“This country is ours” were the words painted on the wall of Istanbul’s Armenian Surp Takavor Church. Besides, trash was scattered in front of the church’s door. This incident happened at the end of April and the suspect, detained on the first of May, told the authorities that he did the graffiti “because officials in the church behaved badly”. The Turkish Interior Ministry, and the chairman of the Turkish Parliament’s Human Rights Investigations Committee both promptly condemned the attack, having contacted the Armenian Church authorities, and the Kadıköy Municipality (where the building is located) made sure that the cleaning work started after it was informed about what happened.
Naturally, these kinds of events raise some concern among the Christian community in Turkey – the subject of this article.
First of all, it has to be said that there are no accurate statistics on the number of Christians in this country. However, it is commonly suggested that Christians make up around 0.2% of the population (about 150,000 people). According to the religious freedom report about Turkey (relating to 2016) published by the United States Department of State, the biggest Christian community is by far the one composed by the Armenian Apostolic Orthodox Christians (approximately 90,000 people, in their own estimates), followed by the Roman Catholics and the Syrian Orthodox Christians (25,000 people each). The Greek Orthodox, despite the symbolical importance of the Patriarchate of Constantinople, are around 2,000. As stated by a study published in 2015 at the “Interdisciplinary Journal of Research on Religion”, there are possibly between 4,000 and 6,000 Christians with a Muslim-background in Turkey. Of all the Christian communities, just the Greeks and the Armenians are recognized minorities under the frames of the Lausanne Peace Treaty of 1923.
At the beginning of the World War I (which started in 1914 and lasted until 1918), one in five people in current-day Turkey professed Christianity. Two main events contributed to the huge decrease in the number of Christians in Turkey.
First, what happened to the Armenian people under the Young Turk government of the Ottoman Empire during 1914-1918, which, in the Armenian perspective, was a genocide in which approximately 1.5 million people died. On the contrary, Turkey recognizes that some hundreds of thousands of Armenians (along with Turkish Muslims) died but maintains it was as a result of intercommunal violence originated by the First World War.
Second, the 1923 population exchange between Greece and Turkey involving 1,221,489 Greeks living in Turkey and 355,000 Turks in Greece, after years of problems concerning (not only but especially) the Greek and Assyrian Christian minorities. The International Association of Genocide Scholars considers that a genocide against those populations took place, but the Turkish government claims that that statement is “product of a pathetic mentality”. In 1924 the Christian population in Turkey made up 2 percent of the total population.
As we have seen there are several ancient Christian communities in Turkey and among them we can find huge differences in their rites, languages, territories (the way they are spread, or not, across the country) and so forth. Despite that fact, we can point out some common points they share when it comes to the experience of living as a Christian in Turkey.
One of the most successful things is the way some proprieties (formerly forcefully confiscated by the Turkish state over decades) expropriated from religious minorities have been returned to them. Since 2003 – and especially from 2011 on, when a new law was approved – more than 1,000 properties were given back or a financial compensation was paid to those communities. Even though the Christian confessions have been benefiting from this program, it should be noted that this number encompasses all of the religious minorities in Turkey. In addition, in 2016 the Turkish government paid for the utility expenses of 355 churches and 24 chapels, and has been carrying out a policy of restoring abandoned (and/or in ruins) historical religious buildings. In 2012 (last official data available) the Turkish government informed there were 349 active churches in Turkey, including 140 Greek Orthodox, 58 Assyrian and 52 Armenian, which means that the number of churches has grown slightly since then.
The Christian community in Turkey also welcomed the words of the Turkish Education Minister İsmet Yılmaz when he said last year that the new curriculum to be adopted for religion classes would approach all religions equally, being designed in accordance with European Court of Human Rights rulings, in which were considered that “it was a violation of the freedom of belief for a state to inculcate one religion even if it is the belief that the majority of that country follows”. The court was of the opinion that the former school curriculum had an approach clearly favorable to Sunni Islam compared to the other branches of Islam and different religions. This change led to the development of a book of doctrine endorsed by Turkey’s Armenian, Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant, and Syriac Churches, the major Christian denominations in the country. Containing the shared beliefs of Christians, it was written by the members of an ecumenical commission whose responsibility was to create a document with clear information about the Christian faith in order for it to be used in school textbooks.
As for the Greek Orthodox, since 2010 dozens of Metropolitan bishops have been given the chance to integrate the Greek Orthodox Church’s Holy Synod, which elects the community’s Patriarch. This means they were approved for dual citizenship since the Turkish government keeps refusing to allow non-Turkish citizens to be part of the Synod – and that is one of the oldest complaints of the Greek Orthodox.
But that is not the only one: In a position shared by all the non-recognized minorities, the denial of legal personality/status to those communities is a problem for them since it interferes with their “right to own, maintain and manage property, train religious clergy and offer religious education”.
The issue of property is definitely a great concern for Christian minorities. Some claim that most of their applications for having some properties returned have been rejected and when that does not happen the properties are not returned directly to them. For instance, the Christian Syriac community in southeastern Turkey states that dozens of their churches, monasteries, and cemeteries were signed over to the Turkish state and municipalities in the region over the last few years.
