Sunday, January 18, 2015

Turkish Christians assist Syrian refugees

Syrian refugees are in the fight for their lives in Turkey. The Islamic State has forced thousands from their homes. Now they’re trying to survive in camps in snow and subfreezing temperatures.

International Needs Turkey Director Behnan Konutgan is with the refugees handing out warm clothing. “It’s 6 degrees centigrade below zero (21 Fahrenheit).” And it’s snowing.

The needs are great, Konutgan says. And while “the evangelical church [in Turkey] is very small, [they] have done marvelous things for the refugees. They are welcomed by the local authorities. They respect the churches, and they welcome us very well.”

It’s strange, because Turkey is predominately Muslim.

Konutgan says these refugees were stuck in the mountains without food or water. “When I say that this support comes from the churches, they say, “Ah ha! Because of the churches, we are safe.”

The stories from the mountains are horrible. One woman told Konutgan that some of women didn’t want to see their children suffer, so they threw them off the mountains to their death.

Another woman told him that she had given her daughters to a Saudi man and gave him $50. He said he would take care of them until after the conflict was over. She hasn’t heard from the man and believes her daughters were kidnapped.

Christians are meeting the refugees in their despair, providing hope found in Christ alone. You can help, too.

Konutgan says the refugees want to know about Jesus. And in the midst of tragedy, God is working. “They hear the Bible, so this is a good opportunity for the Gospel. I’m sure they will come to Christ Jesus. There are thousands of people among them who secretly say they love Jesus.”

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Turkish religious thinker ponders future of Islam

In an article on Dec. 28, Gultekin went beyond the Erdogan-Gulen acrimony and raised a more basic question: Why have Muslims failed so spectacularly for 1,400 years to establish just, prosperous and peaceful societies? In the article, Gultekin challenged those Muslims who fall back on the tired excuse of “but this isn’t real Islam” when confronted with extremist groups such as the Taliban, al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. “Which one is real Islam?” he asked, and lamented how “as people’s religiosity increased [in recent years], so have their sinfulness.”
“The problem,” Gultekin said, was not Islam but “our inability to understand the religion in the context of the 21st century.” And he warned, “Unless we find a way out, we will destroy ourselves.”
“Islam never practiced what it preached,” he said. The only exception, he argued, occurred for a short period under the second caliph, Omar Ibn al-Khattab (634-644), who he said achieved social peace and good governance by ignoring the most draconian elements of the Quran. When Islam mixed with politics and dynastic disputes later on under “Ali, Aisha, Uthman, [t]he Umayyads, the Ottomans, etc., [it] lost its purpose.”

For Gultekin, the parallels with present-day Turkey are unmistakable. “Take Fethullah Gulen,” he said. “He studied the Quran for 40 years, read the hadiths and was cultivated in Islamic manners, yet that did not stop him from committing injustice against other people. Or [take] Tayyip Erdogan. He was raised with Islamic discipline for 40 years — on values such as haram, halal, fear of God — but we can all see where that has taken him. Now people ask, ‘If religion cannot make these men honest and moral, how is it going to [help] us?’”
“So, do you think ascending to power has stained the Islamist movement?” I asked. Gultekin corrected me, saying, “Gaining power has not stained Islamism — it has destroyed Islamism. Islamism has nothing to give to society anymore because Islamists have nothing left to say.”
Read more:

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Turkey's Protestants complain of discrimination, harassment

While barbaric attacks such as the one on the French magazine Charlie Hebdo raise concerns of Islamist extremism and sometimes spark Islamophobia in the West, Turkey's tiny Protestant community is reporting intolerance toward Christians.
The Union of Protestant Churches, the umbrella organization for all Protestant denominations in Turkey, published its "Rights Violations Report 2014" on Jan. 7 on its website. The document contained a long list of incidents of harassment and discrimination faced by church members throughout Turkey in the past year.

Fortunately, it lists no assassinations and murders. Yet, still there are various hate crimes that reflect bigotry against Christians on a societal level. Examples include threats to local churches and small-scale attacks such as suspected arson or the breaking of windows. There are also cases of humiliation and threats to converts from Islam to Christianity. Missionary work, in particular, was met with hostility, as Protestants faced threats while trying to share their faith.

Some of these threats came from ordinary citizens, but there are cases of official harassment as well. In Izmir, for example, a group of Protestants was detained briefly for engaging in "missionary activity," which is actually not banned by Turkish law, yet is still widely opposed. In another incident during Christmas in Antalya, the police confiscated Bibles from a Protestant booth.

Most probably, none of these incidents reflect a policy decided at higher levels. They rather seem to reflect a societal intolerance that influences policymakers in a bottom-up fashion, and the report notes that nuance. First, it lists numerous occasions in which the Protestants' reasonable demands to establish places of worship, proclaim their faith or celebrate their holy days such as Christmas were rejected by mayors or other local administrators in various parts of Turkey, from Istanbul to the southeast. These rejections, the report argues, are mainly caused by local politicians worrying over losing votes and "local administrators' unwillingness to be seen as 'those who allow the building of churches.'"

To understand the deeper dynamics of the problem, Al-Monitor spoke to Umut Sahin, the secretary-general of the Union of Protestant Churches and himself a Protestant convert. Sahin cited some facts about his community. There are currently some 50,000 Protestants in Turkey, he said, but most of them are expatriates from the West. Native Turkish Protestants, he added, number only about 5,000 individuals, nearly all converts. Some 4,000 of these are converts from Islam, while the remaining 1,000 are converts from Eastern churches, such as the Armenian Church.

