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The Christian Church in Turkey

Turkey holds a place in Christian history right along side of Israel and Palestine. Its strategic position has made the area of prime importance throughout the course of history. Many events recorded in Scripture take place here, and it is also the site of the early church centered on the Byzantine Empire. Anatolia–that is the western two thirds of the Asian part of Turkey– is mentioned in the Bible through the Hittites, a formidable militant culture. The area was part of the Roman Empire at the time Jesus was born.

The cities Phrygia, Pamphylia, Pontus and Cappadocia in this area were represented at Pentecost, which means Christianity had spread at least this far and Paul’s journeys took him through what is now Turkey several times. The seven churches of Revelation are located in this area. When Constantine split the Eastern and Western parts of his Empire, the Eastern capitol was placed in Byzantium and called Constantinople (now known as Istanbul).

Look at a map and note the familiar Biblical names of Harran where Abraham lived; Mt. Ararat where Noah’s boat landed; Antioch where the believers were first called Christians; Ephesus where a significant church was founded and where Paul’s presence caused a riot; Tarsus where Paul was born; Cappadocia where early Christians fled when persecuted; and Myra where St. Nicholas was born.

Ephesus is an unusually well preserved Roman city that was the site of an early Christian church. It was here that Paul challenged the craftsmen who produced images of the goddess Artemis, by preaching Christianity. The amphitheater where this happened is still in good condition along with the library and temples.

Cappadocia is a region where early Christians took refuge from Roman persecution. It is dotted with natural volcanic rock formations that were carved into homes, chapels and huts for hermits. Religious cave paintings are still visible inside some of the cones known as fairy chimneys.

The early Ecumenical Councils
The early Ecumenical Councils took place in this area and are known by the cities in which they were convened. We hear of the Councils of Ephesus, Council of Nicea in 325 , the Council of Constantinople and the 451 Council of Chalcedon. The decisions and events of these councils were the beginning of the definition between Roman Catholic and Orthodox traditions. Even after Islam came to the area, Christians remained in large numbers for centuries and it was from Turkey that the Russians were converted to Orthodox Christianity.

Constantinople (now Istanbul) was founded in AD 330, at ancient Byzantium as the new capital of the Roman Empire by ConstantineI, after whom it was named. The city was the largest and wealthiest European city of the Middle Ages. An inscription on the column of Constantine the Great in Constantinople now Istanbul reads: “ O Christ, ruler and master of the world, to You now I dedicate this subject city, and these sceptres and the might of Rome.”

Christianity: Official Religion
Christianity was declared as the official religion in 380, during the reign of TheodosiusI, and destruction of pagan temples was legalized that year as well. In 537, the great church of Hagia Sophia meaning Church of the Holy Wisdom was dedicated. Ordered by the Emperor Justinian, it is quite an extraordinary and exquisite structure. The huge levitated dome was an incomprehensible miracle to eyewitnesses at the time. Paul the Silentiary, an officer in the household of Emperor Justinian is most famous for his hymn of praise for the Hagia Sophia. In description of the vaulting, decorated with four acres of gold mosaic, he writes “the golden stream of rays pours down and strikes the eyes of men, so that they can scarcely bear to look.” While his description of the colored marbles moved him to poetry saying, “they looked as though they were powdered with stars…like milk splashed over a surface of shining black…or like sea or emerald stone, or again like blue cornflowers in the grass, with here and there a drift of snow.”

The Orthodox religion worked powerfully on the emotions of the people through the intense colors of its mosaics and icons, the mysterious beauty of its liturgy rising and falling in the churches. Roger Crowley the author of 1453 says, “The Byzantines lived their spiritual life with an intensity hardly matched in the history of Christendom. The stability of the empire was at times threatened by the number of army officers who retired to monasteries, and theological issues were debated on the streets with a passion that led to riots” An irritated visitor noted, “The city is full of workmen and slaves who are all theologians. If you ask a man to change money he will tell you how the Son differs from the Father. If you ask the price of a loaf he will argue that the Son is less than the Father. If you want to know if the bath is ready you are told that the Son was made out of nothing.”

Even so, throughout the Byzantine era Christianity had great ups and downs in popularity. Many found the road to piety confusing and assorted schisms between the Roman Catholic church and the Orthodox Byzantine church certainly didn’t simplify matters.

Overthrew of Byzantine Empire
The second wave of jihad overthrew the Byzantine Empire altogether. The key for the Islamic conquerors was enlisting the support of the recently converted Turks from Anatolia. 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 territory in Anatolia, where the Turkish capital of Ankara is today.

Ottoman Empire
Gradually, Christianity in Turkey disintegrated, so that when the Islamic Ottomans finally conquered the Byzantine Empire, it was inevitable that what had been a predominantly Christian region would be no more. Throughout this time, fear of siege was etched deep in the memory of the Byzantines. In the 1, 123 years up to the spring of 1453, Constantinople had been besieged some 23 times. On the 29th of May, 1453, Turkish sultan MehmedII known as “the Conqueror” entered Constantinople after a 53–day siege during which his cannon had torn a huge hole in the fortified walls of the city. Constantinople became the third capital of the Ottoman Empire. Many Greek scholars escaped to the west and brought with them literature that was translated into Latin triggering the Renaissance.

Upon capture, Sultan MehmedII, ordered the Hagia Sophia to be converted into a mosque. The bells, altar, and sacrificial vessels were removed and many of the mosaics were plastered over. Islamic features – such as the four minarets – were added while in the possession of the Ottomans. It remained a mosque until 1931.

After 1453, many Christians left for other lands or converted to Islam. Although we know that Christians remained in the ancient churches after the siege of Constantinople, little is recorded about them as the church was besieged by massacres, severe persecution ans emigration.

Secular State
Since major nationwide reforms in the 1920’s, Turkey has been a secular state.

Association of Protestant Churches
In 1989, the association of Protestant Churches of Turkey was founded. This body links evangelical fellowships, leaders and organizations and provides them with support. Shortly after the birth of this organization, the first translation of the New Testament into Turkish was printed.

Source: ~Becky Montpetit