HOLY LAND OF THE NEW TESTAMENT
Turkey, the ancient Ottoman Empire, has been called the 'Holy Land' of the New Testament. Paul took three missionary journeys to this nation and it was here that 'Followers of the Way' were first called "Christians". Furthermore, all seven churches mentioned in the book of Revelation are located in modern-day Turkey. At one point in its history, Turkey was the capital of the Christian empire; yet today is considered the "largest unreached nation." (Operation World 2001) According to statistics, there is approximately one church per three million Turks. Turkey was the first mission-sending nation, the home of seven Church councils that authored many of the Christian creeds and doctrine, and the birthplace of the modern Church. However, with the passing of time, Turkey has evolved from a predominately Christian culture, through Islamic dominance, toward an increasingly secular society. With such drastic change in spiritual climate, it is very interesting to follow the rise and decline of the Gospel in this nation. It is my burden that this nation return to its First Love.
TURKEY BEFORE THE TIME OF CHRIST
Three thousand years before Christ, the Hittites controlled Asia Minor, the region now known as Turkey. These peoples were very warlike, and worshipped many gods and built many altars and temples. The Hittites were defeated by the Assyrians, and later by the Greeks. With the conquest by the Greeks, came the philosophical ideas and a polytheistic religion. After the division of the twelve tribes of Israel, Jews settled in Asia Minor began to adopt Greek culture. Such Jews were known as Hellenistic Jews because they were Jews ethnically and religiously, but Greeks culturally. (Many references are made to these people in the book of Acts). It is estimated that the first Jews to live in the region of Turkey came in the sixth century B.C., making the Jewish community in Turkey one of the oldest in the world. The first Synagogues in Asia Minor were built in the third century BC.
EARLY CHRISTIANITY IN TURKEY
After Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection, He commissioned His followers to go into all the world and spread the Gospel (Matthew 28:19). The Gospel spread throughout the nation of Israel and into Rome, but along with the advance of the Gospel came persecution for those associated with the name of Christ. As a result of such persecution, many followers of Christ fled to Asia Minor and settled in many different cites: Ephesus, Hierapolis and Cappadocia to name a few. The Christian refugees formed small communities wherever they lived and this was the beginning of the early Church in Turkey. Perhaps the most famous fellowship of believers was in Antioch. It was at this location that believers were first called "Christians." (Acts 11:26)
Many Christians fled from Jerusalem after the martyrdom of a man named Stephen. Stephen was the first martyr for the name of Christ and one of his accusers was a man who would later answer God's call to missions. A man named Saul, who was present at Stephen's death, encountered Jesus as he was in the middle of a mission to persecute other followers of Christ. Jesus changed Saul's life, his name and his mission. Paul, one of the greatest missionaries in all Church history, received his call to missions while being involved with the Church in Antioch. It was from Antioch that Paul made a total of three missionary journeys as recorded in the book of Acts.
PAUL'S FIRST MISSIONARY JOURNEY (AD 46-48)
Paul's first missionary journey was the shortest of the three, lasting only two years. He was commissioned and supported by the Church at Antioch. He traveled extensively, including about five locations in mainland Turkey. At Antioch of Pisidia, Paul spoke in a synagogue appealling to the Jews (which were many, as mentioned before). He preached how Jesus was the fulfillment of all the scriptures' prophecies and that He is the true Messiah. The Jews enjoyed Paul's preaching and invited him to stay. However, the religious leaders of the day were jealous of Paul's popularity among the people and tried to contradict him. As a result, Paul began preaching to the Gentiles, many of whom believed the message and were being saved. It is said in Acts 13:49 that "the word of the Lord was being spread through the whole region." (NLT) Paul continued traveling and preaching under the power of the Holy Spirit and the Word of God was going forth into Turkey.
PAUL'S SECOND MISSIONARY JOURNEY (AD 49-52)
One of the places that Paul preached on his second missionary journey was the city of Ephesus.
Ephesus in its time was a leading city in that part of the world - the Romans gave it the title "the first and greatest metropolis of Asia." Its greatest non-Christian attractions were the pagan Temple of Diana, known as "Diana of the Ephesians," and its open theater, capable of containing 50,000 spectators - then largest in the world, and still very big in comparison to modern-day stadiums. Paul first visited the city near the end of his Second Missionary Journey, about 51 A.D., while returning from Greece to Syria (Acts 18:18-21). He at that time remained only briefly, as he was hurrying to be back at Jerusalem for Pentecost, but he left Priscilla and Aquila behind to carry on with the work of the Gospel.
