Jesus in Turkey
Protestant missions work began around 1820. There are now more than 30 Protestant organizations operating nationwide. In 1999, the Izmit earthquake, which killed 17,000 and left 800,000 homeless, led Christian agencies to start new relief work, and they eventually began working alongside independent Christian fellowships. These fellowships, along with new growth in traditional Orthodox congregations, have created a 3 percent annual growth in the country's Christian population, about three times Turkey's overall population growth rate. Following the Malatya murders, Christianity Today traveled to Turkey, meeting church leaders from throughout the region.
Tasting Forbidden Fruit
In so many ways, the story of Turgay Ucal, a pastor of an independent church in Istanbul, embodies the promise and peril of Turkish Christianity. On a weekday afternoon, Ucal sat down with CT to describe his journey to faith in Jesus Christ.
Ucal (pronounced u-CHAAL) grew up in Old Town, Istanbul. He told CT that as a high school student he took a leap of faith, almost literally, out of his comfort zone. In Turkish life, generations of families live together with unlocked doors and few secrets. One day, he strolled down a cobblestone street, past some decaying buildings. He walked back and forth to make sure no one he knew was aroundand slipped into a Catholic church.
At the time, Ucal was deeply curious about what had happened to Jesus when, as the Koran says, he left this earth still alive. "The Koran said Jesus didn't die," Ucal recalls, "and I asked, 'Why? What is in the Bible?'I wondered."
Turkey's religious landscape is not simple: sharply partisan politics, strident nationalism, and disputed history make it a complex scene. Secular nationalists who are Muslim in private practice fiercely oppose public religiosity. They see Christian converts as tools of Western powers that want to undermine Turkey's sovereignty.
In the 1960s, the era in which Ucal grew up, Turks in Istanbul were exploring many forbidden fruits. Coca-Cola and Pepsi factories opened up. Turkish kids tasted hot dogs for the first time, despite the warning that hot dogs might contain donkey meat.
Others, like Ucal, drew close to Christ.
Thirty years later, the church started by new believers has achieved new maturity and public acceptance. The independent Turkish church now comprises almost 100 congregations and more than 100 house fellowships.
Turkish Christians of Muslim backgrounds have anchored the leadership of the church around their own new identityand by portraying Jesus Christ as a Turk. This helps resolve a crucial conflict in Turkish minds, that only Muslims can be truly "Turkish."
Leaders have discovered that by the time a Turk of Muslim background enters a church, he or she is often ready to convert and is looking for reassurance. Ucal told CT that when he went to university to study Islamic literature, he even belonged to an Islamic youth group. But his ultimate purpose was to learn more about Jesus. "At the university, I saw the biblical background to what I was studying," he said. "The Bible became my fate."
He said Christianity offered a new balance of freedom in a disciplined context, transcending the stringent legalism of his upbringing. As a young man, Ucal had tried to be a good Muslim. "My family was Muslim. I prostrated myself to Mecca five times a day. I participated in 'The Light' [Nurcu], a Muslim youth group. I had a very structured Muslim mind."