Christian History Home > News > 2004 > The Vanishing Act of the Church in Turkey
The Vanishing Act of the Church in Turkey
A church worn down by Christian rivalry and Islamic jihad hangs on in the land of Nicea and Ephesus.
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Only those who are mindful of history can fully appreciate the significance of Turkey's expected admission to the European Union. The bitterness spawned by centuries of warfare and political rivalry has now given way to a new era of diplomatic and economic engagement. Yet, Turkey's troublesome record of human-rights abuses remains a considerable stumbling block for a few wary EU nations. In particular, the Ankara government is still prone to crack down on ethnic and religious minorities when perceived as a threat to nationalist identity. A sign of the government's suspicion: non-Muslim clergy are still forbidden from training there.
Many Greek and Armenian Christians in Turkey suffer the double ignominy of religious and ethnic marginalization. Though the government is officially secular and many Turks are only nominally Muslim, conversion to Christianity is considered a betrayal of heritage and homeland. Persecution stemming from this perspective has stunted church growth and crippled the small Christian community.
But for these Christians, EU admission offers hope. A handful of Greek Christians remain in Turkey, holdovers from a bygone era of Hellenistic influence in Asia Minor. Their hope is that increased trade activity with Europe will invite Greeks to return to Istanbul, where they can broker business and diplomacy between Western Europe and the Muslim world.
The hope is different for Turkey's approximately 45,000 Armenians, a traditionally Christian people. They believe Ankara's engagement with the West will stimulate further reforms in the democratic system, possibly even allowing the government to admit the murder of nearly 1.5 million Armenians by Turkish authorities during World War I.
In both cases, EU access functions as a sort of reverse "Macedonian call" for these beleaguered Christians. Acts 16 records a vision seen by Paul while traveling through Phrygia and Galatia—modern-day Turkey. The vision showed a man from Macedonia (ancient Greece), begging for Paul to come and preach the gospel in that land.
Of course, far from being historically unreached like ancient Macedonia, Turkey is home to many of Christianity's pivotal events. Present-day Turkey hosted the Christian church's foundational church councils, including Nicea, which laid the groundwork for orthodox theology. The seven churches of Revelation were there. And one of Paul's most important epistles, Ephesians, was addressed to believers in a city on Turkey's Mediterranean Sea coast.
So how did Turkey's Christians end up like the Macedonian in Paul's dream, begging for help from abroad?
Byzantine collapse While modern territorial spats between Greece and Turkey occasionally garner headlines, the peoples in these two regions have been in conflict for millennia. About 1,500 years ago, the rivalry assumed a doctrinal dimension. In 431, the Council of Ephesus condemned Nestorianism, followed by the Council of Chalcedon's dismissal of Monophysitism in 451. At these councils, the chief defenders of these theological offshoots represented churches in the East, ranging from Assyria and Persia (Nestorians) to North Africa and Armenia (Monophysites). The situation only worsened when the Greeks attempted to subjugate the Eastern churches by seizing their monasteries and churches.
The theological denunciation of the Eastern churches coincided with ongoing ethnic and geopolitical infighting. The Persians warred with the Aramaeans, Egyptians, Armenians, and Greeks, greatly destabilizing the Christian territories' frontier with the newly Muslim land on the Arabian peninsula. A struggle in the Byzantine capital of Constantinople between Emperor Phocas (602-10) and his general Heraclius instigated a military mutiny. Then in 632, Emperor Heraclius ordered the conversion of the Jews, which resulted in mass murder and tremendous resentment of his rule.
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