Good signs for Christians from the Republic of Turkey

(Dear Readers, after having raised some controversy regarding Islam, I am glad that I can report some positive news, before I change the topic.)

Turkey, with 98% of its population Muslim, is the only Muslim country without a state religion. The Constitution of the Republic of Turkey guarantees religious freedom. The population includes members of the Armenian Apostolic and Greek Orthodox churches, Roman and Eastern Catholics, and Jews. Today, approximately 120,000 Christians and 26,000 Jews live in Turkey, out of 73 million of the total population.

Despite the right of religious freedom, Christian minorities are still subjected to harassment and even violent attacks. Not only were Catholic priests, and recently a bishop, killed by individuals, but the government also confiscated the properties of Roman Catholics.

Also, Orthodox Christians have to endure discrimination by the government. The Armenian Patriarch, head of the Armenian Orthodox Church, lacks the status of legal personality and there is no seminary in Turkey to educate its clerics since the last remaining seminary was closed by the state. As with the Ecumenical Patriarch, the Armenian Patriarchate experiences direct Turkish government interference in the selection of its religious leadership, and the Turkish state also prevents the Armenian Orthodox community, which the State Department estimates at 65,000, from operating an independent seminary.

Recently, though, the Turkish government made several signs of willingness to improve the situation of Christians in this country. As an example, consider the ancient monastery Sumela, founded in the year 386 AD during the reign of the Emperor Theodosius I (375- 395), which became Turkish after the Treaty of Lausanne. In 1930, the miraculous icon of the Panagia Soumelá, as well as other sacred treasures of the monastery, were transferred to the new Panagia Soumela Monastery, on the slopes of Mount Vermion, near the town of Naousa, in Macedonia, Greece. Since then, it has been forbidden to celebrate the liturgy there. The monastery, a small portion of which has been restored, has become a destination for tourist excursions. On the Day of Assumption (15th. August) this year, which is for the Orthodox Christians the Feast of Dormition (the “falling asleep” of the Theotokos), the first Mass in the past 88 years was celebrated by Patriarch Bartholomew I at this monastery.

Mass at the Sumela Monastry on the Feast Day of Dormition 2010

Again, on the 19th. Aug. the Turkish government made a similar concession for the Armenians. It authorized the celebration of a liturgy in the Church of the Holy Cross in Akhtamar, on an island of Lake Van. Sandro Magister reported:

This church, which had also fallen into ruin, was renovated in 2007. But it was set up as a museum, and until now the liturgy has not been permitted to be celebrated there.

When the Armenian patriarch asked for permission to place a cross on top of the renovated church, the Turkish authorities refused. The church had to remain without a cross, without bells, without sacred markings, without pastors, and without faithful. Instead, the ceremony for the conclusion of the renovations prominently featured images of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the modern Turkish state.

The liturgies at Sumela and Akhtamar on August 15 and 19 will be attended by a few thousand faithful, many of them from abroad: an unusual number for Turkey, a cradle of the early Christianity propagated by Paul and for centuries a land of flourishing Christianity, but where today the Churches – or the little of them that remains – don’t even have legal recognition.

Moreover, last August 5 two churches dating back to the fourth and sixth centuries in the village of Yemisli in the region of Mardin in southeastern Anatolia were reopened for worship. The buildings were renovated by seventy-two families of the Syriac Orthodox community, which numbers about five thousand faithful in Turkey.

The concessions made this August by the government of Ankara are being interpreted as a move on the chessboard of Turkey’s problematic entry into the European Union, which is impossible without minimal standards concerning religious freedom.

And just a few days ago, it was reported that a top Turkish religious official said that the Saint Paul Church in Tarsus should be reopened.

“We feel disturbed when we hear that a minaret has been banned in Europe. We should be protecting freedom of religion for different religions in our own territory. If we only approach religions from a security perspective, we will be unable to work this out,” Ali Bardakoğlu, who holds the current Presidency of Religious Affairs was reported as saying.

