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As Erdoğan Goads on Gaza, Turkish Christians Prefer Peace

Amid centenary of the secular republic, Erdoğan inaugurates a significant new church as local believers navigate Muslim society’s stance on Palestine.
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As Erdoğan Goads on Gaza, Turkish Christians Prefer Peace
Image: Burak Kara / Stringer / Getty / Edits by CT
Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks during a rally in solidarity with Palestinians in Gaza.

Defending Hamas, Turkish president Recep Erdoğan upstaged his own nation.

One day prior to last month’s 100th anniversary of the modern state of Turkey (now formally called Türkiye), an estimated 1.5 million people gathered for a pro-Palestinian rally October 28 and heard their Islamist-leaning leader denounce Israel as a “war criminal.”

“Hamas is not a terror organization,” Erdoğan had previously stated October 25. “It is an organization of liberation, of mujahedeen, who fight to protect their land and citizens.”

Observers noted that immediately after the October 7 terrorist attacks by Hamas that killed 1,200 mostly civilian Israelis and took 240 hostage, Erdoğan had struck a cautious tone. Reports circulateddenied by Ankara—that Turkish officials quietly asked Hamas leaders to depart the EU candidate country. And in advance of the rally, the president reiterated that he could never excuse acts that target civilians.

Then something changed.

Despite efforts over the past year to heal a diplomatic rift with Israel, Erdoğan now questioned its existence.

“What was Gaza and Palestine in 1947, what is it today?” he asked rhetorically, in reference to the establishment of Israeli statehood in 1948. “Israel, how did you get here? How did you get in? You are an invader.”

And widening his scope, the head of the NATO-member nation impinged his allies in religious terms, calling the Gaza attack “revenge” for the 15th century fall of Constantinople.

“Oh, West, I cry out to you, do you want to start your crusade against the Crescent again?” Erdoğan asked. “If you are making such efforts, know that this nation is not dead.”

The next day, in a muted celebration, he laid a customary wreath at the grave of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, who abolished the Ottoman caliphate and established a secular republic in 1923. In attendance was the ecumenical patriarch of the Eastern Orthodox Church, Bartholomew I.

Two weeks prior, Erdoğan attended the inauguration of Mor Ephrem Syriac Orthodox Church, honoring the estimated 25,000 Assyrian Christian citizens of Turkey. It was the first church to be built with state funding since Atatürk’s founding.

And since Erdoğan’s party took power in 2002, 20 churches have been restored.

“The church we have built is a symbol of freedom of religion and belief in our country,” Erdoğan stated. “At a time when divisions, conflicts, and hate crimes based on religious and ethnic origin are increasing in our region and the world, this embracing attitude of Turkey is very important.”

His October 15 remarks were poignant, with the Israel-Hamas war raging. In between the church ceremony and the Palestinian rally, Erdoğan sent Sweden’s NATO application to the Turkish parliament for ratification. And this month, the Incirlik air base in southeast Turkey received the deployment of a pair of United States B-1 Lancer long-range bombers.

Last week, Turkish protestors tried to storm it.

Turkish Christians have had a complicated relationship with Erdoğan, and generally do not speak out on political matters. But one believer voiced his strong displeasure with the president’s comments.

“It is not acceptable. Hamas is a terrorist organization,” said Gokhan Talas, founder of Miras Publishing Ministry. “Calling its attack anything else could cause another painful trauma for victims and their families.”

The small evangelical community in Turkey, he said, has diverse views about Israel—stemming from both political and eschatological differences. Some speak in terms of unconditional support for the prophetically reconstituted Jewish state. Others, rejecting such theology, find justification for the Palestinian militant response.

But Ali Kalkandelen, president of Turkey’s Association of Protestant Churches, made clear their unified position.

“As Christians, we believe that God is the judge over everything,” he said. “We are against any war, killing, and the death of innocent people.”

They are praying for both sides, he added. And also Erdoğan.

Talas believes that Israel’s first reactions were “fair and balanced,” in line with its right of self-defense. But he also believes what he calls its later “unbalanced attacks” and “insufficient measures” to protect civilian lives warrant criticism for contributing to a humanitarian “tragedy.”

He wants all people to push both sides toward peace.

But most Christians, Turkish and foreign, are staying silent, cautious about being labeled pro-Israel, said Daniel Brown, director of the Istanbul-based Institute for the Study of Religion in the Middle East. Other than calls for peace, Christian leaders have made few public statements.

