Jesus in Turkey
For the first time in 550 years, Christianity inside Turkey is growing in numbers and influence. But its recent growth comes at a high price: since February 2006, radicalized Muslims have killed five Christiansthe kind of cold-blooded martyrdom not seen in decades.
Modern-day Turkey's 73 million citizens, 98 percent of whom are Muslims, are experiencing social and political upheaval. The country is attempting to improve its economic and human-rights record in order to join the European Union. Turkey's relations with the United States are strained as an ally in the war in Iraq, and because of Congress's aborted effort to pass the Armenian genocide resolution. Also, Turkey's border disputes with Greece over land around the Aegean Sea, as well as violent skirmishes with Kurdish rebels on its southern border, keep this nation's formidable military on highest alert.
This is the context in which a handful of Islamic radicals targeted Christians as "enemies of the state" because of their association with Western groups and their alleged support of Kurdish rebels. The five killed within the last two years were:
Andrea Santoro, a Catholic priest killed in February 2006. A 16-year-old youth shot Santoro as he was praying in the Santa Maria Church in Trabzon, Turkey.
Hrant Dink, a Turkish-Armenian newspaper editor. In January 2007, a teenager gunned down Dink, who had been convicted of "insulting Turkishness" two years prior.
The three Malatya martyrs: Necati Aydin, a Turkish pastor; Tilmann Geske, a missions worker from Germany; and Ugur Yuksel, a new Christian convert from Islam. In April 2007, young radicals feigning curiosity about Christianity killed the three men by slitting their throats at a Christian publishing house in southeastern Turkey. Their survivors include five children, two widows, and a fiancée.
In November, a Turkish court set a trial date for the five suspects involved in the Malatya killings for early January. Police are calling for life imprisonment and said all five suspects have confessed to the murders. The suspects accused the Christians of "forcing local girls into prostitution" and of praising the violence of rebel Kurds. (About 30,000 people have died since the 1980s in rebel-related violence.) Meanwhile, the Alliance of Protestant Churches in Turkey is calling Turkish congregations to pray and fast every Thursday for the next several weeks in preparation for the trial.
Isa Karatas of the Alliance of Protestant Churches in Turkey told Compass Direct News, "It is clear from these statements of the suspects that there is some group of powerful influence behind them. These people want to portray Turkey's Protestants as enemies of the nation."
"At the same time," he added, "because honor is such an important concept in our culture, they are trying to accuse us of having weak morals, so that they can find a justification for their murders."
Few nations have as rich a Christian history as Turkey. This is where Paul founded some of the earliest churches, including the church at Ephesus. Seven churches in this region were addressed in the Book of Revelation. Those in the early monastic movement found the caves of Cappadocia a near-perfect place to live out lives of prayer. Constantinople, now the city of Istanbul, became the capital of the Roman Empire just as it was being Christianized, and the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople has been the leader of worldwide Orthodoxy for centuries.
But Christianity came under Islamic rule in Turkey in 1453 and steadily declined for centuries; the last 100 years have been the worst. In 1900, the Christian population was 22 percent. Now most experts estimate that there are fewer than 200,000 Christians nationwide, comprising less than 0.3 percent of the population.