St. Paul's Church in Tarsus

As recorded in the New Testament, Paul was originally from Tarsus. The Saint Paul’s church in Tarsus, which appears on the UN World Heritage list,  was used for liturgy up until the 20th century. It is located in the Cami-i Nur District. Now it is a museum.

It was confiscated by the Turkish government in 1943 for use as a state museum. It is currently also used under a government license for regular services by fee-paying Christian visitors. CiNews from Ireland reported:

Turkey’s 32,000-member Catholic Church asked Prime Minister Erdogan to permanently return the building, which was a focus for Christian culture until the regime of Kemal Ataturk in the 1920s.

Bishop Padovese said he believed the Turkish government is now ready to classify Tarsus as a Christian pilgrimage site, but he said European Christians must continue demanding a permanent solution.

He said: ‘A certain amount of public pressure is helpful, but only if it originates from love for Turkey and a genuine wish for religious freedom to grow in the country’.

So, whatever the motives or political calculations might have been behind these decisions, they are at least positive signs for the whole Christendom.

Important update!
Breaking news!

Hagia Sophia could host religious ceremonies, top Turkish official says
from Turkey Daily News 27th. Aug. 2010
Brushing aside fears that holding religious ceremonies in churches would undermine Turkey’s Islamic character, the country’s top religious official has expressed openness about allowing such rites in Istanbul’s famous Hagia Sophia.
The whole story is posted in the comment section beneath this article.

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29 Responses to Good signs for Christians from the Republic of Turkey

  1. teresa says:

    perhaps this would interest you too, as I read this piece of news minutes ago:

    “The Pope’s cobbler delivered him two new pairs of shoes in person on Wednesday, one white and one in the traditional red. Making a personal effort to improve Christian unity, the shoemaker also sent a pair to the Russian Orthodox Patriarch in the mail. […] In addition to the Popes, the shoemaker also has a history of supplying Orthodox Patriarchs with footware.

    Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexy II received them, and most recently, Patriarch Kirill I received a black pair of the handmade masterpieces through the mail. Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew I also owns some of Stefanelli’s shoes.Commenting about giving the footwear to various Church leaders, Stefanelli told LOR, “It’s a little sign to reinforce the desire for the unity of Christians.”


  2. shieldsheafson says:

    Despite all, Christianity remains. When Europe comes to its senses again, I hope and pray that one day all Christians will witness a Pope crowning the Holy Roman Emperor in St Sophia in Constantinople.


  3. ibrahimalhalabi says:

    The Republic of Turkey is more in the way of an état laïque than a secular state as customarily understood. With the abolition of the Caliphate responsibility for religious affairs {DIYANET} passed to the new republican state apparatus. Although the Turkish constitution maintains in principle no religious affiliation, the state owns, maintains and build mosques, pays clergy and vets sermons. Sunni Islam of the Hanafi school is normative and considered authentically Turkish even although a substantial minority of Turkish citizens are Alevi/Alawite.
    Christians are nowhere encouraged and are perceived as a threat to the stability of the state and un-Turkish. Political meddling by the old Great Powers is largely responsible for this and is fully documented in the literature. The Ottoman system was a delicate, if clunky, machine of checks and balances which allowed minorities to co-exist with little interference as long as they were prepared to stick to the rules. It was far from perfect and the system, when confounded, hit back savagely “pour encourager les autres”. The sorrowful case of the Armenians is a particularly bloody example of that, they remain, however, the largest Christian denomination in the country. Latterday territorial rivalry between Turkey and Greece goes a long way to account for the squeezing of the Orthodox Patriarchate and the closing of seminaries. Suriyani/Syriacs of both Orthodox and Catholic persuasions are on the verge of extinction as people leave for an easier life elsewhere. Latin Catholics are a tiny minority of mostly immigrants whose presence enables the large churches in Istanbul to keep functioning. A Sephardi/Ladino Jewish community clings on but with Israeli-Turkish relations turning sour one wonders for how long.
    It is a bitter irony that the “Christian” powers who sought to dismember the so-called Sick Man of Europe made life more difficult for the people they claimed to protect. Had the Ottoman Sultanate/Caliphate by some miracle survived intact the First World War many of the problems afflicting the Near East might well have not have materialised in the intractable form which challenges contemporary diplomatic skills.


