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CHRISTIANS IN TODAY’S TURKEY (Protestants and Catholics)


Arestakes Simavoryan
Head of the Center for Armenian Studies, “Noravank” Foundation

In February global mass media spread information that German Via Dolorosa Christian Union summoned Christians of the world to boycott Turkish “Fatih 1453” film, which, in fact, was anti-Christian. The film is about the conquest of Constantinople marking the fall of Christian empire which played a great geopolitical role at the time. Over a recent decade the leadership in Ankara has been nostalgic about the achievements of the Ottoman period and such films tend to enroot new moods and ideas in the society and it may cause new wave of intolerance toward the Christians.

Turks, especially “civilized Turks”, like to repeat that even in times when Islam formed a basis of the society and state, non-Muslims, taking advantage of their religious freedom, lived in safety in the country. History proved that such optimism was simply a result of great imagination of the Turks, and probably something was deleted from their memory. The whole Ottoman period can be characterized as a blow to the humanity and civilization, which had been accompanied by depopulation, Islamization and assimilation of the natives, destruction of the churches, or at the best, their transformation into mosques. If in today’s Europe they have tried to solve the issue of multiculturalism, which has already “crushed”, by means of integration, the Ottoman and Turkish leaderships solved and continue to solve the issue of multiculturalism by means of blood and iron (brutal force); to be brief – this is the consequence of the policy of “Turkish multiculturalism”.

If in early 20th century millions of Christians lived there, today their number, according to the research carried out by the Association of the Protestant Churches in Turkey, is 120 thousand and it has a decreasing tendency, in opposition to those optimists who say that the picture is opposite.

Though on the way of integration to the EU the Turkish authorities promised to liberalize legislation restricting the rights of the Christians, nevertheless, the Christina population of the country, i.e. 0.1%, face never-ending restrictions and obstacles. This is also proved by the annual report of the US Commission on Religious Freedoms in which 16 countries where intolerance towards other religions is demonstrated are included. Turkey is on that list. According to the representative of the US Commission on International Religious Freedoms Nina Sheen, today Turkey uses more sophisticated methods which contribute to the neutralization of Christian and Muslim minorities. Turkey uses bureaucratic restrictions instead of a “lash”, which impede the activity of the churches1. Both Catholic and Protestant communities in Turkey are also subject to such restrictions.

Catholics: discrete segments

The number of Catholics in Turkey, according to different sources, is about 29-34 thousand – 0.05 % of total population. Correspondingly, there are following Catholic churches in Turkey – Armenian Catholic (Armenian rite), Roman Catholic (Roman rite), Greek-Byzantine Catholic (Greek rite), Syrian and Chaldean Catholic churches. It should be mentioned that though this communities factually exist and are recognized by the state as the acting ones, in legal aspect they are not recognized and do not have any legal status. According to some researchers the fact that separate communities are recognized comes to prove that Turkey successively conducts the policy of creating as many self-governed institutions as possible among the national minority communities which will bring to strengthening of the manipulation capabilities of the state machinery in these circles2,

The Roman Catholic Church outnumbers other Catholic Churches formed on union grounds, and in the ethnic aspect it has undergone constant changes. Back in 1935 the adherents of this church included Levants who were of the Italian and French origin – about 15 thousand (with the exception of Sephardic Jews who migrated from Livorno to Turkey and who are also sometimes considered Levants and who are mostly the adherents of Judaism), but Istanbul pogroms in 1955 had affected community which caused rather fast migration of the community members to Italy and other countries.

Roman Catholic churches are mostly centered in Istanbul, Trabzon, Adana districts. From the point of view of ethnic belongings, there are French, Italians, Assyrians, Maronites, Greeks and even Armenians. The latter could have been the adherents of the Armenian Catholic Church, meanwhile, they are obliged to visit Roman Catholic churches as there are no Armenian Catholic churches in the places they live (particularly in Trabzon, Mersin, Adana, Samsun). The total number of the adherents of this church is about 21 000 people. The number of the adherents of the Chaldean church in 1950-2010 fluctuated from 2000 to 6000. In ethnic aspect the adherents of this church are Assyrians and Christian Catholic Arabs from Syria. They have never constituted a big number and the community increased only at the expense of their brothers-in-faith migrants from Iraq. They mostly live in Diyarbakir, Mersin and Istanbul.

