Turkey – for almost a century the most secular and moderate nation in the Muslim world – seems to be flirting with its Islamic caliphate roots and dreaming of the Ottoman Empire’s glory days, jihad, conquest and superiority over the “infidel” West.
Turks are being prosecuted for publishing “tweets” on Twitter that are “insulting to Islam,” despite the Turkish constitution’s guarantees of religious freedom. Christians are increasingly marginalized. Bureaucrats routinely block the building of churches.
Historically, Turkey played a significant role in early Christianity. It was the focus of much of the Apostle Paul’s missionary work. His Epistle to the Ephesians was written to Turks. However in 1299, the country was conquered by Islamic armies and its population converted to Islam. Constantinople, the center of the Eastern Orthodox church was renamed Istanbul and became the guardian of Islam’s holiest sites for almost a milennium. Today, approximately 96.6 percent of Turkey’s population is Muslim.
The seven churches mentioned in the Apostle John’s Book of Revelation – Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamon, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea – are all in Turkey, but no longer have congregations because their Greek Christians were deported in 1923 under the Convention Concerning the Exchange of Greek and Turkish Populations signed by the two countries.
Officially Turkey is a secular state. For centuries, it was the seat of the worldwide Islamic caliphate. But the Ottoman Empire grew corrupt and decadent – stretching from Europe to Africa, from India to Greece – and including Egypt, Iraq, Israel, Syria and Saudi Arabia. Turks were the guardians of Mecca, Jerusalem, Baghdad, Bethlehem, Medina, Damascus and Cairo.
When the Ottoman Empire collapsed after losing World War I, Britain and France — the Crusaders of medieval times – split up the empire and took control once again of the Holy Land. In Anatolia, a patriot Mustafa Kemal renamed himself “Atatürk,” or “Father of the Turks” and embarked on a program of political, economic and cultural reforms of the Turkish homeland. He dreamed of a westernized and secular nation that no longer claimed to be the protector of Islam’s holiest sites nor the center of the Caliphate.
Following Atatürk’s dream, Turkey spent the last century officially secular – the only Middle Eastern state granted membership in NATO or allowed to apply to join the European Union.
But, Islam predominates. Laws are blatantly biased against non-Muslims. For example, the few church buildings that exist are not allowed to exceed certain heights – in stark contrast to the massive hilltop mosques that dominate the Istanbul skyline. The Turkish constitution guarantees freedom of religion, however Christian worship services are only permitted in “buildings created for this purpose,” and no new church buildings have been allowed in decades. The few Turks who dare to openly profess Christ face harassment, threats and imprisonment. Most churches are surrounded by high walls and protected by 24-hour guards.
Semir Serkek, a 58-year-old pastor in the Turkish capital, tells how he has experienced hostility from Muslims nearly all his life. However, an attack over the 2012 Easter weekend was the first time he had been physically assaulted.
He was alone at Istanbul’s Grace Church preparing for the next day’s Resurrection Sunday celebrations when he heard frantic pounding at the door. Four young men in their late teens claimed they had questions and demanded to enter. They then threatened to kill him if he didn’t convert to Islam right there by reciting the Islamic confession of faith, the Kelime-i-sehadet.