  4. savvysrdc says:

    Interesting news on Turkey. I wonder why they still refuse the accept the Armenian genocide though.

    Anyways, my interview with an anti-pornorgraphy activist is up on my blog.



  5. teresa says:

    srdc, they deny the genocide mostly because of the nationalism which was the motivation and legitimation of building a modern state through Atatürk, and in order to establish a ethnically homogeneous country, they committed the genocide and expelled a lot from their homeland.

    I have Armenian Christian friends and they are of course very angry that the Republic Turkey still denies the genocide. But I hope the situation will improve.


  6. teresa says:

    P.S. the national state is a modern kind of state form, it appeared in the 19th. century in Europe, and so Turkey, 100 years ago, used the nationalism to build up a modern state. It was also the case with many Asian and African States, and the revolutions and anti-colonialism movement in Africa and Asia, were also motivated by nationalism.

    While Europe began to abandon nationalism after the WWII, this ideology is still prevalent in many countries in Asia and Africa.


  7. teresa says:

    P.S. The genocide of Armenian was not motivated by religion.


  8. savvysrdc says:

    Thanks for your input theresa. I know quite a few movies have been made by Armenians on this subject.


  9. teresa says:

    srdc, I just saw the comment of Ibrahim as pending, and I think he explains well.

    Ibrahim: sorry to have made you wait, as the setting of our blog lets the first comment wait for moderating, but after being approved for the first time, your comments will all appear immediately without moderation.


  10. rebrites says:

    I lived with my family in Turkey for three years way back in the 1970´s; my father was posted in Izmir as a NATO attaché. We attended Catholic and Protestant worship every week at the Domus cathedral downtown, and sometimes a “smells and bells” liturgy at the Church of St. Polycarp. There was a lively Christian presence throughout the military expat subculture, with choirs, catechism classes, the full range of parish life… all of it under the aegis of NATO and USA Dept. of Defense military dependents programs. I don´t know if all this still exists in Turkey, but it went on for at least 25 years of Cold War presence in at least four Turkish cities. The only restriction was on evangelizing: don´t tell your Turkish friends about Jesus, or There Will Be Trouble. (And for God´s sake don´t tell anyone you had those Finnish Evangelical missionaries in the house — they were court-martial material! )


  11. johnhenrycn says:

    Teresa says:

    Ibrahim: sorry to have made you wait, as the setting of our blog lets the first comment wait for moderating, but after being approved for the first time, your comments will all appear immediately without moderation.

    Heh, heh. No, but yes, but no…


  12. johnhenrycn says:

    …but yes… Good journalism, as usual, Teresa; but might I respectfully suggest some more foot notation or linkage would help to strenghen your piece? Not referring to where you mention that “approximately 120,000 Christians and 26,000 Jews live in Turkey”, or facts like that – I’ll accept that without back up, but:
    1. “…the government also confiscated the properties of Roman Catholics.”
    2.”…the Armenian Orthodox Church, lacks the status of legal personality…”
    3.”…the Turkish state also prevents the Armenian Orthodox…from operating an independent seminary.”
    4. “…the new Panagia Soumela Monastery…Since then, it has been forbidden to celebrate the liturgy there.”

    Thank goodness, I’m just a commenter here, not a blogger. I’d never last! 🙂


  13. johnhenrycn says:

    Welcome, Ibrahim. Anyone remember JacquesArden? He’d be another asset.

    I’m learning far more about the Faith from this blog than I have elsewhere, I think because we start from the same premise – the Church is good.

    That said, I’ll not be commenting for awhile (family and professional demands); although you’ll be seeing my monocled avatar (under the “you like this” button), now and then, so you’ll know I remain one of your ardent admirers!


  14. johnhenrycn says:

    This is an important new Catholic blog, and I must stress to everyone that “I will be back”, as one of Teresa’s (in)famous ex-countrymen once said. My absence will be a temporary one. The Assizes (ask Raven) and an old uncle are making demands that cannot be ignored. Love you all!


