In once-secular Turkey, Christians have become targets of Muslim persecution. Here’s what you need to know.
For nearly the last hundred years, Turkey, straddling Europe and Asia, has walked a precipitous path. Turning its back on the brutal Ottoman Empire of its past, the nation of 80 million people had attempted to combine its dominant Muslim culture with a more Western-oriented secularism—allowing a measure of political and religious freedom not common in most other Muslim-majority states.
Well, it seems as if Turkey is now on its way to falling into an intolerant form of Islam—if it hasn’t already. How do I know this? By listening to the country’s beleaguered Christian minority, which has dwindled from 22 percent of the population to a microscopic 0.2 percent just over the last century.
You probably know that Turkey, a key NATO ally that is 98 percent Muslim today, has deep Christian roots. The Book of Acts tells us that the followers of Jesus in Antioch, Antakya today, were the first to be called Christians. Revelation’s Seven Churches of Asia were in what is now Turkey. The first seven Ecumenical Councils in church history were held there. The magnificent Hagia Sophia in Constantinople—today, Istanbul—was one of the crown jewels of Christendom, until the city fell to the Ottomans in 1453. For the past 85 years, the Hagia Sophia, under secular rule, has been a museum, a cultural artifact of a proud Christian past. However, Muslim prayers are again being heard from within its walls.
There are other sounds in Turkey, too—the sounds of glass shattering, of fires burning, of shots fired, of people screaming. You likely heard of the failed coup by the military against the Islamist-leaning government of President Recep Erdogan. The government has rounded up or jailed more than 15,000 people suspected of participating in the coup. Scores are definitely being settled.
All of that is bad enough, but we are seeing something else in Turkey common in Muslim-dominant cultures when chaos breaks out: Christians become convenient targets. London’s Express newspaper reports that hardline Sunni Muslims, whipped into a frenzy by imams calling on them to take to the streets, targeted a small, Protestant church in a shopfront in Matalya. Shouting “Allahu Akbar,” the mob smashed the church’s windows, although no one was hurt.
“The attack on the church was light,” the pastor told the Express. “But it’s significant that it was the only shopfront attack in those three days. We were the only targets.” In one Black Sea city another group smashed the windows of the Santa Maria Church, breaking down its door with hammers. And the Turkish government has confiscated churches in the city of Diyarbakir.
Nine out of ten Turks believe that to be a Turk is to be a Muslim, so non-Muslims are automatically suspect. Such suspicion has led to violence against Christians even before the latest attacks. The Express notes, “In 2007, three Christian employees of a publishing house for Bibles in Malatya were attacked. After being tortured, their hands and feet were tied and their throats cut by five Muslim assailants.”
Today, imams subsidized by the government are reading sermons warning that Turks should not befriend Jews or Christians. “There’s no doubt that the government uses the mosques to get its message across to its grassroots supporters,” a pastor in Istanbul says. “There’s an atmosphere in Turkey right now that anyone who isn’t Sunni is a threat to the stability of the nation.”
So how do we Christians in the West support our brothers and sisters in Turkey? First, get informed. Come to BreakPoint.org for resources to get up to speed. Second, the U.S. has considerable influence with its NATO ally. Write your Senators and congress member, contact the White House and urge them to hold the Turkish regime accountable for protecting its Christian minority. And three, pray for the persecuted Church in Turkey and throughout the Middle East. In the end, Christ is their true defense.
John Stonestreet is President of The Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview and BreakPoint co-host.
Editor's Note: This piece was originally published by BreakPoint.