The Vanishing Act of the Church in Turkey
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 collapseWhile 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.
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 genocideEven 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 pastThe 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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