The church is tiny, and reticent to comment on sensitive issues.

“There is a recognition of serious problems all around the world,” Brown said, “and that God's people shouldn't be taking sides against anyone God loves.”

But if the war in Gaza has divided—or quieted—Turkish Christians, Turkish society is decidedly pro-Palestinian. A recent survey shows overwhelming support for a ceasefire and for subsequent Turkish participation in peacekeeping forces. Recognizing the public pulse, Erdoğan has “written off” Benjamin Netanyahu. An opposition newspaper, meanwhile, has caricatured the Israeli prime minister as a vampire.

The Turkish parliament proceeded to boycott Coca-Cola and Nestlé.

Most Turks do not support “inexcusable” Hamas terrorism, said Mustafa Akyol, the Turkish author of Islam Without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty. Their Palestinian sympathy, like that found in most Muslim-majority nations, is currently tied to the thousands of children killed by Israeli bombs.

This does not mean they are antisemitic, he said. Pro-Hamas and antisemitic attitudes do exist in Turkey, including within Erdoğan’s political base. But the driver, Akyol said, is the “decades of plight” of the Palestinian people. The United States and the West are blamed as well.

“The more that horrific suffering continues,” he said, “the more anti-Israel Turkish sentiments will become.”

At the same time, another poll on the centennial anniversary found 64 percent of the Turkish population endorsing secularism. Only 19 percent supported Islamic governance. A solid plurality (45%) supported becoming like Germany, with Qatar placing second (9%).

Contrary to the low-key celebration, Talas observed widespread popular commemoration and excitement. He said the nation was “proud” to be both secular and democratic, and believed Erdoğan is posturing for upcoming municipal elections.

Kalkandelen does not believe the rupture with Israel is serious.

“Turkey has been a very good ally to Israel for many years,” he said. “I believe they will keep this positive relationship in the future.”

Nonetheless, Erdoğan’s stridency “surprised” him. Despite the president’s religious attachment to the Palestinians, Kalkandelen said the Turkish leader is adept at keeping a balanced foreign policy. He trusts Erdoğan will not embroil the nation further in geopolitical controversies, and suspects Israel will recognize the sensitivity of this topic and not allow it to jeopardize relations.

Appearances are otherwise, however, as both nations have pulled their respective ambassadors.

Even so, Turkey has not broken diplomatic relations, maintaining intelligence contacts while proposing a role to help broker hostage negotiations. And reports stated that Turkey facilitated the delivery to Israel of one million barrels of oil from Azerbaijan.

Still, the Turkish TRT network hosted a Hamas leader who declared October 7 “paved the way” for removing Israel as he called on clerics to “incite the Islamic nation [to] take action.”

Shortly thereafter, the Qatar-based International Union of Muslim Scholars issued a fatwa summoning Muslim nations for military intervention.

Previously strong Turkey-Israel ties were broken in 2010 when Israeli forces stormed a Turkish vessel trying to break its blockade on Gaza. In the following years, relations between the two countries were shaky. In 2014, Erdoğan stated that what he believed was Israel’s disproportionate response to Hamas-led violence was “keeping Hitler’s spirit alive.”

Ties were moderately repaired, however; but then in 2018, Turkey withdrew its ambassador in the wake of Donald Trump moving the US embassy to Jerusalem. Two years later, relations were restored once more. Following the 2022 earthquake in southeast Turkey, Israel stated it delivered the second-largest humanitarian aid delegation, paving the way one month later for Israeli president Isaac Herzog’s visit to Ankara, for the first high-level delegation since 2008.

And last September, Erdoğan met Netanyahu for the first time.

“Both sides approach the other opportunistically,” said Talas. “But what happens in the long run is built on mutual interests.”

Yet Christian interests, he said, must pursue peace. He believes that the failure of international powers to address the ongoing Israeli occupation has created a culture of hatred in the region—and that the response of vengeful terrorism has only harmed Palestinians further.

Too many American Christians, however, have an “incomplete” understanding that overlooks the social, cultural, and historical issues of an entrenched conflict, said Talas. And worse, he said, uncritical support for Israel ignores their fellow Palestinian believers who struggle and sacrifice daily for the gospel.

It is this gospel that informs his advice to everyone.

“Love your enemy. Love your neighbor. Pursue goodness and all that is good,” Talas said. “Any motivation other than these commandments only creates complex and useless discussion.”

[ This article is also available in español. ]

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