Churches in Turkey on the Verge of Extinction
One of the common features of the Ottoman Empire and modern Turkey seems to be their intolerance of churches.
“Turkey is not converting churches into mosques because there is a need for more mosques… The message conveyed … is that Turkey is an Islamic state and no other religion is tolerated.” — Constantine Tzanos, author.
The physical devastation of the Christian Armenians was followed by a cultural devastation. Countless Christian churches and schools have been destroyed or turned into mosques, storehouses or stables, among other things.
“Christians are certainly seen as second-class citizens. A real citizen is a Muslim, and those who aren’t Muslim are seen as suspicious.” — Walter Flick, Scholar, International Society for Human Rights.
Sadly, Turkey, a NATO member since 1952 and supposedly a candidate for membership in the European Union, has largely succeeded in destroying the entire Christian cultural heritage of Asia Minor.
While Eastern Orthodox Christians recently celebrated their Easter holy week, a historical Church in Istanbul — the once magnificent Christian city of Constantinople — is witnessing yet another abuse at the hands of its current authorities.
“The historic Istanbul cathedral and museum, Hagia Sophia, witnessed its first Quran recitation under its roof after 85 years Saturday,” reported the state-run Anatolian News Agency of Turkey. “The Religious Affairs Directorate launched the exhibition “Love of Prophet,” as part of commemorations of the birth of Islamic Prophet Muhammad.”
Even though Christians are a tiny minority in Turkey today, Christianity has a long history in Asia Minor, the birthplace of many Christian Apostles and Saints, including Paul of Tarsus, Timothy, Nicholas of Myra, and Polycarp of Smyrna.
All of the first seven Ecumenical Councils were held in present-day Turkey. Two out of the five centers (Patriarchates) of the ancient Pentarchy – Constantinople (Istanbul) and Antioch (Antakya) – are also situated there. Antioch was the place where, for the first time, the followers of Jesus were called “Christians.”
Turkey is also home to the Seven Churches of Asia, where were sent the Revelations to John. During the centuries that followed, countless churches were established throughout the region.
One of them, Hagia Sophia, was once the grandest cathedral in the Christian world — until the fall of Constantinople by the Ottomans on May 29, 1453, followed by a three days of unbridled pillage.
Hagia Sophia was not exempt. Pillagers made their way to the Hagia Sophia and battered down its doors. Trapped in the church, congregants and refugees became spoils to be divided among the Ottoman invaders.
The historian Steven Runciman in The Fall of Constantinople 1453 writes:
“They slew everyone that they met in the streets, men, women and children without discrimination. The blood ran in rivers down the steep streets from the heights of Petra towards the Golden Horn. But soon the lust for slaughter was assuaged. The soldiers realized that captives and precious objects would bring them greater profit.”
After the fall of the city, the Hagia Sophia Church was converted into a mosque.
A mosque with the name Hagia Sophia, Greek for Ἁγία Σοφία, “Holy Wisdom,” is possible if the church is brought under the control of an Islamic theocracy. It is like having a mosque called “the Armenian Mosque of the Holy Cross”.
In the 1930s, the Turkish government made it into a museum. But turning a church into a museum is also not a trait of a truly democratic state. One of the common features of the Ottoman Empire and modern Turkey seems to be their intolerance of churches.
In 2013, the Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc expressed his hope to see the Hagia Sophia Museum be used as a mosque, and even referred to it it the “Hagia Sophia Mosque.”
“Turkey is not converting churches into mosques because there is a need for more mosques, and Turkey does not have the resources to build them,” wrote Constantine Tzanos. “The message conveyed by those in Turkey who have achieved the conversion of Christian churches into mosques and demand the conversion of Hagia Sofia is that Turkey is an Islamic state and no other religion is tolerated.”
On November, 2014, Pope Francis paid the fourth ever visit of a Pope to Turkey. Turkish Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Tanju Bilgic told reporters that during the trip, the issue of an “alliance of civilizations, dialogue between cultures, xenophobia, the fight against racism and political developments in the region” would be on the agenda.
The agenda of Pope Francis should actually have included the churches of Turkey that have been destroyed, damaged or converted into many things including stables – like the historical Armenian Gregoryan Church in the province of Izmir (Smyrna). “Some citizens put their cows and horses inside the church, while the inhabitants of the neighborhood complain that the church has been turned into a site of drug addicts and alcoholics,” reported the newspaper Milliyet.
