By Tim Scheiderer
In Istanbul, the Hagia Sophia juts out of the earth with resolute strength. It is a structure that commands one’s attention and, indeed was built to direct one’s attention heavenward. Inside the basilica, forty windows encircle the base of its dome welcoming the sun’s ray. The effect creates an ineffable vision where the dome seems “to be suspended from heaven by that golden chain and so cover the space,” wrote Procopios. Completed in 537 AD, Emperor Justinian’s architectural gem became the physical symbol of Christianity’s predominance in the civilized world.
On May 29, 1453, the world’s grandest cathedral was brought to its knees when Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Empire. For three days, the Hagia Sofia’s luxurious, sacred halls groaned as pillagers defiled it with their greed and theft. According to one eyewitness, “Sacred objects were scornfully flung aside. The holy icons and the holy vessels were desecrated.” The suffering of the grand cathedral mirrored the pain and death experienced by the worshippers who had filled it. Christians and other residents of the city were being beaten, raped, and killed.
Since the fall of Constantinople, the Church in the land of present-day Turkey has experienced the same fear, the same fate during various periods of its history in which Christians have been massacred in large numbers. Evidence of another possible violent, lethal purge is on the horizon. One recent instance gives an NGO leader great concern. In the southeastern portion of the country, the government has seized churches and other property under the guise of “urban renewal.”
“This is reminiscent of the events leading up to the start of the Armenian genocide on April 24, 1915, when properties [in Turkey] were illegally confiscated and the population was displaced under the false guise of temporary relocation for its own protection,” said Nora Hovsepian. She is the chairwoman of the Western Region of the Armenian National Committee of America. 1.5 million Christian Armenians are believed to have been killed in the genocide. Among some Turkish Christians, there is the sense that a bullseye is once again on their backs.
“There’s an atmosphere in Turkey right now that anyone who isn’t Sunni is a threat to the stability of the nation,” said a pastor in Istanbul.
The pastor’s sentiment is not mere paranoia. Since the early part of the twentieth century, the Christian population has dropped from 20% to .2%. Of the almost 80 million people living in Turkey, less than 150,000 Christians remain. This number includes Greek and Armenian Orthodox, Syriac, and other Protestant groups. Around 7,300 evangelical Christians also contribute to this total. The significant decline is illustrated by the number of Armenian churches and schools remaining in the country. Before 1915, 2,300 Armenian churches are estimated to have been in Turkey with about 700 schools teaching 82,000 students. Currently, there are only 34 churches and 18 schools remaining. The student population has plummeted to under 3,000 students.
In a land where “[they] were called Christians first at Antioch,” which is the present-day city of Antakya, the Church’s place in the history of this land is slowly being transformed into a non-reality. This is evidenced by the aforementioned major urban renewal plans for Diyarbakir, the city in southeastern Turkey. The government has seized numerous properties, including the third century-built Assyrian Orthodox Church of Virgin Mary and five other churches. A video released by the government shows only mosques in the renovated city, no churches. Again, this action of religious cleansing resembles others in Turkish history. After the Armenian genocide, in an effort to stamp out any influence of Armenian culture, numerous churches and schools have been converted into mosques and various businesses.
In other parts of Turkey, churches are being attacked. During the July coup d’état in 2016, in eastern Turkey, vandals smashed glass panels of the Malatya Protestant Church. A year ago, a man with a club strove to gain entry to the church as he hurled profanities. Police arrested him before the situation could escalate. In the coastal town of Trabzon, windows were also destroyed at the Santa Maria Catholic Church the day of the coup.
Earlier in 2016, near the Black Sea, in Samsun, four Muslims banged on the door of a building rented by the Agape Church Foundation striving to gain entry. A small group of Christians huddled in the building until the men left after noticing a security camera. The pastor noticed a difference with these men compared to others who have attacked the church. Others have apologized after they have been caught. These men, however, turned themselves into the police and upon being released shouted, “Allahu Akbar.” Pastor Pıçaklar said, “These guys wanted the door open and to go inside and hit someone or attack in some other way.” The four men had been drinking heavily prior to the incident.
PHYSICAL THREATS & VIOLENCE
The frequency of physical persecution is sporadic, but nonetheless alarming. The most recent example is from 2015 when a pastor and his family were shot at from a forest near the field where they were working. Two weeks before the incident, in the village nearby, the pastor heard hate speech coming from the mosque’s loudspeaker. He speculated the two events were connected.
