Turkey Uncensored: From the Ottomans to Turkey – Turkish Intolerance against Churches
Uzay Bulut | July 19, 2016
Christianity is deeply rooted in the region known as Turkey.
“After Israel, Turkey has more biblical sites than any other country in the Middle East,” said the Seven Churches Network website. “For this reason, Turkey is rightly called the Other Holy Land. The three major apostles – Peter, Paul and John – either ministered or lived in Turkey.”
Approximately 60 percent of the names of the places mentioned in the Bible are in Turkey.
But today, according to the CIA World Fact Book, Muslims (mostly Sunni) comprise 99.8 percent of the population of Turkey; and 0.2 percent are other groups − mostly Christians and Jews.
What has happened to Christians and their churches in Anatolia?
The case of the province of Bursa in northwestern Turkey is a dramatic example to give us a clear answer.
The Turkish newspaper Zaman has recently reported that a 2,000-year-old historic church, which is now used as a mosque in the Aydinpinar village in the province of Bursa, will be turned into a cultural center, which “will be used for cultural activities and meetings.”
The restoration will get started at the end of this year, and the “mosque’s” mihrab – the niche in the wall that indicates Mecca and demonstrates where Muslims should face when praying – will be preserved.
The church has been left to its fate for a long time. And now that the villagers have built another mosque in the village, the church-mosque is not used anymore, and its roof has collapsed.
This church is only one of hundreds, if not thousands, of churches that have been devastated in Turkey.
In February, the Armenian Catholic church in Bursa was also put up for sale on the Internet. The price of the church was $1.5 million.
According to the Armenian newspaper Agos, that historic church was used as a “tobacco storehouse” after the Turkish Republic was established in 1923.
So many other churches across Anatolia have also been destroyed or used as many different things other than their actual functions.
One was the Bogosyan Armenian Gregorian Church, whose history dates back to the 17th century.
The historian Ismail Yasayanlar told the newspaper Agos the history of the church.
The Armenians from Bursa, after seeing that their church was in ruins, received the required permission from state institutions and began to repair the church in 1794. That process coincided with the Islamic month of Ramadan. But the city’s Muslims were disturbed because they thought the reparation went beyond its purpose and that the church was further enlarged and elevated. More than 1,000 provoked Muslim women from Bursa destroyed the church, saying that “the repaired church was the reason it was no longer raining in the city.”
Even today, Muslim Turks’ general attitude against Christians and churches has not changed.
According to the Human Rights Violations Report of the Association of Protestant Churches, in 2015, for instance, a chapel in a shopping center in the Inegol district of Bursa was shut down due to heavy pressure. And the Bursa Protestant Church was threatened via email.
From a Powerful Christian Province to an Almost “Christian-Free” Zone
Before the city of Bursa was invaded and captured by Muslim armies, it was a part of Bithynia, an ancient Greek region, independent kingdom and Roman province.
A Greek ruler actually named the present-day Bursa. In 202 BC., Prusias I, the king of Bithynia, rebuilt the city and renamed it “Prusa.”
After 128 years of Bithynian rule, the kingdom of Bithynia became a part of the Roman Empire in 74 BC and was united with the Greek kingdom of Pontus as the province of “Bithynia et Pontus.”
Bithynia, which was then incorporated into the Byzantine Empire, was home to many Greek scientists, thinkers and other notable people such as the astronomer Hipparchus, historians Cassius Dio and Arrian, astronomer and mathematician Theodosius, and Saint Helena, who was also the mother of Constantine the Great.
After Muslim armies began their jihad against non-Muslim civilizations in the seventh century, one of their primary targets was Asia Minor, which was then a powerful Christian realm. For example, Prusa was besieged in 947 by the forces of Sayf al-Dawla (“Sword of the State”), a ruler of the Hamdanids, which made up a Muslim Arab dynasty of northern Iraq and Syria.
Following Arab armies, Seljuk Turks targeted Anatolia and invaded it in 1071, capturing city after city and expanding toward Western Anatolia.
In 1326, the Ottoman Turks besieged Prusa (Bursa) and captured it from the Byzantines, making Bursa the first major capital city of the early Ottoman Empire.
The fall of Prusa was an enormous blow to Byzantine Anatolia, whose final end came with the fall of Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul) in 1453. The beginning of the Ottoman rule in Anatolia has brought a gradual end to the Christianity in Anatolia.
