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Shaken Yet Stirred: Turkish Christians Advise Moroccan Church on Earthquake Aid

From Istanbul to Marrakesh, disaster relief can help Muslim-background believers legitimize their faith. But first, say Turks, the church must be united.
Shaken Yet Stirred: Turkish Christians Advise Moroccan Church on Earthquake Aid
Image: Courtesy of First Hope Association (FHA)
FHA assesses needs in a remote Moroccan village.

Help for Morocco is coming from Turkey. While humble in scope, the biggest impact may be on the church.

First Hope Association (FHA), a Turkish Christian disaster relief agency that provided aid after the massive earthquake that struck southeast Turkey in February, was granted permission to assist in Morocco after its own devastating quake. A four-person team arrived in Marrakesh last week.

Consistent with its Turkish policy, FHA serves all victims without discrimination, in cooperation with the local church. Connecting with a house church network in southern Morocco, the Turkish believers have distributed $30,000 worth of clothes, blankets, and hygiene kits in four mountain villages not yet reached by other aid.

“Our country has gone through the same hardships and difficulties, so we came to help and support,” said Demokan Kileci, FHA board chairman. “This is an amazing opportunity for God’s church here to show his compassion and love.”

In many ways, the parallels are striking.

Morocco and Turkey are both Muslim-majority nations, and they both have small Protestant communities that largely emerged from an Islamic background. The churches in both nations suffered in their respective earthquakes but also rallied support to aid in overall relief. And while enduring varying degrees of ostracism, the believers’ solidarity with fellow citizens has begun to win each a slowly increasing level of social respect.

“Their expression of love was immediate, without any thought of self,” said Tim Ligon, pastor of Marrakesh International Protestant Church, of the local believers he has partnered with in relief. “They counted no cost but responded with everything they had.”

But there is one major difference between the nations: Morocco does not recognize an indigenous Christian faith, while Turkey affords its people freedom of religion—including religious conversion.

Turkish Christians shared their story of faith to CT in hope that the small believing community in Morocco might profit from their experience. For there is another parallel between the nations that Turkish Protestants have taken significant steps to overcome: a history of internal division.

“The Bible tells us that spiritual power comes in unity,” said Ali Kalkandelen, president of Turkey’s Association of Protestant Churches (TeK). “It won’t be easy, but if Moroccan believers support one another and see the church as one body, the Lord will bless them, and fruit will come.”

Moroccan sources uniformly told CT about their love for Jesus and respect for King Mohammed VI, the Moroccan monarch and head of state. They also would like to see their faith recognized equally alongside Islam and Judaism.

But beyond these shared views, the sources had many different perspectives.

Some spoke of a government that discriminated against them and would not help displaced Christians. Others said the government was helping everyone and generally left the believers alone.

Some said their witness employs the Arabic word for “Lord” to hint at their distinction from Islam. Others said they say “Allah” to connect with normal Muslim use. Some distribute literature; others foreswear it as illegal. Some speak of their Christian faith to the media; others are suspicious of those who make it public.

Some said there was good cooperation between Moroccan churches and that donations should go to local believers working in the field. Others said there was distrust between the churches and that donations should be given through the national bank.

In some sense, each of these perspectives could be true. Experiences differ, as do theology and outlooks on mission. But there are Christians who exaggerate their earthquake and overall ministry for the sake of financial support, said some, while others said there were self-professed “Christians” who were not true believers at all.

To any who would criticize, Jack Wald counseled patience—and self-reflection.

“Foreigners tend to have an idealistic vision of a young church,” said the former pastor of Rabat International Protestant Church in Morocco’s capital, “and overlook the dysfunction of their own church at home.”

Such struggles should not surprise anyone, he said, for the Bible is replete with similar stories. Ananias and Sapphira lied to better their reputation. “Super apostles” in Corinth used their position to make money. And the opponents of Paul used his imprisonment to expand their ministry.

Now retired in America, Wald sees similar ministry-as-business mentalities there.

“The good news is that Jesus has a couple thousand years of experience in knowing how to deal with dysfunction,” said Wald, who spent 22 years in the North African nation. “And in Morocco as elsewhere, he continues to use dysfunctional people to build his kingdom.”

Which is exactly what happened in Turkey, including in earthquake relief.

“They are running around like a chicken with its head cut off,” said Kileci, of the fledgling Moroccan believers’ efforts to help. “We were once like that too.”

Kileci speaks not of the recent earthquake along the Turkey-Syria border, but of the 1999 disaster that killed 17,000 people. The Turkish church was eager then to serve its nation, flailing alongside the rest of the community. But rather than winning social favor, the accusation spread that Protestants were assisting simply to preach the gospel. Vilified, many shrank back.

But not Kileci. As a respected employee in the Turkish defense industry, he had many trusted relationships in both government and civil society. Reaching out to volunteer, he received training from the Turkish Red Crescent and AFAD, the national disaster management agency. Learning the ropes, with additional education and support from Samaritan’s Purse, Kileci was able to legally register FHA in 2014.

Working in partnership with TeK, the FHA was initially not taken seriously. But dedication wins allies, who—especially after their joint and ongoing work in the February earthquake—supported the association in its first international outreach.

“Live your faith through your professional values in the workplace,” Kileci said. “Show society that you are a normal person, raising a family—and yet a Christian.”

Unfortunately, in Morocco, this is the crux of the problem. Sources say that many in the church—like the surrounding society—are poor, without gainful employment. And if a believer’s faith becomes public, even with good marks in school, it may become impossible to find work and get married.