The Greek-Byzantine Catholic community seems to repeat the lot of the Bulgarian Catholic community which has disappeared from the “religious map” of Turkey. If in 1950 this community in Istanbul numbered about 1000 people, today there are 25 members. And the main reason of the migration was, of course, the Istanbul pogroms. From this point of view condition of the Armenian Catholic community is deplorable either. If before the Genocide the number of the community members was 120 thousand, today it has been reduced to 3000 people, and according to some sources even to 1500 (see Table 1).

Catholics, as well as Protestants in Turkey today are targets for the Islamist radicals and nationalists. Intolerance in regard to the Catholics is not a new phenomenon: it came forward in 1960s. Under the pretext of construction works they try to takeover church lands and even demolish churches, or to hand over them for public use. Under this pretext in 1963 the local government bodies made the building of the Roam Catholic church in the city of Giresun into a library. In 1976 the mayor of Samsun Vehbi Gul initiated a campaign against the local Catholic church and even issued an order to demolish it in order to build a park zone on its place. Using such slogans as “Sent Pope’s donkeys to Rome”, “This is not a church but a missionary seat” they even tried to prejudice the Turkish society in Samsun against the church. Though due to the efforts of the Vatican and Italian consulates the matter was decided in church’s favor but in 1994 the church in Samsun once more became the order of the day. The French priest Pierre Brunissen was blamed in trying to convert Turk pupils to Christianity, showing porn films, and entertaining them alcoholic drinks. These accusations were put forward by mentally unbalance person – Atilla Nuran. Against the background of such notorious developments the members of the Catholic community, which mainly included French, Americans and Armenians were obliged to leave the city in order to avoid further implications. Twelve years later the priest was stubbed by the same mentally unbalanced person3.

The sharp growth of the number of killings of the priests and offences in regard to the Roman Catholic Church after 2000 proves that the community is depressed. Particularly, in April 2005 unknown persons tried to burn St. Paul Cultural Center in Antalya; in February 2006 Catholic priest Andrea Santoro was killed in Trabzon, Fr. Pierre Brunissen was stubbed in Samsun; in December 2007 Italian Fr. Adriano Francini was stubbed in Izmir, in 2010 the Bishop of Iskenderun Luigi Padovesise was killed. Facts prove that Turkey is far from religious tolerance and the official statements that the level of tolerance towards the groups of people of other religions and confessions is high are vain. However the tendency of reconstructing churches belonging to different Christian confessions is not convincing and is of formal character. These measures tended to soften the anger of the West caused by the murders of Catholic and Protestant priests and show that they are tolerant country and they support the idea of dialogue of cultures.

It seems that the Turkish authorities do not accept that they have problems and any incident which brings to the casualties is taken by them as rather violation of human rights than a consequence of hate and religious intolerance, which might spread among vaster strata of society. This all resulted in the fact that 48% of Turkish citizens do not wish to live side-by-side with the Christian neighbors and 54% - with Jew neighbors4.

It is remarkable that unlike Armenian and Greek Patriarchs, there has been no state assistance in the appointments of the heads of the Catholic Churches. The claims put forward by Vatican over the last two years, including the legal status of the church, were turned down by the state without any explanation5. At the same time it should be mentioned that the Catholic communities are separate and uncoordinated and the main reason for that is the ethnic diversity of the adherents. This causes consolidation round crucial ethnic (national) issues (education, charity, etc.). More serious way for the consolidation of the Catholics in Turkey is the inter-church relations (the prospects of religious, community issues are noticeable).

The number of adherents (yearly)6

Protestants and Confession

The information about the Protestants is rather discrepant and there is no data about the number and ethnic composition of the churches. Currently the number of the Protestants does not exceed 6000; in ethnic aspect the adherents of this church are the Armenians, Greeks, Assyrians, Bulgarians, and in some cases even Turks. Besides the adherents of the Armenian Evangelical Church – 500 people (before the Genocide the number of the members of the community was about 60 thousand), there are Greek, Bulgarian and German Protestant Churches with their small communities, which has existed in Turkey since the Ottoman era. Other Protestant churches and organizations were formed later.

Since 1958 the Seventh Day Adventists have appeared in Turkey. The followers of William Miller established their church but their activity was unsuccessful. The conservative everyday life and behavior of the Adventists has been identified with Jehovah’s Witnesses and this has been the reason why many do not want to relate to this church. Other protestant organizations, in particular Methodists spread rather eager activity; they have their own radio station, publications and they gradually tend to subordinate other Protestant churches.

