Freedom of Conscience in Turkey – Myth or Reality?

Freedom of Conscience in Turkey

The caves and catacombs covering the mountainside in the north of ancient Antioch (Antakya) were dug by the followers of Christ in the era of the Roman Empire to hide from the persecutions of pagan authorities. Nowadays, no one lives there for one reason only – there’s no one to. Christians in Islamic Turkey constitute only 0.1% of the total population.

At the beginning of the 20th century, at least 20% of the population was Christian. Kemalist laws equalized the most peaceful people in the world – Christians with outlawed communists, Islamists, and Kurdish extremists.

For this, you must say “thank you” to the father of modern Turkey – Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. “Ataturk” is a pseudonym, meaning “father of the people” in Turkish. This is no exaggeration but a personality cult well known to all the inhabitants of our country.

All squares and public buildings are adorned by sculptures and statues of the founder of Turkish democracy. Photos of a mustached man in a fur cap are no less popular with bus drivers and taxi drivers than pop stars.

The same profile is minted on Turkish coins – the lira. This glory is deserved. During WWI, the brave General Kemal stopped the Russian offensive in the Caucasus and defeated the British, thereby putting an end to the plans of the latter to dismember Turkey.

But most importantly, Ataturk conducted the reforms that formed the foundation of the modern Turkish state. The “dark Ottoman past” was finished forever. Like Peter the Great, he introduced the custom of wearing European clothes in the former Ottoman Empire. Famous fezes – “a symbol of ignorance, fanaticism, and hatred of progress” – were banned.

Having finished with the fez, Kemal Ataturk began the liberation of the “enslaved women of the East.” They were even allowed to be on the decks of the ferries that crossed the Bosphorus (they had not been allowed out of the cabins before), as well as allowed them to ride in the same compartments of trams and railway cars as men.

However, all these freedoms did not apply to the Christians of Turkey. They had been and remained a humiliated minority. Only earlier, it had been called “the struggle against the infidels,” but under Ataturk, it was called “the defense of the secular foundations of the constitution” of the Turkish Republic.

No, Christianity in Turkey is not officially prohibited. The ruling regime, which received the name Kemalism after its founder Kemal Ataturk, formally presupposes freedom of religion. But if a hundred years ago in Istanbul alone, there were more than one hundred thousand Orthodox Greeks, today, there are no more than 3,000 of them in the whole country. The Greek Orthodox population of Turkey is on the verge of extinction.

These are the fruits of the systematic assimilation that the Turkish state conducts in relation to the national and religious minorities of the country. Non-Muslim religious organizations cannot officially acquire any property. And already owned property can be taken away by the state at any time.

As a result, there are now 75 thousand mosques in this “secular” country and only about 70 Orthodox shrines. Having closed the theological Halki school in 1971, the Turkish authorities struck at the very heart of Orthodoxy. The Church lost its center for theological study and clergy education. Missionary activity in this country aimed at joining the EU is prohibited as well. Here are just a few facts.

In the province of Rize, two young Christians were recently arrested for distributing the New Testament. The formal reason was that they did not have the permission of the parents. Here, it turns out, it is punishable and criminal. According to the human rights organization Turkish World Outreach (TWO), the case is being examined in the Erzurum court. If they are found guilty, they will face imprisonment.

The police occasionally raid missionaries, seizing literature from them and closing down religious education courses.

Here are some more facts: “32-year-old Christian convert Yakup Sindilli, a Turkish citizen, was attacked and severely beaten for distributing the New Testament. He went into a coma and is in critical condition” (According to the website).

A few months ago, a Christian school was shut down in Ankara, and seven of its foreign workers were deported. The followers of Christ frequently receive reports of planted bombs. Television and newspapers often excite anti-Christian sentiments. The position of Christians in “free” Turkey is not much different from the times when they were hiding from the persecutions in the mountains near Antioch.

Limestone cliffs overgrown with prickly shrubs have been dug up with a multitude of “holes”. The entrances of some are carved in the shape of a square. Others are shaped like a semicircle. Some are so narrow that one can only squeeze through sideways. The first Christians have been hiding in these places from the persecution of the Roman authorities.

And then in the local caves settled ascetics and hermits. The cells often expanded and turned into churches. In one of them, even the remains of columns and time-worn frescoes are preserved. When Arab raids became more frequent in the 7th century, the builders refused to decorate their facades not to attract the attention of uninvited guests.

So, on a superficial examination, it is hard to guess that there are churches, refectories, cells, and dwellings hidden in the depths of the rocky massif. Some caves are located directly above each other, forming a “high-rise building.” In danger, people moved from the lower floors to the upper ones and took the ladder with them.

And here is the temple where preached the one who was addressed by Jesus: “You are Peter, and on this stone, I will build My Church, and the gates of hell will not prevail over it; and I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven.”

The church is a grotto where a dozen or two people can fit. The facade that separates the space of the cave church from the outside world is a wall made of limestone blocks. It was built in the 19th century.

Three iron doors lead inside. Above them, there are openwork rosettes carved in the stone in the form of eight-pointed stars decorated with ornaments of the cross. Everything is extremely ascetic, both inside and outside. In ancient times, this was only one of many caves.

In 451, a Patriarchate was established in Antioch. Its significance for the Orthodox world was so great that St. Basil the Great wrote: “What is more important for the Universal Church than Antioch? It is the head which when healthy communicates it to the entire body.”

The influence of the Antiochian Throne extended not only to Syria, Phoenicia, Palestine, Mesopotamia, Cilicia, Isauria, Arabia, and Cyprus, but also far beyond the borders of the Roman Empire – to Persia, Georgia, and partly Armenia. If you look through the church calendar, then the memory of one of the Antioch devotees is celebrated literally every week.

However, now, only about 1,000 Christians are left in the ancient center of Eastern Orthodoxy. And the number continues to decline steadily.

Sergey Putilov

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