The Jews and Christians in the Ottoman Empire were given the choice of either converting to Islam; being killed; or living as conquered, subjugated peoples – “dhimmis” – barely tolerated in their dispossessed land.
The era of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the founding of the Turkish republic marked the peak of the Christian annihilation in the region.
1915 Armenian Genocide
Today, the few remnant churches of Armenians in Bursa are on the verge of total devastation, but before the 1915 genocide, Bursa had a prosperous Armenian community.
The scholar Raymond Kevorkian described the deportations and massacres in Bursa in his book “The Armenian Genocide: A Complete History.”
“At the dawn of the 20th century,” Kevorkian wrote, “the vilayet of Bursa had, according to statistics compiled by the Armenian Patriarchate, an Armenian population of 82,350.
“The city of Bursa had – until 1915 – an Armenian population of 11,500. The city’s Armenians and Greeks represented more than one-third of its population, which also included a large number of mucahirs who had recently come from the Balkans.”
But in 1915, the demographics of the city was completely changed and made devoid of its Armenian community:
“By 15 April 1915, searches were already being conducted in the houses of the local elite, and teachers and notables were being arrested on various pretexts.
“The deportation order, which was published on 14 August 1915, gave the Armenians three days to prepare their departure. The looting of Armenian homes began even before the evacuation. One thousand eight hundred families left the city in the space of three days. Like all the convoys of deportees, those from Bursa followed the railway as far as Konya and Bozanti and then crossed Cilicia to Aleppo; the most unfortunate were sent on to Der Zor.”
1914-1923 Greek Genocide
During 1914-1923, the indigenous Greek minority of the Ottoman Empire was exposed to what the Genocide Prevention Now defined as “a centrally organized, premeditated and systematic policy of annihilation.”
According to the GPN, “this genocide orchestrated to ensure an irreversible end to the collective existence of Turkey’s Greek population was perpetrated by two consecutive governments: the Committee for Union and Progress, better known as the Young Turks, and the nationalist Kemalists led by Mustafa Kemal ‘Atatürk.’ A lethal combination of internal deportations involving death marches and massacres conducted throughout Ottoman Turkey resulted in the death of 1 million Ottoman Greeks.
“The International Association of Genocide Scholars, an organization of the world’s foremost experts on genocide, has affirmed the Ottoman Greek Genocide.”
1923 Greek Ethnic Cleansing Through Forced Expulsion
As part of the 1923 forcible population exchange treaty between Greece and Turkey, about 200,000 Greek Orthodox Christians of Anatolia – including those in Prusa (Bursa) – were forcibly expelled from Turkey.
The scholar Renée Hirschon wrote:
“The Anatolian landmass had been a location of Hellenic settlement and culture from antiquity, albeit with periods of decline and discontinuity. During the 19th century, there were established settlements scattered throughout Anatolia and the Black Sea region, where people of the Orthodox Christian faith were a substantial minority or even predominant as in parts of western coastal Asia Minor.
“For the Orthodox Christians, the exchange was experienced as a harsh exile and was expressed through decades of yearning for ‘lost homelands’ after their relocation to Greece.”
Systematic Discrimination during Republican Turkey
The Turkish Republic was established in 1923, abolishing the caliphate in 1924, but pressures and discrimination against Christians in Turkey continued unabated:
The Turkish historian, Ayse Hur, related an incident:
“In January 1928, it was reported that three Muslim Turkish girls who studied at the American College in the province of Bursa converted to Christianity upon the motivation of some teachers. This led to a fervent anti-Christian campaign. First the school was closed down, and then the principal and some teachers of the school were brought to court. Afterwards, non-Muslim schools were exposed to a very heavy inspection. And journalists established the ‘Association for Driving Out Missionaries.’”
Current Situation: Cultural Genocide Continues
As if the 1915 genocide and the subsequent forced deportation of Anatolian Christians were not enough, the descendants of the survivors are still continually exposed to discrimination, violent threats and harassment. Please read the yearly reports of the Association of Protestant Churches about rights abuses against Christians in Turkey.
In Bursa, which used to be a Christian province before its conquest by Muslims, there is only one active church today: The French Church – Cultural House. The Protestants in the city are in charge of this church but the problem is that the Protestant community is not legally recognized as a “legal entity” by the Turkish government. Hence, the ability to legally establish a place of worship continues to be problem for Protestants in the country.
Christianity in Turkey has almost been completely annihilated. There are many lessons that Christians worldwide must learn from the history of Christianity in Anatolia to stop Christians in other places in the world from facing extinction.