Paul journeyed to fourteen locations on this journey and through it the Gospel spread into Greece. Turkey, the first mission-sending nation, was rapidly influencing neighboring nations for Christ.
PAUL'S THIRD MISSIONARY JOURNEY (AD 54-58)
While Paul traveled throughout Asia Minor and into Greece, he visited the believers and strengthened them in the Lord. It was in Ephesus that he wrote his first letter to the Galatians, a city located in the middle of Turkey. Paul's letter contains this:
Foolish Galatians, who has bewitched you not to obey the truth, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was openly set forth among you as crucified? (3:2) I just want to learn this from you. Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by hearing of faith? … Stand firm therefore in the liberty by which Christ has made us free, and don't be entangled again with a yoke of bondage. (5:2) Behold, I, Paul, tell you that if you receive circumcision, Christ will profit you nothing. (5:3) Yes, I testify again to every man who receives circumcision, that he is a debtor to do the whole law. (5:4) You are alienated from Christ, you who desire to be justified by the law. You have fallen away from grace. (5:5) For we, through the Spirit, by faith wait for the hope of righteousness. (5:6) For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision amounts to anything, nor uncircumcision, but faith working through love. (5:7) You were running well! Who interfered with you that you should not obey the truth? (5:8) This persuasion is not from him who calls you. (5:9) A little yeast grows through the whole lump. (5:10) I have confidence toward you in the Lord that you will think no other way. But he who troubles you will bear his judgment, whoever he is.
Some Christians in Galatia were trusting in obedience to the Law of Moses for their salvation. Many of the believers were Jewish and were telling the gentiles they had to be circumcised before they could become Christians. Paul addressed this misconception and reminded them of the work that Jesus did on the cross. Paul wrote many letters to the early Churches and encouraged them to grow in the Lord and multiply believers everywhere. House churches began to grow and the Church was on the rise.
In addition to the expansion of the Church, the Roman Empire, which was dominant during the time of Jesus, was also on the rise. Rome had been exposed to the message of Jesus and many leaders became believers. As the rulers conquered new lands for Rome, they also began to claim them in the name of Christ.
TURKEY AS THE CAPITAL OF THE CHRISTIAN EMPIRE (AD 324 - 1453)
In AD 324, the Turkish city of Byzantium was conquered by the Roman Empire. The Roman Emperor Constantine the Great adopted Christianity as the religion of the empire at this time. He then chose Byzantium as his new Christian capital and changed its name to Constantinople. This was a major shift, as the former capital of the Roman Empire had been Rome, as well as the center of Pagan worship. With the change of capital cities and the expansion of its border, thus began the Byzantine Empire. It lasted over 1000 years, ending in 1453, when the Ottoman Turks conquered Constantinople and renamed it Istanbul.
THE EARLY CHURCH COUNCILS (AD 325 - 787)
It was Emperor Constantine who established the first Church council at Nicea. As the Church further developed, bishops and elders were appointed over churches to help govern them. There were seven ecumenical councils in Turkey altogether. They were: Nicea (AD 325), Constantinople I (AD 381), Ephesus (AD 431), Chalcedon (AD 451), Constantinople II (AD 553), Constantinople III (AD 680), Constantinople IV (AD 680), and Nicea (AD 787). Each council helped define Church doctrine and creeds, from which the modern church has adapted. The first Church council in Nicea formulated the first part of what is now known as the Nicean creed, defining the divinity of the Son of God. The Constantinople I council formulated the second part of the creed, defining the divinity of the Holy Spirit. The third council defined Christ as the incarnate Word of God. The fourth council defined Christ as being Perfectly God and being both Perfectly God, and Perfectly Man; yet one person. The fifth council reconfirmed the doctrine of the Trinity. The sixth council affirmed the humanity of Christ. The seventh council affirmed Christian icons as symbols of faith.
THE RISE OF THE ISLAMIC MOVEMENT (AD 1071- 1243)
Islam was introduced to the world in AD 570 through Prophet Muhammad. Islam originated in Saudi Arabia and began to spread rapidly due to the Muslims' simple lifestyle. Many people noticed how Muslim families were not materialistic and greedy like the rest of the culture. The Islamic religion taught Muslims to give to the poor and to be very respectable citizens. It was an attraction to morality, among other means, that led many people to follow Islam. Many times, Muslims would go hungry for many days, just so they could give money to the poor. Also, a life of prayer seemed admirable to many people and thus many were inspired and impressed by such self-sacrifice. Muslims were some of the kindest and most honest tradesmen in the region and this led to the rapid expansion.