Furthermore, there are many priests and pastors who see their worship places vandalized (like in the example with which this article starts) and get death threats on a regular basis, mainly via SMS, Facebook, and e-mails.
Another point of contention is the one related to the listing of religious identification on Turkish identification cards (IDs). Even though the new IDs, introduced in 2017, do not show the holders’ religious affiliation, religious minority communities “remain concerned that a biodata field on religious affiliation could lead to discrimination if the field is left blank or lists a faith other than Islam”. From their point of view, discrimination is also happening at schools as “while non-Muslim children can be exempted [from a compulsory “Religious Culture and Moral Knowledge” course], they often must disclose their religious affiliation (or lack thereof), which can lead to social ostracism”.
Fortunately, the grave problems/attacks affecting Christians in Turkey in 2006/2007 (when three Protestants working for their Bible-publishing house were murdered in Malatya, an Italian Catholic priest was shot dead in Trabzon, and another Italian Catholic priest was stabbed) did not happen again. But although some positive steps taken by the Turkish government during the last few years (as the scholar Anna Maria Beylunioğlu writes “it is true that the AKP government adopted a relatively positive attitude towards non-Muslims compared with previous governments”), there are still some problems felt by Christians in Turkey: Actually, most of them are shared by other religious minorities. As, for instance, recent reports by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom and the European Parliament show there are still some concerns about freedom of religion in Turkey.
P.S.: It would be unfair to finish this article without mentioning (and thanking) Jean-Marc Balhan (Society of Jesus) and the deep conversation we have had about how it is to be a Christian in Turkey. His article on the subject (“Being a Christian in Turkey: some anthropological perspectives”) is a must-read for anyone who wants to study it. I also want to thank Diyarbakır’s Evangelical Church community for the kind way they received me at their home and told me their personal experiences.
José Miguel DIAS ROCHA – Erasmus Volunteer of SASAM
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 Hürriyet Daily News – “Turkish Interior Ministry condemns racist graffiti on church wall”. 05/01/2018. http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/turkish-interior-ministry-condemns-racist-graffiti-on-church-wall-131168
 United States Department of State, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor – “Turkey 2016 International Religious Freedom Report”. 2016. https://www.state.gov/documents/organization/269120.pdf
 Duane Alexander Miller and Patrick Johnstone – “Believers in Christ from a Muslim Background: A Global Census”. Interdisciplinary Journal of Research on Religion. Volume 11, Article 10. 2015:10.
 Hamit Bozarslan – “The Ottoman Empire”. In John Horne (ed.) – “A Companion to World War I”. Blackwell Publishing, 2012:496.
 José Miguel Dias Rocha – “Was it a genocide or not? – Positions of the countries on the Armenian issue during the Ottoman Empire”. 03/01/2018. https://sahipkiran.org/2018/03/01/1915-armanian-issue/
 Giuseppe Motta – “Less than Nations: Central-Eastern European Minorities after WWI, Volume I”. Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2013:365.
 International Association of Genocide Scholars – “Resolution”. 2007. http://www.genocidescholars.org/sites/default/files/document%09%5Bcurrent-page%3A1%5D/documents/IAGS-Resolution-Assyrian%20and%20Greek%20Genocide.pdf
 Hürriyet Daily News – “Turkey calls joint ‘genocide’ remarks by Armenian and Greek leaders ‘pathetic’”. 03/18/2016. http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/turkey-calls-joint-genocide-remarks-by-armenian-and-greek-leaders-pathetic-96614
 Ibid. 3.
 U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom – “Annual Report 2017”. 2017. https://www.uscirf.gov/sites/default/files/Turkey.2017.pdf
 Milliyet – “Bozdağ: Türkiye’de 349 kilise var”. 10/01/2012. http://www.milliyet.com.tr/bozdag-turkiye-de-349-kilise-var-siyaset-1604770/
 Hürriyet Daily News – “Turkey to get new religious class curriculum in line with Euro court rulings”. 02/08/2017. http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/turkey-to-get-new-religious-class-curriculum-in-line-with-euro-court-rulings–109481
 The National Herald – “High Ranking Greek Clerics Became Turkish Citizens”. 03/04/2015. https://www.thenationalherald.com/77393/high-ranking-greek-clerics-became-turkish-citizens/
 Ibid. 11.
 Ibid. 11.
 Radikal – “Protestanlar: Tehdit çok”. 04/21/2007. http://www.radikal.com.tr/turkiye/protestanlar-tehdit-cok-811986/
 Ibid. 8.
 Ibid. 8.
 Anna Maria Beylunioğlu – “Freedom of religion and non-Muslim minorities in Turkey”. Turkish Policy Quarterly. Volume 13, Number 4, pp. 139-147. 2015:141.
 Ibid. 8.
 European Parliament – “European Parliament resolution of 6 July 2017 on the 2016 Commission Report on Turkey”. 07/06/2017. http://www.europarl.europa.eu/sides/getDoc.do?pubRef=-//EP//TEXT+TA+P8-TA-2017-0306+0+DOC+XML+V0//EN