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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.
Collin Hansen | posted 8/08/2008 12:33PM

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All in all, there was a great deal of resentment toward the Byzantines, even among other Christians. Thus, when Islamic Bedouins began raiding Christian territories, they allied with displaced Arabs and disaffected local Christians. The Persians and Greeks dismissed these sorties as common, unsophisticated nomadic activity. But they were wrong. The first wave of jihad was underway.

The second wave of jihad overthrew the Byzantine Empire altogether. The key for the Islamic conquererors was enlisting the support of the recently converted Turks. The Turks were a warlike group, quick to battle, skilled in the slave trade. Once converted, the warrior doctrine of jihad motivated them to subdue Armenia and the Greek terrirory in Anatolia, where the Turkish capital of Ankara is today. Osman Ghazi (1299-1326), founder of the Ottoman Empire, led these Turks in military campaigns against Christians, and his successors carried on his war against the Byzantine Empire and Europe.

Boasting extraordinary leaders and a ruthless military, the Ottoman Turks capitalized on Christian weaknesses and rivalries to subdue all of Asia Minor, conquering Constantinople in 1453. They also captured the Balkans during the mid-15th century and even reached the gates of Vienna in 1683. It was this crisis of encroaching Islam that provided the backdrop for the Protestant and Catholic Reformations.

Armenian genocide

Even while the Byzantine Empire collapsed, however, the Armenians managed to withstand the Islamic onslaught. Though part of the Ottoman Empire, they maintained their culture, language, Orthodox religion, and a large measure of political autonomy. But some fatal miscalculations and the weight of world events, not to mention the Ottoman Empire, conspired to nearly annihilate them.

The Armenians desired true freedom from the Ottomans. They hoped to gain this freedom by earning European sympathy for their plight, combined with some help from the Russians, who sought to weaken their Ottoman enemy. World War I upset their strategy. In the middle of a bloody war, the Ottomans could not afford an insurrection. The Europeans had no sympathy to offer, given their staggering losses in the trenches. And the Russians were already fighting two fronts—one with Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the other with Marxists.

These factors also provided cover for the Turks to solve their "Armenian problem" once and for all. The Turks simply shot many of the Armenians. Others they rounded up and marched toward the Middle East without food, water, or shelter. For the Muslim crowds along the Armenian "parade route," deportation was an opportunity for rape, pillage, and slave internment. Some women survived by converting to Islam and immediately marrying a Muslim. But the rest were slaughtered when they reached their destination in modern-day Syria. Up to 1.5 million Armenians died. This 20th-century genocide motivated Hitler, who when discussing mass murder of the Jews said, "Who remembers the Armenians?"

Lessons of a disturbing past

The state of the contemporary church in Turkey, home to so many seminal moments in Christian history, looks bleak for now. Perhaps integration into the European Union will galvanize the small Greek Orthodox community in Istanbul and allow the Turkish government to honestly examine the grizzly fate of the Armenians. Hopefully the spread of religious freedom there will ease hostility toward missionaries and converts from Islam to Christianity. Regardless, we should heed the warnings of history—beware the dangers of political infighting between Christians with earthly interests at heart, and never underestimate the seriousness of Islamic jihad.

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