A nomadic tribe from Central Asia (also known as Turkmenistan), called the Seljuks, was one of many tribes that embraced Islam as their religion. These Seljuks invaded Asia Minor and gained control of the Anatolian peninsula (modern-day Turkey) around AD 1071, and it is from this Turkic tribe that Turkey received its national name. This point in time marks the beginning of Islam in Turkey.
THE CRUSADES (AD 1096 -1204)
The Roman Empire was threatened by the presence of the Seljuk Turks. Not only had the Turks gained control of Constantinople, but they had also gained ground in the, "Christian Holy Land", Jerusalem. This scared the Christian Church and they feared the Muslims taking control of the entire Christian empire. The crusades, or 'Holy Wars', were started by Catholic popes and bishops as an attempt to rid the Holy Land of the Islamic rule and prevent the Turks from gaining any more ground. Popes and bishops began recruiting men to go and fight the Turks and push them out of the Holy Land and regain the capital of the Christian empire. Many of the tactics used to recruit crusaders, one of which was the promise of salvation to those who died for the cause. There were seven major crusades altogether.
After a stirring oration from the pope, European Christians joined forces in the name of God to overthrow the Seljuk Turks and regain the Holy Land. The first crusade in 1099 regained Jerusalem after a five week siege. The following six crusades were back and forth battles that yielded few results. Much blood was shed during this time period and this has created enormous barriers and hostilities between the two religions.
The crusades are vividly remembered in the Islamic and Christian culture to this day. "Christianity" during those days overstepped many boundaries with the Crusades and rather than evangelizing the Muslims, they massacred them. There have been many 'Reconciliation Walks' taken in Turkey today by Christians in order to apologize for the mistakes of the early Church and to help establish a better relationship with the Muslim community.
THE BEGINNING OF THE OTTOMAN EMPIRE
The ancient Ottoman Empire, modern-day Turkey, began in 1453. The Ottomans were a nomadic people who embraced Islam as their religion and sought to spread the faith.
The Ottomans first began arriving on the Anatolian peninsula known as Turkey between 1098 and 1308 during the reign of the Seljuk Turks. In 1300, the Ottomans ruled a small military state on the peninsula. Ottoman influence began to spread over the peninsula ,and within every new state they conquered, Islam became the dominant religion. The rising Ottoman Empire even stretched into Europe, but there was one location that remained strong against Ottoman influence. It was this location that the Ottoman ruler was determined to capture. In 1453, the capital of the Christian Byzantine Empire, Constantinople, fell to the Ottomans and eventually became the center of the Ottoman Empire. Today this city is known as Istanbul.
TURKEY UNDER ISLAMIC LAW
It has been said that the main purpose of the Ottoman government was to provide security for Muslims around the world, and protect pilgrimages to Mecca, the Islamic holy capital. The Ottoman system of government fully relied on one authority: the Sultan. Not only was the sultan the political leader, he was also given the title of Caliph, or supreme leader of Islam. The sultan was responsible for establishing Islamic orthodoxy. The Ottomans were very determined to annex more land in the name of Islam and it was the Ottomans who established Friday as the main day for prayer.
There have been laws derived from the Islamic holy book, the Qur'an, called the Shariah. These laws gave an Islamic-inspired governmental structure and the sultans enforced these laws. There were some situations, however, that fell outside of those parameters and interpretations had to be made from the Shariah that could be applied. In time these interpretations became more elevated than the Shariah. From 1350 to 1550 these interpreted laws became adopted as the "Ottoman Laws." The sultanate governed both politically and religiously.
A TURKISH SULTAN AND CHRISTIAN EUROPE (1520-1566)
In the sixteenth century, Suleyman came to the throne over the Ottoman Empire. He was tenth in the line of sultans. Suleyman is very well-known in history because of his great influence and power. Suleyman saw Europe as a great threat to Islam because of its expansion and seized every opportunity available to hinder it. The Islamic world was beginning to shrink under the European expansion. It was during this time period that the Protestant Reformation came about and Suleyman helped fund the Protestants in hopes that the struggle between the two denominations would weaken and destabilize the Holy Roman Empire. In fact, some historians have exaggerated and even argued that Protestantism would never have succeeded except for the financial support of the Ottoman Empire.
