Area Intel on Turkey
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Once home to the seven churches of Revelation and the center of gravity for early Christian civilization within which the great creeds were formulated, Turkey may be the largest least evangelized country on earth.
Among 55 million Turks, 14 million Kurds, and one million Arabs, about 1500 Evangelicals meet in fewer than two dozen churches. Greek and Armenian minorities supply another 90,000 Christians of Orthodox and Catholic persuasions. Consequently, Turkey has roughly one tiny church for every three million people.
Asia Minor was Islamicized in much the same way that North America was Christianized. As Europeans overwhelmed and displaced American Indians, so the Central Asian Turkish tribes overwhelmed and displaced the natives of Asia Minor; but not without bitter fighting.
As recently as 1900, Turkey was 22% Christian. That was before three million independence seeking Armenians were exterminated in genocide.
When the Seljuk Turks, operating from Baghdad, expanded their empire into the "holy land," Christian Europe fought for two centuries with the Crusades to hold them back.
Then the Ottoman tribe of Turks conquered Constantinople in 1453 and replaced the Byzantine Empire with their own, which by 1600 reached deep into Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East.
While in Central Asia, the Turkish tribes had followed either Animism (worshiping many gods in nature) or the Nestorian cult of Christianity (denying the full divinity of Jesus). As they absorbed Islam and settled new lands, mystical elements of their heritage like Whirling Dervishes and the Evil Eye remained. Accordingly, even today, Turkish religion at the level of daily living consists more of superstition and folk magic than of keeping the pillars of Islam.
Stacked upon layers of preceding civilizations and perched on the fault line between East and West, cultural forces in modern Turkey clash like tectonic plates. Kurdish separatists fight for independence in the impoverished east. Large numbers are fleeing the backward countryside to overpopulated industrial cities. Secular progressives agitate to speed modernization, while radical fundamentalists press for strict Muslim law amidst widespread corruption and moral decay.
The earthquake of August 17, 1999 gives us a metaphor for the cultural upheaval. By it, the Turks mark time "before the earthquake and after the earthquake," and through the cracked social fabric it symbolizes, an indigenous church has been emerging.
Fourteen years ago Turkey had only two Evangelical congregations. These were in Istanbul. Today over a dozen fellowships meet in owned or rented properties throughout the country, and several other fledgling groups meet in homes. By establishing legal identities, Turkish Christians are gaining confidence and becoming more mainstream. Arrests and police harassment continue, but the courts are supporting religious freedom and attitudes are changing.
For centuries, popular opinion in Turkey has been that Christianity was subversive. Turks have felt about relatives following Jesus the way you and I might feel about a son or daughter becoming homosexual. Channeling some earthquake relief through a handful of Turkish congregations gave Turkish believers their first positive high profile since the Crusades and a big opportunity to vindicate themselves. A Christian FM radio station now broadcasts 24 hours a day in Europe's largest metropolis, Istanbul, and annual demand for Turkish language New Testaments and Bible study material steadily increases.
Asia Minor stands at a crossroads unprecedented since the days of the Apostle Paul. Seventy percent of its people live in urban centers and forty percent are under fifteen years old. Istanbul's skyline reveals its emptiness and thirst. In it thousands of minarets reach towards heaven along with tens of thousands more satellite dishes. While Islam calls from the one and secular paganism beams into the other, the church of Jesus is quietly growing.
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