State Rhetoric Increases Challenges Facing Turkish Christians

By Claire Evans

06/19/2018 Washington D.C. (International Christian Concern) – Perhaps nowhere else in the Middle East is nationalism more enshrined within a culture than in Turkey, a country which labels itself as a modern secular state. However, close inspection reveals a genre of nationalism strongly defined by Islam. The constitution itself refers to protecting Turkishness, a term referring to those whose native language is Turkish and who were born into Islam.

Turks who belong to religious minority groups are treated as second-class citizens. The authorities often view these religious minorities as a separate ethnic identity: Armenian, Assyrian, Iranian, Arab, etc. So what happens when an ethnic Turk converts to Christianity? One such Christian, Mehmet, bluntly stated, “I became a Christian and immediately felt like I betrayed my country. I still feel that way.”

Mehmet is a young Turk in his mid-twenties who came to faith while in college. Like many other young Turks, he has always been interested in research and enjoys reading books. As he studied, he realized that the interpretation of history contributed greatly to how he perceived Christianity. He said, “During the independent war, we fought against lots of countries and some bishops had blessed the enemies of Turks. That’s why people started to hate Christianity and Christians. Also, some of the enemies’ flags had crosses on them. And because of that, people started to see Christians as an enemy.”

Curious about Christianity, Mehmet was ready to engage with believers in hopes of learning more about this faith. “I realized we are from Heaven. Not Turkey or the States or England or somewhere else. So the reason I am here (in Turkey) is because God sent me here.” He eventually converted, but did so secretly. Years later, he still has not told his family about his conversion. He said, “Turkish people believe that if you aren’t Muslim, you’re an enemy. When you ask people’s religion here, some people will say I am Turk. Because people believe that if you’re Turk, you have to be Muslim.”  

This community indictment against Christian Turks is felt quite heavily among those who choose to publicly live their faith. As one pastor put it, “They come to church and when I start talking they are like, ‘Wow, you speak such good Turkish!’ And I say, ‘Well of course, I am a Turk!’”

The pastor explained that this as an example of how his fellow countrymen “have this image that all Christians are not really Turkish. This goes into the educational system. My kids, they’ve been beaten, they’ve been excluded. My one daughter was humiliated in front of a thousand students in the hallway by one of the religious teachers. There’s this sense, the question is where do they (other Turks) get that? They get that from the state because of the state’s approach towards Christians.”

“My kids, they’ve been beaten, they’ve been excluded...The question is where do they (other Turks) get that? They get that from the state because of the state’s approach towards Christians.”

The state’s hostile treatment of Christians has only increased as President Erdogan, whose family belongs to the conservative religious class, consolidates power.  On June 24, Turkey will hold snap elections that corresponds with a constitutional change further empowering Erdogan and his AKP party.

The media, most of which is connected to Erdogan, is the most visible indicator of how the authorities view Christians. A quick glance at recent media reports shows the wide range of propaganda tools used to encourage Turks to view Christians as the enemy. This fear is then used to strengthen Erdogan’s base.

  • Hurriyet Daily: “The Hagia Sophia (is) a Mosque of Conquest in Iznik
  • Ihlas Haber Ajansi: “Of course, we know very well that the people who came from Allah first came from our citizens… We (the AKP) hope to make the elections on June 24th without leaving the spiritual atmosphere of this (Ramadan) feast.”
  • Anadolu Agency: “(There is a movement from non-Turks) that calls for a war of cross and crescent, which is a very dangerous thing. You need to be able to manage it.”

The very public, pejorative language directed toward Christians, coupled with the increase of Turkish nationalism and the snap elections, makes life increasingly challenging for Turkish believers. As one Turkish Christian said, “There is an incredible amount of prejudice against Christians right now.”

“The AKP party’s direction is becoming more Islamist… we’re really just praying that whatever is in store for us and the government that comes, let the Lord’s will be done. We’re really just praying that right now,” he added.

For interviews with Claire Evans, Regional Manager, please contact Olivia Miller, Communications Coordinator: press@persecution.org

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