Christians in Turkey nervous as country moves in Islamic and nationalistic direction

Publication Date: 22/10/2020

Source: Open Doors

The repurposing of two historic churches in Turkey from museums to mosques over the summer has reinforced concerns amongst Christians over the Islamic and nationalistic direction the country is moving towards.

In July, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan declared that the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul – a church built in the sixth century and converted to a mosque in the 15th century before being turned into a museum in 1935 – would again be turned into a mosque. Two weeks later, the building opened for Muslim prayers.

A month later, the former Church of the Holy Saviour in Chora was also turned from a museum into a mosque.

Unhappiness and fear

“There is an Islamist and nationalist atmosphere that makes it uncomfortable for Christians in Turkey," Yetvart Danzikyan, the editor-in-chief of Istanbul's Armenian newspaper Agos, explained to Politico. “All Christian minorities and seculars are unhappy and feel fear. Some younger Christians are thinking of leaving Turkey and moving to Western countries."

Michael Bosch, persecution analyst with Open Doors World Watch List Unit, points to evidence suggesting that it’s not just Christians among Turkey’s young people who are growing disillusioned with government. He explains, “Admittedly, Erdogan's rhetoric does appear threatening to Christians in Turkey and the surrounding region, but evidence suggests that the younger generation is refusing to buy into such nationalist and Islamist populism."

Bosch adds that a desire for populist support lies behind the repurposing of the two historic churches. “The economy is seriously affected by the Covid-19 pandemic and he [Erdoğan] has two ongoing military campaigns in Syria and Libya on his hands,” he explains. “In that context the nationalistic element, showing the world that Turkey is a sovereign nation who dares to confront the Christian West, is probably just as important as the religious element.”

Foreign Christians rejected

Just as Christians consider leaving the country voluntarily, many foreign Christians in Turkey have had to leave involuntarily.

According to the Association of Protestant Churches, since January 2019 almost 60 foreign nationals, many working in Turkey as pastors or community leaders, have been told to leave or not allowed to re-enter. One lawyer said to Catholic news outlet International LeCroix, "We systematically receive a rejection, the same standardised answer that says that people are a threat to national security, that Turkey is sovereign on its territory and therefore has the right to grant or deny residence permits."

Turkey is ranked at 36 on the 2020 Open Doors World Watch List, the main drivers for persecution being government oppression, societal discrimination and community ostracism. Around 0.2 per cent of the population is Christian.

In its 2020 report, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom recommended that Turkey be added to the US State Department’s Special Watch List of countries because of their engaging in, or toleration of, religious freedom violations. It stated, “In 2019, religious freedom conditions in Turkey remained worrisome, with the perpetuation of restrictive and intrusive governmental policies on religious practice and a marked increase in incidents of vandalism and societal violence against religious minorities.” Turkey is the first member of NATO to be added to the list.


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