Another victim of Turkey’s intolerance of churches, the Agios Theodoros Byzantine Church in Istanbul, was first converted into a mosque during the rule of the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II; it was named after Mollah Gurani, the fourth Sheikh-ul-Islam (the authority that governed religious affairs of the Muslims in the Ottoman Empire).
It was reported in March 2014, that the entry section of the former church-mosque has become a “house,” and its upper storey turned into a “flat.” A shanty has been built inside its garden. The priest’s room is now a toilet.
Centuries later, the habits of Ottoman Turks seem not to have changed.
Today, Turkey has a smaller percentage of its Christian population than any of its neighbors – less than Syria, Iraq and Iran. The greatest cause of this was the Assyrian, Armenian and Greek slaughters or genocides between 1915 and 1923.
At least 2.5 million native Christians of Asia Minor were killed — either massacred outright, or became victims of deportations, slave labor or death marches. Many of them died in concentration camps of diseases or starvation.
Many Greeks who survived the slaughter were driven from their homes in Asia Minor in the 1923 forcible population exchange between Turkey and Greece.
The physical devastation was followed by a cultural devastation. Throughout the history of the Turkish Republic, countless Christian churches and schools have been destroyed or turned into mosques, storehouses and stables among other things.
The columnist Raffi Bedrosyan reported in the Armenian Weekly that
“There are only 34 churches and 18 schools left in Turkey today, mostly in Istanbul, with about less than 3,000 students in these schools.”
“Recent research pegs the number of Armenian churches in Turkey before 1915 at around 2,300. The number of schools before 1915 is estimated at nearly 700, with 82,000 students. These numbers are only for churches and schools under the jurisdiction of the Istanbul Armenian Patriarchate and the Apostolic Church, and therefore do not include the numerous churches and schools belonging to the Protestant and Catholic Armenian parishes.”
Walter Flick, a scholar with the International Society for Human Rights in Germany, says that the Christian minority in Turkey does not enjoy the same rights as the Muslim majority.
“Turkey has almost 80 million inhabitants,” he said. “There are only around 120,000 Christians, which is less than 1 percent of the population. Christians are certainly seen as second-class citizens. A real citizen is Muslim, and those who aren’t Muslim are seen as suspicious.”
According to a 2014 survey, 89 % of the Turkish population said that what defines a nation is belonging to a certain religion. Among the 38 countries that participated in the question: Who believes in the importance of belonging to a specific religion [Islam] in defining the concept of a nation, Turkey [for Turkishness], with 89% of its population agreeing, ranked number one in the world. 
“In some ways, Ankara’s policies against Turkey’s Christian citizens have added a modern veneer and sophisticated brutality to Ottoman norms and practices,” wrote political scientist Dr. Elizabeth H. Prodromou and historian Dr. Alexandros K. Kyrou. In the words of an anonymous Church hierarch in Turkey fearful for the life of his flock, Christians in Turkey are an endangered species.”
On April 4, 1949, the signers of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in Washington D.C. announced: “The Parties to this Treaty reaffirm their faith in the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations and their desire to live in peace with all peoples and all governments. They are determined to safeguard the freedom, common heritage and civilization of their peoples, founded on the principles of democracy, individual liberty and the rule of law. They seek to promote stability and well-being in the North Atlantic area. They are resolved to unite their efforts for collective defense and for the preservation of peace and security.”
Being part of the EU community and NATO requires respecting the Jewish, Christian, Hellenic and secular humanist values that have characterized Western Civilization, and contributed to civil rights, democracy, philosophy and science from which everyone can benefit.
Sadly, Turkey, a NATO member since 1952, and reportedly a candidate for membership in the European Union, has largely succeeded in destroying the entire Christian cultural heritage of Asia Minor.
All this is reminiscent of what ISIS and other jihadist armies have been doing in the Middle East. In Turkey, the remaining Christian population, the grandchildren of genocide survivors, are still exposed to discrimination. The old habits of Ottoman Turks do not seem to die.
Uzay Bulut, born a Muslim, is a Turkish journalist based in Ankara.