  15. teresa says:

    Johnhenry, thanks, shall provide next time more links.


  16. afcote says:

    You do not mention, Teresa, that Bishop Luigi Padovese, referred to in your piece, has since been assassinated.

    Christianity in Turkey is still heavily persecuted – just ask the Oecumenical Patriarch. If they ever want to join the EU, they have a long, long way to go on rights for Christians.


  17. teresa says:

    Afcote, yes I read about him last month in the media.


  18. teresa says:

    And dear all, perhaps it will interest you how people report this event in Turkey (of course there is a plurality of voices, but I find this one which would be very interesting to you, I think):
    “History says the Sumela monastery was built in the year 386 by the Pontic Greeks who came in the east coast of the Black Sea nearly 3000 years ago. During the period of the Ottoman Empire which conquered the city of Trabzon in 1461, the monastery remained open and was used by the Orthodox population for worship. However since 1923 it was turned in a museum prone of the Turkish State and it was recently under restoration. Because of its location overlooking the forests and also its religious significance, over years it has been used as a tourist attraction especially for Greeks and Russians until 15 August 2010 when they were granted by the Turkish government the possibility to attend a mass which will be held once a year.

    During the mass, Patriarch Bartholomew except of calling it a grace of God also told it was a grace of the government who permitted the Orthodox minority and the foreigners who attended the liturgy in the Sumela monastery. 50 non-Turkish journalists were present at the mass and it was also transmitted live in Greek television.

    The mass was greeted by Greece’s Prime Minister, George Papandreou who named it a “historic and important event”. He continued by telling “It was a sign of bilateral rapprochement with Turkey and reflected a spirit of cooperation and peace between us and our neighbor.” The event is considered a religious freedom for the Orthodox population living in Turkey. Nevertheless, while it is difficult to go beyond the facts in search for real reasons one thing remains certain: the permission of the mass by the Turkish government is regarded as a democratic act and a step forward in the Turkey’s records on human rights.”


  19. teresa says:

    Breaking news for all! I am happy and excited.
    Hagia Sophia could host religious ceremonies, top Turkish official says
    Brushing aside fears that holding religious ceremonies in churches would undermine Turkey’s Islamic character, the country’s top religious official has expressed openness about allowing such rites in Istanbul’s famous Hagia Sophia.

    “Turkey will not become a Christian country by allowing three to five churches to hold religious ceremonies,” Ali Bardakoğlu, the head of the Religious Affairs Directorate, told journalists at a fast-breaking meal, or iftar, Wednesday.

    Earlier this week, Bardakoğlu called for the reopening of the Saint Paul Church in Tarsus, a district of the southern province of Mersin, comments he reiterated at the iftar. “I find it more correct if the Saint Paul Church in Tarsus serves as a church than in its current role as a museum,” he said. “Christians have parallel demands.”

    In response to a journalist’s question during the meal on whether the Hagia Sophia could be a center for religious ceremonies, Bardakoğlu said the issue is not on the directorate’s agenda yet, but that the body is taking a stand for freedom and every person’s right to worship in their own way.

    “This is not a decision we can make. The Religious Affairs Directorate expresses its opinion when it is asked,” the top religious official said, adding that the body is supporting freedom not only for Christians in Turkey but also for Muslims in Western Thrace, Albania and Macedonia and Christians who live in other places.

    The Hagia Sophia, originally a church, was transformed into a mosque after Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror laid siege to Istanbul in 1453 as part of the Ottomans’ attempt to convert the city to Islam. It was opened as a museum in 1935.

    Cyprus was ignored

    In his dinner with journalists, Bardakoğlu also said there has been large-scale neglect in northern Cyprus and that a mosque will be constructed in Nicosia and modern Quran courses will be offered under state control.

    The top religious official also said the directorate is taking the side of socio-cultural developments and social movements, rather than opposing them. “We cannot ignore them, because our institution involves all people who live in this region,” he said.


  20. Brother Burrito says:

    Turkey are very keen to enter the EU, aren’t they.