ISTANBUL AS THE CENTER OF ISLAMIC CIVILIZATION
Another accomplishment Suleyman was known for was developing Istanbul as the cultural and philosophical center of the Islamic world. Today one can still see the great palaces, bridges and mosques that Suleyman built. After the reign of Suleyman, Islam began declining due to corruption in the sultanate and a decline in popular opinion. As European colonial powers strengthened in the Ottoman Empire, so did Roman Catholicism and a more individualistic society. Ottoman history from 1566 -1792 has been described as "The Decline of Faith and State." The end of the Ottoman Empire came in 1923 when Turkey fought and gained its independence and officially became the Republic of Turkey. It was in the same year that Turkey became a secular state.
THE RISE OF SECULARISM (1923- present-day)
Today, the majority of Turkish people are Muslim; in fact about 98% of the population adheres to that title. It has been said that "to be Turkish is to be Muslim." Today, however, there is a huge rift between the traditional and modern practices of Islam in Turkey. With the western part of the nation on the European continent, there are women who dress in western-style clothing and forsake the wearing of hair scarves. Yet, in the more eastern part of the nation, getting closer to Syria and Iran, there are women who cover themselves fully. This is just one example of the extremely diverse religious practices embodied in one nation. Within the past century, Islam has fallen dramatically in tradition, although not nominally. Turkey is now a secular state.
Secularism, by definition, is a philosophy that attributes nothing to a god or supernatural being. It believes in freedom of religion and having good morals, yet considers religion to be unnecessary and tries to separate religious institutions from governmental structures. Turkey was introduced to secularism on October 29, 1923, when Mustafa Kemal Ataturk was brought into power over this nation. He began bringing all religious institutes under control of the government. He adopted European-style clothing for the country and even replaced some of Turkey's laws with laws very similar to that of the Swiss Code. In 1928, Ataturk had a clause removed from the Turkish Constitution that declared Islam as the national religion. Furthermore, all teaching on Islam was banned from school. Even after Ataturk's death, secularism has still been maintained by his successors.
Constitutionally, Turkey declares "freedom of religion", but there are still many stipulations on the spread of the Gospel. There is currently a law that forbids proselytising minors.
THE TURKISH CHURCH TODAY
A missionary in Turkey comments about the situation of the Church today,
On top of these [factors of a growth in spiritual hunger] the effect of the church is establishing it's legal identity. Becoming more and more a part of the daily fabric of life has had a dual effect. First, of increasing confidence in the local believers (that they can do more than simply survive in a hostile environment) and second making the government and it's organs (e.g. the police) behave in a different way towards the church. The fact that the church and foreign worker groups have set the above goals demonstrates the shift in thinking and faith level. Eleven years ago there were only two fellowships regularly meeting in Istanbul, today there are 12 with their own premises (either rented or owned) and another four that meet in houses and still more that are being planned as new church plants. It is not just the major cities that have churches but some of the smaller cities including some in the east of the country. These represent a major shift in the spiritual climate… We are sensing that through this and other initiatives, (e.g. the prayer walks of 1995 where people walked around the borders of the land and claimed for the Lord, the Reconciliation Walk that has for two summers brought large numbers of Christians to apologise for the atrocities committed in the name of Christ against the Muslims, Jews and Christians of the Middle East, the regular Istanbul city wide nights and then half nights of prayer) that the Lord is shifting things in the heavenly places over Turkey.
Many evangelicals are developing more of a heart and compassion for the nation of Turkey. Istanbul is at times referred to as the "gateway to the west". This gateway is very symbolic even in a spiritual sense as more and more doors are being opened for the Gospel. As Turkey struggles with its identity, it is a perfect time to remind this nation of who the Lord is and how He has set them apart to be a holy people who love His name.
THE FUTURE OF TURKEY
It is often stated that 'history repeats itself'. I pray that in the spiritual sense, Turkey will return to its spiritual heritage, the truth of Jesus Christ. These people have been swept away by the 'winds of doctrine', but God's word has gone forth into this nation and will not return void (Isaiah 55:11). The labor of all the men and women who have reached out to these people and interceded on their behalf will not be in vain. Paul's words to the Ephesians still echoes in our hearts, "May God be given glory in the Church and in Christ Jesus forever and even through endless ages." (Ephesians 3:21).God's glory and His Words are timeless, and history only further proves the sovereignty of the Lord.
I believe the future of Turkey rests on this promise, Isaiah 40:8, "The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God stands forever."(ASV) Throughout the rise and fall of Christianity in Turkey, God's word has stood true and always will. My prayer is that Turkish hearts will be softened to His word and obedient to His commands. Amen!