Modern Turkey was founded in 1923 by Kemal Ataturk, “The Father of the Turks”. He was a moderniser, and despite 96% of Turkey’s citizens being Muslims (the majority Sunni), it has a secular constitution. However, there is great tension between secularists and Islamists.

Turkey is divided between Europe (3%) and Asia (97%). The capital is Ankara, with about 5 million people, but Istanbul is the largest city, with about 14 million people.

The Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan (pictured), has made entry to the European Union a priority, and as part of the process of applying for membership, some significant human rights reforms have been made. This has included restitution of property confiscated from religious minorities. However, there is no evidence of increasing religious freedom, and religious minorities often find that the legal improvements to their rights are not implemented.

Religious pluralism is widely viewed as a threat to Islam and “national unity”, and many believe that to be a real Turk one must be a Muslim. A controversial law, Article 301, prohibits publicly denigrating the Turkish nation, and under its terms Christians have been accused of “anti-Turkishness”. The Diyanet, or Presidency of Religious Affairs, which reports to the Prime Minister and is funded by the state, controls religious groups and influences the extent of freedom of religion.

There are about 163,000 Christians in Turkey, making up only 0.21% of the population. Most belong to the ancient churches (the largest being the Armenian Orthodox, followed by the Syrian Orthodox), which are recognised by the government and have permission to meet. Up to 1.5 million Armenian and Assyrian Christians died in the Ottoman genocide of 1915.

Freedom of Religion

Turkey’s constitution and penal code grant freedom of religion – it is not a crime to be a Christian or to disseminate the Christian faith (although adults may not share their faith with under-18s) – but minorities often point to a lack of implementation. Christians have faced great difficulties over the years in exercising their constitutional freedom, particularly in obtaining permission to build or rent premises for meetings and in training leaders. Local authorities often refuse to grant permission for unrecognised Christian groups to build or rent premises.

There is a ban on religious communities having legal personality, which prevents them owning places of worship and denies them the opportunity to take legal action to defend their freedom of religion. However, there has been some progress on this issue in recent years, in relation to property.

A new legal entity, that of association, has given churches a means of legal recognition and of owning property. More and more churches are establishing associations, although this provision falls short of true religious freedom and there have been some problems of implementation. Since congregations can now be legal entities as associations, they can in theory gain permission to build churches, but applications are often blocked and congregations burdened with requirements that they cannot afford.

As well as property restrictions, there are severe restrictions on training clergy in Turkey. There is no legal provision for Christians to train clergy – only Muslim clerics may be trained, and other religious communities are denied the right to run their own training establishments.

Evangelical Christians

The Association of Protestant Churches of Turkey was founded in 1989 to link evangelical fellowships and leaders and provide them with advocacy and support. It represents at least 5,000 evangelicals who worship in independent churches that have grown up over the past 30 years. Most of these Christians were formerly Muslims or atheists. They are known as Protestants because there is no Turkish word for evangelical. Unlike traditionally established communities such as the Greek Orthodox, Armenian, Catholic or Syriac churches, Protestants are not recognised by the government.

Christians are associated in many Turkish people’s minds with the Crusades, the Inquisition, imperialistic policies and western immorality. Evangelicals and especially missionaries have been misrepresented widely by the government, the media and in school textbooks, and some missionaries have been beaten; “missionary activity” is a pejorative term in Turkey.

Church buildings are occasionally attacked, and some foreign church workers have been deported or denied renewals of the residency permits. This can cause problems for Turkish churches as some rely on foreign leadership since they are not permitted to train their own leaders. In Spring 2013, the government blacklisted US citizen Jerry Mattix for his voluntary work with Diyarbakir Protestant Church, deeming him a “threat to national security”. In the previous two years, at least six other foreign-born families had either been deported or denied renewals of their residency permits.

It is considered a disgrace if a Turk leaves Islam for Christianity, and Muslims who become Christians face enormous pressures, including social and familial ostracism, harassment and intimidation by the security forces and threats from Turkish nationalists and Muslim extremists. Fear of discrimination and social exclusion means many people who leave Islam do not change the designation of Islam on their ID cards. On rare occasions, Muslim converts have been attacked and even killed.

In the most serious attack in recent years, a German and two Turkish Christians were tortured and murdered in Malatya in 2007 by attackers who had posed as enquirers into Christianity. The two Turkish Christians were former Muslims. In September 2016, at the trial’s 115th hearing, five men were convicted of the “Malatya Massacre” at last, and sentenced to life in prison.

An assassination plot against Pastor Emre Karaali of Izmit Protestant Church was foiled when, in January 2013, police arrested the 14 people involved in the plot.

In autumn 2015, 15 Protestant congregations and their leaders were targeted in a campaign of death threats. The language used in the social media messages was similar to Islamic State’s rhetoric. On 30 January 2016, the Association of Protestant Churches published its 2015 Human Rights Violation Report. It documents hate crimes, physical attacks and serious threats during 2015 and notes the continuing problem of obtaining permission for places of worship. Pastor Ihsan Ozbek of the Association commented, “We are anxious and distressed.”

2016 Report on Freedom of Religion or Belief in Turkey

Christian Solidarity Worldwide’s 2016 report, Turkey – Freedom of religion or belief and freedom of expressionanalyses the situation of freedom of religion or belief in Turkey and the implications of the continued government crackdown on the media and freedom of expression. It finds that despite the secular constitution and extensive legislation on freedom of religion or belief, “Turkey fails to consistently implement these laws to enable religious minorities to exercise and enjoy their rights… President Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party have publicly endorsed a move towards a Sunni Muslim identity for Turkey… Consequently, Turkish religious minorities are increasingly vulnerable to restrictive government legislation and growing social hostilities.”

The report also considers the implications of the refugee crisis. Turkey hosts over two million refugees in accommodation described by local embassy staff and representatives of international organisations as some of the best they have seen. However, infiltration by Islamist extremists means that some Christians and Yazidis are too intimidated to stay in the camps. Thus they miss out on UNHCR funding.

(Al-Monitor, Association of Protestant Churches in Turkey, Christian Solidarity Worldwide, Forum 18, International Christian Concern, Middle East Concern, Operation World, Voice of the Martyrs Canada, World Watch List)

Church in Chains in Action

Church in Chains has had several meetings at the Turkish Embassy in Dublin in relation to the legal and social difficulties faced by evangelical churches. It supports the work of the Associaltion of Protestant Churches in Turkey and SAT-7 TURK, a Turkish-run Christian satellite television ministry.