This has led not only to a reticence to engage with wider Christian fellowship, but a reliance on Western sources of support. Some reported it creates a competition for denominational funds alongside theological markers often little understood among the young in faith, dividing the community further.

But spurred by zeal—and perhaps a desire for attention, as some say—a number of Moroccan believers have turned to YouTube.

Turks did the same at a similar stage in the spiritual development of their nation.

While Protestant mission began in Morocco in the late 19th century, it was not until the 1980s that a wider house church movement began to grow. But scattered by repression at a time of feared political instability, it reemerged a decade later. The church is young, with most senior leaders in their 30s.

By comparison, Turkey had Protestant faith through its ethnic minorities, though in much smaller numbers after the massacres and exodus that accompanied the demise of the Ottoman Empire after World War I. Muslim-background churches began in the 1970s, with TeK formed as a representative council in 1987.

Whether through correspondence courses or the internet, both realized seekers needed initial anonymity.

“Media ministry has always been a part of Turkey, and one of the most important,” said Gokhan Talas, founder of Miras Publishing House. “In a situation of persecution, it is an effective way to spread the message.”

Talas became a Christian after reading the Bible online in 2002. He and his wife created Miras in 2011, with a bimonthly magazine as its primary offering. Having now sold thousands of copies, the ministry has expanded to include multilingual and digital content. Other Turks work in radio, satellite television, and social media—sometimes to their peril.

Four years before creating Miras, Talas was the chief witness to the murders at a Christian publishing house in Malatya, which killed two converts from Islam and a German citizen. He said that believers, as citizens of Turkey, have the right to circulate their religious materials—but social and unofficial discrimination creates many obstacles.

These pressures are less today, he said. But publicly Christian ministries can still be subject to closure, frozen bank accounts, and harassment of employees’ families.

“There is freedom,” Talas said. “But there is always risk.”

As there is to the fellowship of believers.

The Turkish church has suffered rivalries in media ministry, as outside denominations sometimes wish to control the powerful medium. Finances have not always been transparent, and links to foreign countries create suspicion in the minds of many ordinary Turks.

Miras has tried to model three solutions: First, to be upfront about where money is received from and where it is spent. Second, to be similarly open to explain the global body of Christ to a suspicious society. And third, to insist on inclusive ministry that represents the entirety of the local church.

While not against theological particulars, Talas said Miras focuses on the essentials and cooperation, a now-common Turkish mentality. Content should be thoroughly biblical but also attractive to Muslim readers looking for new perspectives on the issues of life.

“We live here, share the same problems, but offer society a different vision,” said Talas. “And we also realized: As Christians we are a very small community. We all need each other.”

But this was not all they needed.

A secular state offered significant benefits, said Kalkandelen. But it also nurtured a nationalistic ethos that to be Turkish meant to be Muslim. Christian converts were often not only viewed as apostates but as a security threat—treated in the same vein as Islamist movements seeking power.

Which Recep Erdoğan eventually did, peacefully, elected as prime minister in 2003. Primarily to benefit his allies, Kalkandelen said, the new leadership loosened the security apparatus to give more space to religion.

But the Protestant church benefitted also. TeK took the opportunity to cultivate relationships with open-minded officials and to tell their story to the mainstream press.

Mentalities are slow to change, but they do. After the Malatya murders, a justice ministry official said missionary work was more dangerous than terrorism, wishing it would be made illegal. But Erdogan condemned the killings—later pledging to defend the church—and journalists rallied to defend the rights of Christians.

Allies were needed elsewhere also.

With Turkey aiming for European integration, TeK began publishing a bilingual yearly human rights report in 2009. Its leaders met with international officials, but also with Armenian and Assyrian members of Parliament. And especially helpful was the domestic cultivation of relationships with Orthodox and Catholic clerical leaders.

In 2018, they jointly published a 95-page unified picture of faith.

“It took many years, with great effort—visiting, supporting, and honoring these communities,” said Kalkandelen. “They now speak to the government on our behalf.”

But early on, many Protestants would not even speak to each other.

“There have always been power struggles in the church,” Kalkandelen said. “It has not been easy to keep our unity.”

For some, differing theological perspectives was cause for division. For others, it was personal rivalry. Some had unique church-planting strategies. Others wanted to fundraise in likeminded networks. It is somewhat in our nature, the TeK leader said. Evangelicals tend to be independent individualists.

To their detriment—until forced otherwise.

TeK began to grow in strength as persecution increased in the 1990s and early 2000s, Kalkandelen said. Today, though members are a minority of overall churches, he estimates that, through larger congregations, the association represents about 70 percent of all Turkish Protestants.

Membership fees, though modest, prevent many small churches from joining. So also does the commitment and cost of attending three gatherings per year. Yet having established that TeK will also support any non-member that faces problems with the government, nearly all Christians, he said, are comfortable with their national leadership.

“It is not important to be one church with the same doctrine. But weep, rejoice, and do projects together,” Kalkandelen advised the Moroccan believers. “God gave us favor, and he can give it to you.”

Back in Morocco, there is no bigger project than earthquake relief. FHA is raising funds to stay for a month, and after that, will assess the situation again. Its own ministry is quiet, even as the displaced assume they are Muslims. But as Kileci advised foreigners coming to help Turkey, he now advises his team: Trust the local church to know how and when to witness appropriately.

FHA will return home again. Moroccan believers must continue to serve their nation.

“We share a similar history,” Kileci said. “Disasters bring people together.”

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