Ripples of another anti-Christian campaign were felt in 2013. One day after Christmas in Istanbul’s Beyazit Square, certain members of the Anatolian Youth Association, the youth wing of the pro-Islamic Felicity Party, “circumcised” an inflatable Santa Claus and then stabbed it. One pastor was quite unnerved regarding the incident. “What we celebrate as a Christmas holiday is the birth of Jesus Christ. If they have Jesus in mind when they stab the Santa effigy, that’s truly thought-provoking,” said Pastor Krikor Agabaloglu.
As well, in some Istanbul neighborhoods, “posters depicting a devout-looking Muslim man punching Santa Claus” were displayed. The message, “No to New Year’s and Christmas celebrations,” was printed next to the disturbing image.
The last anti-Christian campaign occurred in the 2000s. Especially in 2005 and 2006, “almost all national newspapers carried reports targeting Christians, especially missionaries,” Al-Monitor reports.
In 2007, two Turkish Christians who converted from Islam and one German Christian were stabbed multiple times before two of their throats were slit. The other Christian, one of the Turkish men, died in the hospital a short time later. Nine years later, the five suspects were sentenced to life in prison without parole.
In February 2006, the priest of the aforementioned Santa Maria Catholic Church was praying in the last pew when two bullets struck his body. One bullet hit Father Andrea Santoro’s lung and the other went straight into his heart. Shortly thereafter, Father Pierre François René Brunissen from neighboring Samsun began leading services at the church, which has only a dozen members. Five months later, Father Pierre was stabbed and wounded. The same year, clergymen were attacked with knives in Mersin and Izmir. This period of attacks forced churches in certain cities to have police posted at the front of the buildings.
At the time, the events greatly unsettled the Catholic community. "We do not feel safe. I am very worried. Fanaticism is developing in some groups. Some people want to poison the atmosphere and Catholic priests are targeted. Anti-missionary films are broadcast on TV channels," said Bishop Luigi Padovese. He was also later murdered by his own driver in 2010. While shouting, “Allahu Akbar,” the driver stabbed the bishop and then slit his throat.
STATUS OF THE GOVERNMENT
The recent coup attempt, in July 2016, by the military has renewed fears. Many believe President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is consolidating power to return Turkey to an official Islamic nation. One major pre-coup indication of this desire is multiple attempts to revise the country’s constitution. The inability to ratify a new constitution evidences protracted, political in-fighting between pro-West Turks and pro-Islamic forces in the government. Speaker of Parliament Ismail Kahraman recently voiced his support for the new constitution. "We are a Muslim country. That is why we need a religious constitution," he said.
So the distance grows greater between what Turkey was and what it is yet to become. In 324, after conquering the Byzantine Empire, Constantine the Great renamed Byzantium, Constantinople. The city would host two ecumenical Church councils where foundational truths of Christianity were debated and codified. In total, the land of Turkey was the location of the first seven Church councils.
Today, Erdogan’s government has created a legal straitjacket for all religions including Christianity. USCIRF reports no religion, including Sunni Muslims, has full legal status. All are limited in regards to ownership and maintenance of places of worship. According to the Association of Protestant Churches, “One of the significant problems with this issue is the administration officials’ fear of losing votes and not wanting to be perceived as one who approves the establishment of churches.” This reality has caused Protestants to form associations instead of seeking to be recognized legally as a church. This has not completely solved the issue, however. Obstacles still remain, especially for smaller congregations who have no opportunity of obtaining association status.
National ID cards present another challenge to all religious minorities. The cards compel citizens to note their religious affiliation. As a result, people with a non-Muslim affiliation can face various forms of discrimination— even their children could be discriminated against at school by their teachers. Also, in Turkish schools, compulsory religion classes often foist a Muslim worldview onto the curriculum. The textbooks portray an incorrect or skewed view of all religions, save Islam. Clergy training and religious education for Protestants are also greatly restricted.
Legal constraints also continue to hamper evangelistic efforts or public expressions of faith. All permission for stands or celebrations in public spaces sought by Protestant churches in 2015 were denied. Security concerns or other reasons were cited. Furthermore, “missionary activities” were declared to be a national threat in an 8th grade textbook.
Since the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks, the Hagia Sophia has become a shadow merely displaying whatever religious or political light has been shone upon it. The Islamic Turks transformed the Hagia Sophia into a mosque with the addition of minarets, a mihrab, which indicates the direction of Mecca, and other Islamic architectural elements. After the Turks were defeated in the Great War, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, Turkey’s first president, secularized Turkey. Consequently, the sacred building was re-purposed as a museum.
On June 6, 2016, the government permitted the Hagia Sophia to be used for religious purposes for the first time since its conversion to a museum. Muslims were granted the opportunity to pray in it during the month of Ramadan. A new shadow seems to be emerging. For many, it might be shade. For the remnant, it could be ominous.
Article was updated on September 11, 2017.