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Turkish Christians Plead: Don’t Distribute Bibles After Earthquake

Local believers and their Syrian colleagues serve Christians and Muslims alike in cooperative effort at relief aid.
Turkish Christians Plead: Don’t Distribute Bibles After Earthquake
Image: Chris McGrath / Getty Images
People walk past a destroyed mosque in Hatay, Turkey on February 20, 2023 after earthquakes caused widespread destruction in southern Turkey and northern Syria and killed more than 40,000 people.

An unnamed Turkish man dug through the rubble. The stench from rotting corpses filled his nostrils; the cries from trapped survivors pierced his ears. Finally, he located a little girl he could help, removed the surrounding debris, and gently pulled her from the clutches of death.

And social media cursed him.

The man filmed the whole episode on Facebook Live. And contrary to his expectations, comments of derision poured in from across the country. While his religion is unstated, Turkish Christians warned of similar earthquake exploitation from their brothers and sisters in faith.

When Bibles were distributed in Kahramanmaras, between the epicenters of the 7.8- and 7.5-magnitude quakes that killed 47,000 people along the Turkey-Syria border, local authorities responded by saying they did not want help from the church.

“This is not the way of Jesus; it is opportunistic, and doesn’t work,” said Ilyas Uyar, an elder in the Protestant Church Foundation of Diyarbakir. “We say we are Christians all the time, but it is disgusting to connect this to aid.”

The Protestant Association of Turkey (TeK) has been hard at work to establish guidelines. Last week, after expressing a “debt of gratitude” to all who have prayed and given to support relief efforts, it issued six directives.

Alongside the prohibition of Bibles and evangelistic materials was a basic request to work with the local church to navigate Turkish sensitivities. These included basic requests to coordinate aid, as well as the avoidance of political commentary and unauthorized photos.

But permission is not the only issue. A Christian group from Italy came to Diyarbakir to offer help, Uyar said. They filmed and took pictures and then asked for church assistance to move onward to Kahramanmaras.

Perhaps they will return home and help raise funds. But to spare overburdened local volunteers from playing tour guide, TeK suggested three hubs for communication and collection of donations.

The first is an organization.

First Hope Association (FHA), a disaster relief agency founded by Turkish Protestants, has long cooperated closely with the official authorities. Over 10 tractor trailers have been dispatched to deliver 55 generators, 150 beds, 200 heaters, 3,000 blankets, and 12,000 cans of food.

Over 4,000 people benefit daily from FHA hygiene trucks.

But echoing TeK concerns about Bibles, FHA board chairman Demokan Kileci described his anger at how many Christian organizations are fundraising off the disaster.

Others, he lamented, are well-intentioned humanitarian tourists.

“They fly over a group of 20 people, stay in hotels, and rent cars and to come to the area,” he said. “Meanwhile, our people can’t even find places to sleep.”

Turkey is not backwards, he continued, as it works according to European standards with professionally trained experts. And the church has started to supply psychological support for its many volunteers.

Trauma care workers and programs for children can wait for a month.

Even so, the job is too large for Turkey alone. FHA was designated by the government to facilitate the assistance of Samaritan’s Purse, which has set up a virtual mini-city with 22 tents, a 52-bed field hospital, and a rotating crew of about 100 international disaster relief specialists.

“We offered our help, and they immediately took it,” said Franklin Graham, president and CEO of the evangelical aid association. “We are open about our Christian faith, but did not come to distribute shoe boxes.”

Operation Christmas Child, the popular holiday outreach which has sent 209 million gift boxes around the world, has direct evangelistic and discipleship purposes. But in Turkey, Samaritan’s Purse is focused on the immediate need to save life, Graham said. Working through the US embassy, he praised the Turkish military for helicopter delivery to the parking lot of a collapsed hospital facility outside Antakya.

The local medical profession is devastated, he added.

A week after the quake, Samaritan’s Purse chartered a 747-sized airplane to deliver 600 oversized tents that can shelter up to 1,000 families. More than 900 have received medical care, including 25 surgeries. Graham expects Samaritan’s Purse to be present for up to four months, replenishing supplies every 10 days, and will leave everything behind when Turkey is able to assume local care.

Until then, its staff lament the fires lit in the streets to help people stay warm.

“You look at great suffering, but don’t get paralyzed,” stated Aaron Ashoff, deputy director of international projects, who takes strength from the psalms. “You need to walk into that pain, and then walk out, and say, ‘We’re Samaritan’s Purse, we are going to act.’”

So have the other two TeK hubs.

Many churches and organizations are helping in relief, TeK board member Soner Turfan said. But the sister churches in Diyarbakir and Antakya were identified due to their strong local ministry. His Shema radio ministry has just recently restored its signal to the latter—and survived this week’s 6.3 magnitude aftershock.

“Now we need to broadcast hope, healing, and the love of God,” said Tufan. “To cry with them and share the sorrow.”

