By Sébastien de Courtois, Istanbul (Turkey).
The population of Turkey is regarded as a majority Sunni Muslim one, of almost 65%, but with a strong minority of Alevis – a branch of Shia Islam – estimates of which vary between 25% and 35% of the total population. The Alevis of Turkey are somewhat on the margins of the Muslim world. They do not attend the mosques, but rather the cemevi, or « houses of prayer »; they do not observe the Ramadan fast, nor do they observe the practice of the five daily prayers. While they are officially regarded by the Turkish administration as « Muslims », it is apparent from the above facts that they are outside what is generally regarded as Islam. That is why, when considering the place of the various religions within Turkey it is important not to forget them, since very often the Alevis see themselves as a « minority », just like the Jews and the Christians. Politically, they are opposed to the Islamic and conservative government of the ruling AKP party (Adaletve Kalkınma Partisi), which has been in power since 2002, and they tend to support a republican, progressive and secularist agenda.
Having themselves suffered at times from a similar kind of discrimination, the Alevis of Turkey are demanding official recognition of their specific character by the Diyanet, the administration for religious affairs. Since 2009 it has no longer been compulsory to indicate one’s religion on one’s identity card.
As for the Christians of Turkey, they are thought to number no more than around 100,000 individuals, a very small minority in relation to a population that now exceeds 75 million. The Christian communities are divided among several historical branches – the Armenians, with perhaps 80,000 individuals, the Syriac Christians, numbering between 20,000 and 25,000, the Greek Orthodox (known as rum in Turkish – meaning « Roman » in fact) and a few hundred Latin-rite Catholic families living in some of the larger cities around Izmir (the ancient city of Smyrna) and above all in Istanbul. This vast metropolis – which is not however the capital of Turkey – is home to a veritable mosaic of Eastern Christianity. All the churches of East and West are represented here – in addition to the major communities mentioned above. They include Chaldeans from the south-east (originally from the Hakkâri), the Syriac Orthodox of Tur Abdin, Bulgarians, Russians (with their churches built on the roofs of Karaköy), Poles, Ukrainians, Protestant and Anglican churches and a series of Catholic institutions engaged in an educational and social system. An example of the latter are the Don Bosco school, run by the Salesian sisters, or the hospice in Bomonti, run by the Little Sisters of the Poor, who have been present in Turkey since 1892.
Now, with the explosion in the number of refugees from all over the world – but principally those from Sub-SaharanAfrica, Syria and Iraq – the churches in Istanbul are becoming full again.Generally speaking, and still today, the Christian churches have always found themselves at best in a « minority » situation – and at worst in a « ghetto » situation in Turkey. However, the Christian presence cannot be reduced to these small ersatz communities, even though they are very appealing: the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, for instance, who embodies the heritage of the ancient Byzantine Empire and the destiny of the Orthodox world, governing as he does from the Fener quarter on the Golden Horn. Even though the rum community is now reduced to just a few hundred people, the importance of this patriarchal see is a symbol that far transcends international frontiers. The Byzantine past of Istanbul and Anatolia should not be underestimated; there are still thousands of churches and monasteries scattered across the countryside – many of them ruined and abandoned. The historic peninsular of Istanbul would be nothing without the massive silhouette of Santa Sofia – Hagia Sofia – which dates back to the first half of the sixth century under Emperor Justinian. By its sheer size and grace this monument reminds the visitor that Turkish society is also built on a Christian past. We should not forget this invisible continuity with the present.
At the same time, in the south-east of the country in the Mardin region, one can still find the last of the active Christian monasteries in Turkey. There are five of them (around 20 religious altogether) and they are under the jurisdiction of the Syriac Orthodox Church. Some of the monasteries produce pistachios, raisins and olive oil. This region is called the Tur Abdin, the « Mountain of the Servants of God », an ancient preserve of the Syriac presence and spirituality. The Christians of the region still speak a language of Aramean origin, known as the turoyo. Around these monasteries there are a number of Christian villages, twenty or so in all, which once again have their own specifically regional character.
Since 1915 and the destruction of the First World War the Armenian population of Eastern Anatolia was – with rare exceptions – deported and massacred by the Young Turk government of the time. The fact that Turkey has always refused to recognise this genocide of the Armenians is indicative of a malaise that still constitutes one of the major handicaps for Turkey on the international stage. The normalisation of relations between Greece and Turkey, which began with the reciprocal aid that these neighbour countries gave each otherat the time of the earthquakes in 1999, has been reinforced thanks to the joint efforts to resolve the problem of Cyprus.
However, it is still not enough; the Christians of Turkey continue to depend too heavily on international relations (with Armenia and Greece principally), whereas in fact they are fully Turkish citizens in their own right. Indeed, very often their presence within the Turkish Republic is more ancient than that of those people ordinarily considered as « Turkish ». This is a paradox that exists to this day. The Christians in Turkey are very often regarded as « foreigners » in their own country, which is a great pity. Despite the freedom of worship, they are constantly being forced to justify their place in society. In recent years there have been some very disturbing murders of Catholic and Protestant priests and religious, not to mention the murder of Hrant Dink, a Turkish journalist of Armenian origin. A not insignificant section of the Turkish population, driven by nationalism, still accuses the « Christians » of Turkey of wanting to destabilise the Turkish « nation » and even of being foreign agents, an attitude that smacks of acute paranoia.
Finally, it should be kept in mindthat many of the major cities mentioned in the Gospels and in the journeys of the Apostles Peter and Paul are today to be found in Turkey – Antioch, Ephesus, Caesarea and even Sardis, and the region of Galatea, which is modern day Ankara. The Jews – principally Sephardi – make up the third largest religious community in the country, with around 25,000 faithful. All the religious minorities are looking forward to the visit of the Pope at the end of November.
The massacre of the Armenians and Syriac Christians of Turkey:
The Armenian and Syriac communities in the eastern provinces of the Ottoman Empire were the victims of a series of massacres between 1895 and 1915. The fate of the Syriac communities was linked with the more general fate of the Armenians. The eastern provinces, strongly Christianised over history, were the most affected – Cilicia, Eastern Anatolia, the provinces of Erzurum, Van, Bitlis and Hakkâri, as well as the province of Diyarbakir. Nor was Istanbul spared, where the Armenians were also massacred, especially the leading figures and intellectuals.
The Syriac Churches
The Syriac world is the least well-known. It represents a sort of eastern ecumenism of its own. This inheritance goes back to Antioch, the town where the Christians were for the first time called by the name « Christian ». This family includes five distinct Churches, which all share the Syriac language as their heritage – the Syriac Orthodox and Syriac Catholic Churches, the Oriental and Chaldean Churches and the Maronite Church of Lebanon.
Even though Turkey´s Christian population is barely 0,3%, Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) has supported 100 projects in Turkey in the last twenty years. A significant amount of ACN´s help has gone towards Iraqi and Syrian Refugees in the Eastern part of the country. Since 2010 ACN donated a total of €130.000,- to the Iraqi refugees, mainly via the Chaldean Church and the Salesian Fathers in Istanbul. The Salesians look after families and are particularly concerned to ensure that the children continue to receive a school education.
Aid to the Church in Need has also helped Syrian refugees in Eastern Turkey, since the Crisis in Syria began. From 2013 to 2014 ACN has donated a total of €47.000,- towards their needs.