The assertions that Turkey may take the road of Christianization as a result of the conversion carried out by the Protestants are connected with the propagation of the latter, that is why they are treated more severely and aggressively by public and security agencies. In order to keep Protestants in the climate of fear they cultivate in the Muslim society the idea that the Protestant communities are missionary seats.

It is particularly mentioned that the foreigners buying estate and lands in Turkey will be converting people by means of provocations carried out under the pretext of religious “freedom” and different promises, e.g. cultivating the ideas of conversion among the youth for money, as well as taking advantage of local economic difficulties. It is natural that missionary work is perceived in Turkey as a process, which may threaten the religious unity and even territorial integrity of Turkey. As the Catholic priest Felix Korner who had lived in Turkey for quite long time rightly mentioned if in the regions where Kemalist ideology prevailed wearing a hijab symbolized defiance to the secular principles, wearing a cross was taken as the beginning of the end of Turkey.

The Turkish phrase “misyonerlik faali¬yetleri” used both in official discussions, reports and by chauvinistic and nationalist segments of the society, according to the Turkish analyst Guzide Ceyhan has very negative implication. “Misyonerlik faali¬yetleri” can be translated as propagating activity which has neither positive nor negative evaluation. But “misyonerlik faali¬yetleri” in Turkish has a shade of propaganda treachery, intrigues. Both words are taken negatively in Turkish and using them in one phrase doubles the negative shading7.

The Protestant missionary groups have rather scanty resources in order to make changes in the country’s religious context. By, exaggerating their activity, different Turkish groups expand the list of country’s enemies. In reality the Protestants spread missionary activity among the descendants of forcedly Islamized Armenians, Assyrians, even Greeks and not Turks; i.e. this process is rather reconversion than conversion and it is directed to the preservation of the communities which came from the Ottoman period, It is remarkable that conversion from Islam to Protestantism is taking place among the gypsies of Istanbul which is, however, a new phenomenon.

Over these years only one Protestant church has been built. It was built in Van and though the local authorities gave their consent, nevertheless, the deputy of parliament elected from Van, the representative of the ruling party Mustafa Bilici stated that there was no necessity building churches which were acting as the puppets of Zionism in the Muslim societies. According to the priest of the Protestant church Vahid Yildiz many see in them cheats and organization which pursues secret goals8.

Turkish media which are motivated by definite ideology also made their contribution to fueling and spreading of intolerance in regard to the Christians. Legal actions of any of the Christian churches are presented in negative light; sometimes some churches are even presented as terrorist organizations. And as recently the Greek Patriarch mentioned, Christians in Turkey are considered second-rate people.

Cultivating hate towards Christian minorities, including the biggest Christian community – Armenians, the Turkish authorities create fertile ground for the final de-Christianization of the country. Such conditions compel Christians to be more restrained in terms of their reilgious freedoms and live there as a kind of “ghetto”.

1Վաշինգթոնում Անկարայի դաշնակիցները ձգտում են լռեցնել Թուրքիայի հակաքրիստոնեական քաղաքականության հասցեին հնչող քննադատությունը, http://news.am/arm/news/98168.html

2Տաթևիկ Խաչիկյան, Միսիոներությունը Թուրքիայում, http://www.lragir.am/armsrc/comments31494.html

3Kapusen rahiplerin gelişi: http://www.anadolukatolikkilisesi.org/samsun/tr/storia.pdf

4Почти половина турков не хотят соседствовать с христианами, http://www.sedmitza.ru/news/2363764.html

5Католической церкви отказано в юридическом статусе на территории Турции, http://www.cnlnews.tv/2011/01/22/turkey/

6Ronald Roberson (source: Annuario Pontificio) The Eastern Catholic Churches 2010, (August 22, 2010), http://www.cnewa.us/source-images/Roberson-eastcath-statistics/eastcatholic-stat10.pdf

7Otmar Oering, Guzide Ceyhan “Turkey: Religious Freedom Survey” http://www.religions.am

8Победа домашней церкви в атмосфере антихристианской враждебности в Турции, http://barnabasfund.org/RU/News/Archives/Victory-for-Turkish-house-church-amid-anti-Christian-hostility.html?&quicksearch=%D0%A2%D1%83%D1%80%D1%86%D0%B8%D1%8F

“Globus” analytical journal, # 5, 2012

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