Turkey’s Sordid Past

As Turkey achieves unprecedented regional power, Christians fear a second genocide.

Hagia Sophia in Turkey
Hagia Sophia, once a grand cathedral and center for Eastern Christianity, was transformed into a mosque last year by the Turkish authorities.

This story was originally published in the April issue of ICC’s Persecution magazine.

04/02/2021 Turkey (International Christian Concern)Rewrite the story. Forget the history. Silence yesterday’s memory, and the present is lost. This is the tragedy of Turkey, and the experience of Christians living within its grasp. It is an experience of genocide, forced population exchanges, and pogroms. It is in short, an experience of religious persecution perpetuated throughout the past century, with no end in sight.

As the geographical bridge between Europe, Asia, and the Middle East, Turkey’s history has never been anything less than complicated.

It was the birthplace of the New Testament church and the seat of the Byzantine Christian Empire. Later, it was the birthplace of the Ottoman Islamic Empire. Then it became the birthplace of secular Kemalism.

The price of each transition was blood and violence, with every religious minority paying the price. Since the early 1900s, the price for Christians has been particularly high: Christianity was nearly eliminated, with survivors struggling to maintain their existence ever since.

The Armenian Genocide
Armenia is the oldest Christian nation in the world, but has suffered devastating violence at the hands of Turkey and other neighboring Muslim nations for over a century. The Armenians were the first nation to adopt Christianity in 301 AD. They lived in the Armenian highlands for centuries, leading up to 1915. In 1915, Turkey (the Ottoman Empire) slaughtered over one million Armenian Christians in what is now known as the Armenian genocide.

That became the first genocide of the last century, where over 1.5 million Armenians were killed, starved, raped, and put on death marches in the Syrian desert. The aftermath was a complete dispersion of the Armenian people, all over the world.

Unfortunately, the hatred that led to the 1915 massacre lives on in the 21st century.

“Turkishness”
The idea of “Turkishness” was institutionalized as the failing Ottoman Empire was replaced by the secular Kemalist government following World War I. Secular Kemalism essentially hides Islam behind the Turkish ethnicity. During WWI, the Ottoman Empire fought and lost against Christian European countries. Since then, the government has protected Turkishness above all else. Any other ethnicity became devalued. Christianity was viewed as a foreign threat. As WWI ended, Turks retaliated with genocide against the ethnic Armenian, Assyrian, and Greek Christians who were living within their borders. Up to that point, these three ethnic groups were the church in Turkey. Millions of Christians died during the genocide, and the church nearly ceased to exist.

As one Turk explained, “We fought against lots of countries and some bishops blessed the enemies of the Turks. That’s why people started to hate Christianity.”

His observation is also confirmed by Turkey’s President Erdoğan, who said that it “was the most reasonable action that could be taken in such a period.” Turkey maintains that the genocide was an action of self-defense, not genocide, and has devoted multiple resources in promoting this viewpoint.

Internationally, however, the genocide is recognized as a proven historical fact. Nevertheless, such widespread international recognition has failed to translate into preventing new genocides by Turkey across multiple countries and regions.

History Bleeds
As Turkey has proven, bullying the memory of genocide into silence means that the present is lost to anyone who does not fit their definition of Turkish. As one Greek Christian observed, “the main challenge of the remaining Christians in Turkey is simply to survive, physically, religiously, and culturally… The genocide process continues in one way or another. (The Turkish State’s) aim is to completely and irrevocably Islamize and Turkify the Turkish society and landscape.”

History bleeds into the present, and the present is suffocating Christianity wherever Turkey exists. And today in 2021, Turkey exists everywhere and has achieved a global reach unparalleled during the past century. As you will learn more, Christians continue to suffer at the hands of Turkey today. The sentiment behind the genocide has never left Turkey.

ICC is on a mission to help persecuted Christians. Will you join us?