The Ottoman Cross: Update on Religious Freedom in Turkey

By Colton Grellier and Alyssa Heisey

Turkey, for over a millennium, has been the bridge between the European West and the Middle East. Just to the west is Greece, one of the cradles of Christianity, and to the south and east lie nations hallmarked by the presence of Islam since the days of the Crusades. Ideologically, Turkey has also been a middle ground of toleration between Western liberalism and orthodox Islamic thought. But with the rise of President Erdogan and his political party, Turkey has slowly pulled away from the historic center between East and West.

On June 27, the US Commission for International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) held a hearing on Capitol Hill concerning Turkish religious freedom. Among those who testified were Mustafa Akyol of Cato Institute and Turkish studies expert Lisel Hintz. Both of them painted a picture of the worsening condition of religious tolerance in Turkey. According to Akyol, “Regarding religious freedom, the scene is not that dark, but not very bright either.” He pointed out that from around 2002-2012, Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) initially pushed forward reform leading to more freedom, where “Non-Muslims gained more access to government and also become more visible in public.”  However, following this period, the AKP eventually became “a parochial, paranoid and authoritarian party which sees conspiracies by the West and its imagined fifth columns under every stone.” This extends even now to an individual level. In her own testimony, Lisel Hintz went so far as to say that now, “To be a good Turk, you have to be not just a Muslim, but a Sunni Muslim.”

Turkey ranks number 26 on Open Doors USA’s list of most persecuted countries in the world, following behind countries such as Syria (ranked number 11) and Egypt (ranked number 16), all three of which have a Sunni majority.[1] Turkey, however, shows tell-tale signs of wanting to become a Sunni Muslim state. While religious persecution there is more restrained than in other Sunni countries, Turkey is gradually moving further east, falling more in line with its less tolerate neighbors in the region.[2]

A poignant test case for Turkey’s treatment of Christians is that of Pastor Andrew Brunson, who also testified at the USCIRF hearing. Formerly a missionary in the former Ottoman state, the Turkish government accused Brunson of terrorist-related activity and spying, and he was imprisoned for two years on the accusations of terror-related activity. The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention concluded, however, that he had been persecuted because of both his Christian faith and his American nationality.

Due in large part to propaganda from government-influenced media, the Turkish people largely believed the accusations against Pastor Brunson. But Brunson has not been the only Christian who has faced this level of opposition from the state. He stated, “The Turkish government has accelerated the expulsion of Christian foreigners from Turkey…over 50 Protestant families have had to leave the country in recent years…” This expulsion of Christians has led to concerns from Turkish Christians, who are asking, “After the foreigners are sent away, what will the government do to us?” Brunson predicts that “the accelerated deportation of church leaders is a sign of very dark times to come. Turkey is not there yet—but it is careening in the wrong direction.”

Brunson warned USCIRF of Turkey’s precarious ideological position between the east and west, saying, “There is still a high degree of freedom for Christians relative to other Muslim countries in the region, but I am concerned that all the signs point to this changing very soon.”

A nation with a historical legacy similar to Turkey is Egypt. Egypt, like Turkey, has been known as a more moderate Muslim-majority state in comparison to many of its Sunni neighbors, it has a significant religious minority, and each established its own independent state in the 20th century after rejecting European control over their governments. A more specific trait the two states have in common is connected to the legal status of churches and other Christian buildings. Perhaps this comes from their joint history as former Ottoman territories as churches in Egypt, like Turkey, have historically struggled to gain legal recognition and thus full protection under the law.

But this is where the differences begin to appear.

In 2014, following the ouster of President Mubarak in the Arab Spring, Egypt established a new, democratically approved constitution. In it, the rights of Egypt’s native Christian ethnic group, the Copts, were enshrined in various sections, particularly in Article 235 that requires a new law be passed to standardize the building and renovations of churches, “guaranteeing Christians the freedom to practice their religious rituals.” Law 80/2016, known as the church construction law, was passed two years later, and while there have been challenges in its implementation, Egypt is making promising strides to protect the rights of its Christian minorities.

Turkey, on the other hand, has made no such strides. Rather, in 2013, Turkey was found guilty of violating the rights of the Alevis religious minority by withholding public funds meant for Alevi houses of worship by the European Court of Human Rights. According to the testimony of former Turkish parliamentarian Aykan Erdemir at the hearing, the Turkish government has leveraged the government-funded restoration of Christian churches into exercising control over who can perform services there. President Erdogan has even proposed the idea of returning Hagia Sophia, the UNESCO-protected Byzantine cathedral turned mosque turned museum, back into place of Islamic worship. This rejection of the secular truce between Christianity and Islam over this monument of Turkish identity serves as a fitting symbol of Istanbul’s current positioning on religious plurality.

Akyol made the point that Turkey’s future is not set in stone. Erdogan’s party suffered a crucial defeat during Istanbul’s recent local election, and political and economic ties to the EU continue to serve as a mitigating influence on more extreme social policies. Turkey, after all, still has a democratic process and cannot act as immune to the West as it may wish to; it still stands at the cross roads between Europe and the Middle East. However, the further Erdogan’s agenda takes the country away from that crossroad, the more perilous the situation will become for Turkey’s religious minorities. As said by Pastor Brunson’s Turkish friend, what will Istanbul do with Turkey’s native Christians “when the foreigners are sent away?”


[2] Ibid.

Colton Grellier is a Juris Doctorate candidate at Liberty University School of Law, pursing a specialization in international law and legal writing. His work with law and human rights includes co-authoring a letter for the congressional Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission concerning the Nigerian Middle Belt conflicts and writing a white paper for the Finnish and Norwegian Embassies on the conflict’s effects on women. He assisted with drafting legislation for former congressman Frank Wolf to appoint a special envoy to the Lake Chad region in 2018. Colton’s areas of interest include the impact of philosophy and multiculturalism on human rights, natural law theory, and historic religious conflicts in Western Europe. Colton currently serves on the board of the International Law Society at his law school as editor of the International Law Bulletin. He graduated Magnum Cum Laude from Liberty University with a Bachelor’s in Business Administration in 2017.

Alyssa Heisey is an intern with International Christian Concern, and a rising Senior at Liberty University where she is pursuing a degree in International Relations.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of International Christian Concern or any of its affiliates

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