Uyar said his church is prepared—and has prepared others.

With a congregation of about 50 members, their numbers are low as discipled believers were sent out to serve in about a dozen TeK churches across Turkey. It has facilitated coordinated relief work, and from Diyarbakir 10 of their members have been dispatched to other areas for earthquake relief.

The Antakya congregation, smaller with about 30 members, had long won a good local reputation in its neighborhood. Now the church’s building has been destroyed, along with about 80 percent of all buildings as the biblical Antioch has been “wiped from the map,” said Uyar.

Diyarbakir was further removed from the quake epicenters, with only about a dozen collapsed structures—including three residences of church members, with an additional four among the thousands displaced as aftershocks continue to rattle their now-cracked apartments. But generous Turkish citizens have “flooded” the city with supplies.

Elsewhere, not enough is getting through.

Road closures and overall devastation mean that village areas are much less serviced, even by the authorities who are working well and doing their best, Uyar said. His church, six hours away from Antakya, therefore decided to rent a warehouse in Adana, only two hours away, as a distribution point for church members serving in eight cities overall.

One now lives in a shipping container in Adiyaman.

Ender Peker, from Mardin, is joined by several others staying in similar quarters, including Eser Gunyel from the Yalova Lighthouse Church in Istanbul. Putting their welding skills to work, they are constructing tarp-covered tin huts complete with a heating unit as they distribute blankets, mattresses, and over 20 tons of food to locals in need.

They left their families behind, since looting ravages the area.

“The first week, we had to take care of our own,” said Uyar. “But we couldn’t sit still.”

The Adiyaman team gained permission from authorities and became the only evangelical presence in the city. There is a Syriac Orthodox church which suffered “irreparable damage,” and a small Protestant congregation whose seven members—one of which was a deaf-mute believer pulled from the rubble—all relocated to other areas for safety.

There and elsewhere, they cooperate with fellow Christians and Muslims alike.

A similar story is reported across the border in Aleppo, Syria. With five churches and four schools—all of which survived the earthquake—the city’s Armenian evangelicals have joined in housing homeless residents fearful of the continuing tremors.

“Each church is responsible for its neighborhood, and not its own dispersed community,” said Haroution Salim, president of the Armenian Protestant Churches in Syria. “Together we give hope of a brighter future—that after destruction, there is resurrection.”

There are 11 members of the Council of Heads of Christian Denominations, who have met regularly for years. The day of the earthquake was chaos; the second day, they gathered and agreed to ring the church bells—calling all to safety.

Protestants, Greek Orthodox, and Muslims all mixed in the courtyard. The Islamic charity stopped by, promising to care for any handicapped Christians with rental and monthly stipends. Salim signed up two Armenian families.

His community had been active in neighborhood service, with a street cleaning initiative, open enrollment in the schools, and distribution of food parcels to the need of the war-torn city. The number of families helped by the church has now doubled from 300—with 25 percent to members, 45 percent to other Christians, and 30 percent to Muslim beneficiaries.

The council also agreed to set up teams of engineers for building inspections. The government has dispatched only three to Aleppo, where 180 buildings were destroyed in the quake. But fearful of the nervous bureaucrats who might mark livable structures for demolition, Christians assumed—and paid for—the work themselves. The official ministry agreed to accept church reports instead.

So far, only a few buildings have been marked “green.” The majority are marked “orange,” requiring imminent evacuation and substantial repairs. “Red” buildings—representing a third of the total—will be brought down.

But the people trust the church, Salim said, and the Middle East Council of Churches is fundraising to pay for necessary renovations. Here, each denomination visits its own member’s homes.

So many, however, are intermingled in the churches.

“We are witnessing a new phenomenon,” said Salim. “The earthquake shook our consciences, as it shook the entire region.”

Will it also shake their faith? Some evidence from Turkey suggests it might.

“We entrusted our lives to Christians, Jews, Armenians, and even atheists,” circulated one viral message on social media. “But we protect our property from Muslims!”

Falsely attributed to a popular Turkish rock star, Uyar said the statement is emblematic of local frustration with contractors who built substandard apartments and neighbors who rummage through the ruins in search of valuables.

But the answer—at this time—is simple sincerity.

Rather than addressing Muslims, the church elder quoted Scripture to his fellow Christians. When you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, Uyar pulled from the Sermon on the Mount. Don’t worry about the fruit, he continued, recalling Jesus’ healing of the ten lepers, only one of whom returned with thanks.

And if extremists accuse them of exploiting the needy, he said, remember the words of Peter: Keep a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander.

But his most damning salvo came from Paul, applying to well-wishing Christians what the apostle originally addressed to the Jews in Rome: God’s name is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.

Maybe in six months it will be time to speak of Jesus.

“When we lay down our lives and ask nothing in return, people become curious,” Uyar said. “‘Where,’ they will ask, ‘does this love come from?’”

[ This article is also available in Français. ]

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