    When a Jihadist waves a white flag, it means he wants to reload.

    Sorry to be so cynical.


  21. The Raven says:


    I think that Lucifer will be redeemed before the Turkish state will allow Hagia Sophia to be used for Christian worship. The very most they can mean is that they will allow Moslems to say prayers there.


  22. afcote says:

    Trying to negotiate with Islam is a pointless waste of time.

    Better to encourage the Russians to fulfil their long-held dream of retaking Constantinople for Orthodoxy. Now that WOULD be good news.


  23. afcote says:

    “also said there has been large-scale neglect in northern Cyprus and that a mosque will be constructed in Nicosia and modern Quran courses will be offered under state control”

    Ah yes, Cyprus.

    Which country was the colonial power? Which country has military bases there? That’s right, us.

    Which country stood by and allowed Turkey to despoil a Christian country which we had a duty to defend? That’s right, us.

    We should use our military there to drive Islam out of the north and stop being such pathetic weaklings.

    As for neglect – yes there has been neglect alright. The great gothic cathedral of Famagusta for a start, desecrated by the heathen. And we do nothing!


  24. Irenaeus of New York says:

    The only religious service they would potentially allow in the Hagia Sophia would be islamic. It would be difficult to imagine that anything else permitted. Every advance in dialogue for religious freedom in Turkey is merely an imaginary improvement that is as fleeting as the wind. The only reason Christians are a minority is because the ottomans/turks either murdered them, drove them off, or kidnapped Christian women and children for their harems as they have often done in the past. The result is the desert we see today that is fast spreading into Europe.


  25. teresa says:

    Irenaeus, I think you, and also Raven are correct, as I read the message in the context of St. Paul’s church of Tarsus and thus made a too hasty and wrong conclusion.


  26. johnhenrycn says:

    Very nice to see Irenaeus again, It’s been awhile, well, more than awhile, actually. I think you’re right. I wonder, though – if the Turks are still keen to be Europeans, isn’t insisting on enforcement of full religious freedom the least that real Europeans can demand of them? Do you think that’s possibile? If so, I wonder if full integration of Turkey into the EU (for what it’s worth, heh, heh) might not be a price worth paying, since Christianity, when allowed to flourish, is more appealing to the downtrodden than anything else.

    [I’m supposed to be away from blogs for now. Oh well :)]


  27. Irenaeus of New York says:

    Hi Teresa,

    Very good article by the way. I think the situation in Turkey is a very depressing one to be sure. I look at Turkey as the “best” islam has to offer the world… which I find pretty sobering.


  28. Irenaeus of New York says:

    JohnHenry my good man!
    Good to see you too. My hard-drive crashed several months back, and I didnt have regular access to the internet. But even when I did acces the internet, I could no longer post on DT’s blog due to some wierd reason even though I was successfully logged in. Perhaps DT despises me and blocked me from posting 🙂

    As for Turkey, if they are let into the EU, it will only add to the economic, cultural, and a spiritual drain on the EU. I dont see the west being able to coerce them into being tolerant. Its never been part of their culture/religion except in small but fragile dispensations (that their apologists like to falsely highlight as the historical norm). Even if Turkey were more like Egypt, it wouldnt be enough progress. Though Egypt allows higher levels of religious liberty, they still are attrociously biased and continue to persecute Christians who are 10% of the population.


  29. kathleen says:

    About 7 or 8 years ago Aid to the Church in Need produced a well researched book called “The Cross and the Crescent” about the then current state of Christians in countries where they are in minority to Islam. It worked through each country in alphabetical order giving documented accounts of the constant harassment and persecution Christians suffer in EVERY country…. with just the faintest glimmer of sporadic good will in a few places, sometimes. It was a shocking and depressing account of our brothers and sisters in these lands, no more. Unfortunately, since then things have got increasingly worse!!
    (N.B. When I did an internet search just now, the book I found under this title is not the one I’m referring to; perhaps ACN’s book is no longer in print?)

    There are fair-minded good people in Islam of course, but they have the almost impossible task of changing the attitude of their fascist and biased regimes.


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