Riding the Pope's Coattails
A few days after Pope Benedict XVI left Turkey in December, a Christian news service published the hopeful headline, "Papal Visit Boosts Turkey's Beleaguered Catholics." Benedict's visit to the former capital of Christendom focused on strained relationships between Catholics and Orthodox Christians and between Catholics and Muslims. Media covered Muslim response to the pope in the wake of a speech in which he'd quoted a 15th-century Byzantine emperor critical of Islam.
But the public discussion asked few, if any, questions about what Benedict's visit might do for Turkey's small Protestant community. Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) said in an April report that Protestants are Turkey's most vulnerable minority group.
"Most Turks I know haven't ever met a Christian, unless they have a Greek or Armenian neighbor, and they're mostly all here in Istanbul," said Barbara Baker, Middle East bureau chief of Compass Direct News. "They have no context: To be a Turk is to be Muslim."
Baker and other Christians in Turkey expressed hope that positive reactions to the pope's trip will rub off on Protestants.
Already, the visit "has quelled and softened some reactions," said a Turkish evangelical, who feared reprisal and asked not to be identified. "But old historical and deep-rooted suspicions, prejudices, and attitudes don't disappear by one or two eventsunless it has the power of the Holy Spirit!"
In recent years, Turkey's 3,000 Protestants have been the occasional targets of attacks motivated by religion. In early November, a Protestant church in Odemis was firebombed, according to Compass Direct. Days before the pope arrived, a criminal trial began against two Turkish Protestants charged with "insulting Turkishness" and encouraging hatred against Islam.
"There is a price to pay for being a Christian in Turkey," Ihsan Ozbek, chairman of the Alliance of Protestant Churches in Turkey, told CSW. "And they make you pay it. You're taken in by the police, you get slapped around, you are maligned within the society, you can't hold a government job, and your security checks come up negative. Just because you're a Christian, the police come and bother you and your neighbors."
Turkey remains home to the Orthodox ecumenical patriarch, but there are only 65,000 Armenian Orthodox and 3,000 Greek Orthodox among its population of 70 million. There are an estimated 10,000 to 20,000 Catholics. The Protestant community has emerged in recent decades through the work of missionaries.
"Still in Turkey, it is impossible for religious minorities to own property or to have legal rights," Baker said. "They don't have personhood, so it leaves them in limbo all the time."
It wasn't always this way. For 1,100 yearsfrom the time Constantine moved the Roman capital there in the early fourth century until 1453, when the Byzantine Empire fell to the TurksConstantinople (now Istanbul) rivaled Rome's Christian influence.
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Weblogs Turkey Time, Warren, Obama, the Christian Coalition, and 'the Evangelical Agenda', and Democrats Hand Weekly Radio Address to Jim Wallis covered the Pope's trip to Turkey.
Other news on Christians in Turkey includes Turkey at Odds With Faithful (The Boston Globe)
Christianity Today's special section on Turkey is available on our site.