of the people through the intense colors of its mosaics and icons, the mysterious beauty of its liturgy rising and falling in the churches.  Roger Crowley the author of 1453 says, “The Byzantines lived their spiritual life with an intensity hardly matched in the history of Christendom.  The stability of the empire was at times threatened by the number of army officers who retired to monasteries, and theological issues were debated on the streets with a passion that led to riots”  An irritated visitor noted, “The city is full of workmen and slaves who are all theologians.  If you ask a man to change money he will tell you how the Son differs from the Father.  If you ask the price of a loaf he will argue that the Son is less than the Father.  If you want to know if the bath is ready you are told that the Son was made out of nothing.”

Even so, throughout the Byzantine era Christianity had great ups and downs in popularity. Many found the road to piety confusing and assorted schisms between the Roman Catholic church and the Orthodox Byzantine church certainly didn’t simplify matters.

Although we occasionally read about territorial disagreements between Greece and Turkey in the headlines, the peoples in these two regions have been in conflict for millennia. Early I mentioned several Ecumenical Councils that took place bout 1,500 years ago.  This rivalry assumed a doctrinal dimension that lead to the instability of the Christian church in Turkey. In 431, the Council of Ephesus condemned Nestorianism which emphasizes the disunion between the human and divine natures of Jesus. This was followed by the 451 Council of Chalcedon’s dismissal of Monophysitism which believed that Jesus had only a single “nature” which was either divine or a combination/synthesis of divine and human.

All in all, there was a great deal of resentment toward the Byzantines, even among other Christians. Thus, when Islamic Bedouins began raiding Christian territories in Anatolia-or the Asian part of Turkey, they allied with displaced Arabs and disaffected local Christians. The Persians and Greeks dismissed these sorties as common, unsophisticated nomadic activity. But they were wrong. The first wave of jihad was underway.

The second wave of jihad overthrew the Byzantine Empire altogether. The key for the Islamic conquerors was enlisting the support of the recently converted Turks from Anatolia. The Turks were a warlike group, quick to battle, skilled in the slave trade. Once converted, the warrior doctrine of jihad motivated them to subdue Armenia and the Greek territory in Anatolia, where the Turkish capital of Ankara is today.

Gradually, Christianity in Turkey disintegrated, so that when the Islamic Ottomans finally conquered the ByzantineEmpire, it was inevitable that what had been a predominantly Christian region would be no more.  Throughout this time, fear of siege was etched deep in the memory of the Byzantines.  In the 1, 123 years up to the spring of 1453, Constantinople had been besieged some 23 times.  On the 29th of May, 1453, Turkish sultan MehmedII known as “the Conqueror” entered Constantinople after a 53–day siege during which his cannon had torn a huge hole in the fortified walls of the city. Constantinople became the third capital of the OttomanEmpire.  Many Greek scholars escaped to the west and brought with them literature that was translated into Latin triggering the Renaissance.

Upon capture, Sultan MehmedII, ordered the Hagia Sophia to be converted into a mosque. The bells, altar, and sacrificial vessels were removed and many of the mosaics were plastered over. Islamicfeatures – such as the four minarets – were added while in the possession of the Ottomans. It remained a mosque until 1931.

After 1453, many Christians left for other lands or converted to Islam.  Although we know that Christians remained in the ancient churches after the siege of Constantinople, little is recorded about them as the church was besieged by massacres, severe persecution ans emigration.

Protestant missions work began around 1820.  The first effort of this kind in modern times was put forth by the British and Foreign Bible Society. Soon after its organization in 1804 colporteurs were sent inland from Smyrna.  Colporteurs is a word that I had never read before, after I looked up the definition I found out that the first missionaries into Turkey were actually peddlers of Christian literature. Subsequent missionaries found to a considerable degree traces of their work. There was also an attempt on the part of English societies to reach the country from Malta, but there was no organized effort until the missionaries of the American Board, at that time representing the Congregational, Presbyterian and Reformed Churches of the United States. In 1819 two missionaries left Boston appointed to work in Palestine. They stopped at Malta and conferred with the representatives of the Church Missionary and London Missionary Societies of England, and then went to Smyrna (now Izmir). They were joined during the following years by a number of others, and aside from Smyrna there was a station at Constantinople; this last in 1832.  Due to the lack of results and reception of Christianity, missions work dropped off rapidly and focus was turned to the non-Muslim minority groups.  The 1970s and 80s were particularly difficult for Christian workers with the 1990’s proving to be more encouraging.  Since 2006, increased opposition and persecution has slowed church growth.

Islam took over the country of Turkey with as much an intensity and passion as the early Byzantines had for Christianity. Once know as the champion of all Christendom for nearly 1000 years, it is now a strong proponent of Islam. The Christian church has been in rapid decline since 1900.   In 1900 the Christian population was nearly 22%, Operation World now states that the Christian population is about .21%.  Today, only .008% of people in Turkey are evangelical.

Since major nationwide reforms in the 1920’s, Turkey has been a secular state.  However, there is major disagreements between the Islamists and the secularists.  It is obvious from world headlines that constitutional guarantee of religious freedom has not been upheld.  Persecution is still a constant threat to the Church.

In 1989, the association of Protestant Churches of Turkey was founded.  This body links evangelical fellowships, leaders and organizations and provides them with support.  Shortly after the birth of this organization, the first translation of the New Testament into Turkish was printed.

In Operation World, one of the major prayer points is a the growth of a vibrant Church amongst the Turks.  We need to be mindful and prayerful for renewed church growth.  Operation World says, “The increases of the 1990s and early 2000s slowed in the face of spiritual, legal and cultural opposition.  While this has caused an increase of prayer and focus on discipleship, the evangelism and church planting impetus of the past generation must be kept alive.”

New Christian believers find it very difficult to become openly active in Turkey’s traditional churches—Armenian Orthodox, Catholic, Eastern Rite Catholic, and Greek Orthodox. The handful of Protestant-affiliated congregations operate in the open, but they mainly meet the needs of ethnic minority groups or Westerners living in Turkey.  The issue is not only theological but cultural.  It has bee said that to be a Turk is to be Muslim, even if you are the most nominal follower of Islam.  This has made it extremely difficult for Christianity to make a foothold as it is illegal to insult “Turkishness,” a subjective law at best.

There are now more than 30 Protestant organizations operating nationwide. In 1999, the Izmit earthquake, which killed 17,000 and left 800,000 homeless, led Christian agencies to start new relief work, and they eventually began working alongside independent Christian fellowships. In addition, the 2 earthquakes in the fall of 2011 were a tremendous opportunity to provide for the physical and spiritual needs of the people in that region. These fellowships, along with new growth in traditional Orthodox congregations, have created a 3 percent annual growth in the country’s Christian population, about three times Turkey’s overall population growth rate.

One positive area of church growth in Turkey has come from a non-traditional route.  Websites have been set up by different Christian organizations that allow individuals with questions about faith to chat live with a Christian.  There has been great success with these websites, especially among younger people and college students.  The key to the success of these websites is continued follow through and discipleship of the new believers.

Of Turkey’s nearly 76 million people, it has been estimated that there are only 4000-5000 evangelical Christians.  Let it be our prayer that during our time here our hearts would be broken for the people of Turkey.  As we see the sights and walk in the footsteps of our spiritual ancestors may we garner renewed enthusiasm to see the Love of God and the message of salvation preached through all the world.   ~Becky Montpetit

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