The territory of present-day Turkey, encompassing the biblical lands of Anatolia and Mount Ararat, is home to many of early Christianity’s pivotal historical events and holy sites – yet today is nearly devoid of indigenous Christians.
Before 1915, the territory of modern-day Turkey was home to large, indigenous, and vibrant Christian communities, comprised of millions of Armenians, Greeks, Pontians, Assyrians, Chaldeans, Syriacs, and Catholics. The Christian population in Turkey has been nearly eradicated through genocide and persecution. In the past century, over 1,500,000 Armenian Christians and hundreds of thousands of other Christians were murdered and many more exiled from their homelands. Today, the persecution and dispossession of Christians continues. They account for less than 0.1% of Turkey’s population. Of the over 2,000 Armenian churches which existed in the early 1900s, less than 40 remain open and active today. Christians are not free to properly train clergy in Turkey and the Ecumenical (Greek Orthodox) and Armenian Patriarchates are prevented from formally owning and transferring property.
Early Christianity in the Lands of Present-Day Turkey:
The Ottoman Empire, during its World War I-era genocide against Armenians, Greeks, and Assyrians, systematically destroyed its ancient Christian population and wiped out nearly all of the ancient religious and cultural heritage on its territory – much of it dating back to the time of Christ. It’s successor state, the Republic of Turkey, has continued this process through acts of destruction, desecration, and disregard – imperiling the very existence of Christian communities and the remaining legacy of early Christianity on these Biblical lands.
According to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), the serious limitations on freedom of religion that the Republic of Turkey continues to impose, “threaten[s] the continued vitality and survival of minority religious communities in Turkey.”
The following are key points about the rich legacy of early Christianity on the territory of present-day Turkey:
- The territory of present-day Turkey, encompassing the biblical lands of Anatolia and Mount Ararat – the famed landing-place of Noah’s Ark – is home to many of Christianity’s pivotal events and holy sites. This legacy long predates the arrival of Turks in Anatolia.
- The Apostles Thaddeus and Bartholomew traveled to Armenia and throughout the surrounding region to preach and establish communities of faith in the 1st Century.
- In 301 A.D., Armenia, inspired by St. Gregory the Illuminator, became the first Christian nation.
- The first foundational councils of the Christian Church, such as the Council of Nicea, were convened on the very territory of present-day Turkey, long before Turkish armies invaded these Christian lands.
- It was in the city of Antioch, on the Mediterranean coast, in which followers of Jesus were first called Christians.
- The Seven Churches of the Apocalypse, cited in the Book of Revelation, are located in modern-day Turkey.
- The city of Tarsus, now in south-central Turkey, was the birthplace of the Apostle Paul, whose Epistle to the Ephesians, the 10th book of the New Testament, was addressed to believers in Ephesus, a city on present-day Turkey’s Mediterranean Sea coast.
- The Catholic Church recognizes Ephesus, in present-day Turkey, as the city to which the Apostle John took the Virgin Mary to spend the last years of her life.
Persecution of Christians in Turkey
Before 1915, the territory of modern-day Turkey was home to a large, ancient, and vibrant Christian population, comprised of millions of Armenians, Greeks, Pontians, Assyrians, Chaldeans, Syriacs, and other Christian peoples. The Christian population in Turkey was decimated during the Armenian Genocide starting in 1915, during which well over 1,500,000 Christians were murdered, many because they refused to renounce their Christian faith. Today, Christians account for less than .2% of Turkey’s population and those who even discuss or write about the Armenian Genocide are subject to criminal prosecution (Article 301).
Christians in Turkey face continued persecution and threats. Church property is routinely confiscated through discriminatory laws. According to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), “Over the previous five decades, the [Turkish] state has, using convoluted regulations and undemocratic laws to confiscate hundreds of religious minority properties, primarily those belonging to the Greek Orthodox community, as well as Armenian Orthodox, Catholics, and Jews. . . The state also has closed seminaries, denying these communities the right to train clergy.”
- In 2012, the USCIRF listed Turkey as one of its 16 countries of particular concern, along with Iran, Sudan and North Korea. The previous three years before, USCIRF listed Turkey on its “watch list.”
- Christians cannot legally train clergy in Turkey and the Ecumenical (Greek Orthodox) and Armenian Patriarchate are prevented from formally owning and transferring property.
- The Turkish government recently selected the Armenian community’s religious leader against the wishes of the community.
- Of the over 2,000 Armenian churches, which existed in the early 1900s, only 38 remain open and active today.
- Although there have been a few public announcements vowing the return of some religious property, as the USCIRF reports, “ad hoc announcements have not resulted in systematic changes in constitutional and legal structures that would remedy violations of religious freedom for non-Muslim minorities,” some of which are on the verge of “virtual disappearance.”
- In 2009, Bartholomew I, the Ecumenical Christian Orthodox patriarch of Constantinople, appeared on CBS’s 60 Minutes and reported that Turkey’s Christians were second class citizens and that he personally felt “crucified” by a state that wanted to see his church die out.
- The USCIRF also wrote, “Turkey fails to legally recognize religious minority communities, such as the Alevis, the Greek, Armenian, and Syriac Orthodox Churches, the Roman Catholic and Protestant Churches, and the Jewish community. Furthermore, Turkish officials meddle in these communities’ internal government and education and limit their worship rights.”
- Christians in Turkey face continued persecution and threats and are prohibited from even praying in their own churches. In August 2010, such prohibition was caught on video, when children were prevented from praying at the Church of the Holy Cross in Akhtamar Island. See video: http://www.huliq.com/1/822-policeman-turkey-breaks-armenian-childrens-prayer
- The Halki Theological School, a Greek Orthodox Seminary that was used as an international religious center, has been forcibly shut down by Turkey for over three decades despite repeated protests from the United States and Christians from around the world. The School was the primary training center for educating future Greek priests and its closure is having serious detrimental effects upon the Greek Orthodox faith.
- Although in 2007, the Turkish government finally restored the Church of the Holy Cross on Akhtamar Island, one of the most sacred Armenian churches, which had been left to decay for over 90 years, it turned this holy site into a museum and refused to return it to the Armenian Church. Religious services are forbidden, except for one day a year, devastating the Armenian community that wants to use the Church for religious services.
- Several prominent Christian figures have recently killed in Turkey in recent years. In June 2010, the head of the Catholic Church in Turkey Italian Bishop Luigi Padovese was brutally murdered and nearly decapitated a day before he was to visit with the Pope, who was to highlight the persecution of Christians in the Middle East. Padovese’s murderer received a reduced sentence, after unsubstantiated accusations against the Bishop for alleged provocation were raised by the defendant. Before his murder, Bishop Padovese had been petitioning for the status of the Church of St. Paul in Tarsus, Turkey to be changed from a museum into a functioning place of regular worship. Even though his appeals were echoed personally by the Pope, Turkey refused the request.