One fundamental problem, Sahin argued, is that while the Turkish government recognizes traditionally established communities — such as the Greek Orthodox, Armenian, Catholic or Syriac churches — it does not recognize the Protestants. "No wonder," he said, "we were not invited to the meeting Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu had with non-Muslim leaders on Jan. 2." Apparently, because the Protestants are largely recent expats and converts, unlike the historically established churches, it makes them somehow less legitimate in the eyes of the authorities.

What is it, exactly, that threatens the Protestants of Turkey? Is it Islam or Turkish nationalism, sometimes overlapping yet still distinct forces?

Sahin responded with a history lesson, saying, "Turkish Christians became publicly visible in the aftermath of the great earthquake in 1999." This, he noted, was the first time Christians, especially Protestants, came out to organize charities for the victims of the disaster, which killed tens of thousands and left many others homeless. But the authorities, ever suspicious of civic groups, saw their work as a threat to the nation's unity. Hence, in 2001, "missionary activity" was defined as a national threat by the National Security Council, which was dominated by Turkey's secularist (and very nationalist) generals.

In the next six years, Turkey's Christians suffered a series of bloody attacks inspired, at least at the ideological level, by the ultranationalist ideology that some hard-line generals supported. That is probably why Sahin spoke positively about the Ergenekon trials, which began in 2007 and put hundreds of ultranationalists, including some retired generals, in jail. The dominance of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) over that old guard was good news for Christians, Sahin argued.

Yet he said the AKP era, too, began to lose its charm after 2011, when the governing party initiated a growing anti-Western discourse. Turkey's Christians are Turkish, not Western, yet still they are easily brushed aside by Occidentalist narratives that depict the Christian West as the enemy of Muslims. This rhetoric appears almost daily in Turkey's pro-AKP media, discomfiting Turkey's non-Muslims.

In short, it can be said that anti-Christian bigotry in Turkey is deeply rooted, and its nationalist roots probably go even deeper than its Islamist ones. Granted, the AKP offered a breath of fresh air during its battle with old nationalist guard. But to establish full religious freedom, the AKP should challenge and defeat the bigotry in its own Islamist base, rather than surfing it to advance a self-serving anti-Western discourse.

Read more:

Thursday, January 08, 2015

Turkey gives green light for new church, but Christians are wary

Barely a month after Pope Francis’ Nov. 28-30 visit to Turkey, in which the pontiff pushed President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on religious freedom, the government has given a green light to build a Christian church for the first time in almost a century.
The only problem is, Turkey’s Christians have been down this road before.
The announcement was made Jan. 2 by Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu after a three-hour meeting with Turkish religious leaders in Istanbul. Davutoglu reportedly said, “We do not consider any religious or cultural tradition as an outsider.”
The permission applies to a new church structure for Turkey’s burgeoning Syriac Christian community, most of whom are refugees fleeing ISIS forces in their home nation. The cost for the project is estimated at $1.5 million.
Syriac-speaking Christians compromise several traditions within Eastern Christianity, united by the use of a language related to Aramaic, the tongue that Bible scholars believe was spoken by Jesus.
Davutoglu said the permit to build a new church, which he called a “first” since the creation of the Turkish republic in 1923, is important “in the context of equal citizenship.”
Since becoming an official secular state, Turkey would sometimes grant permits for existing churches to be expanded or remodeled, but not to build new ones.
More than 20,000 Syriac Christians live in Istanbul. Without any official church of their own, the parishioners worship in rented Catholic buildings located throughout the city.

Although Pope Francis’ visit to Turkey may have contributed to the breakthrough, there’s a long way to go for this announcement to become a clear sign of an improvement for the day-to-day reality of Turkey’s Christian population.
The building of a church for Syriac Christians was first announced in 2011, when after two years of tussling and hairsplitting, the community secured approval from Erdoğan, who at the time was prime minister, and then-President Abdullah Gül.
Both in 2011 and this time around, when the announcements were made of approval for the building project, no location was disclosed other than the general neighborhood.
In 2012, Istanbul’s city government granted the Syriac Orthodox a plot to build a house of worship, but the Christians rejected the offer on the grounds that the allotted property was a Catholic cemetery and should be returned to its rightful owner.
They insisted on a separate plot to build the church, but no offer was ever forthcoming. As a result, the church was never built, making some Christians in Turkey skeptical that things will be different this time.
Turkey’s Syriac Orthodox population is rapidly growing as a result of the more than 1 million Syrian refugees that are currently in Istanbul and other metropolitan areas waiting for a permanent relocation outside of Muslim-majority country.
Turkey’s constitution protects the right to freedom of belief, the right not to believe in anything, and the right to change one’s belief.
In practice, however, those who profess a religion different from the Sunni Islam patronized by the state are often discriminated against when looking for a job, applying to a school, or running for public office. The Turkish ID card includes religion as personal information, so each person’s religious affiliation is a matter of public knowledge.
Minority rights and religious freedom are one of several sticking points in negotiations with the European Union about Turkey becoming a member.
The closure of the Orthodox seminary of Halki since 1971 has become a symbol of the difficulties still to be overcome, and is often cited by Human Rights observers as religious freedom indicator.
Halki was once among the most important centers of learning and culture in the Orthodox world, and its closure seriously limits the ability of the Patriarchate of Constantinople to shape new generations of clergy.

Monday, January 05, 2015

Turkey permits first new church in 90 years

Not exactly true, as local governments have approved church buildings, but still an interesting turn of events:

Turkey’s Islamic-rooted government has authorized the building of the first church in the country since the end of the Ottoman empire in 1923, AFP has learned.

The church is for the country’s tiny Syriac community and will be built in the Istanbul suburb of Yesilkoy on the shores of the Sea of Marmara, which already has Greek Orthodox, Armenian and Catholic churches.

“It is the first since the creation of the republic,” a government source told AFP Saturday. 

“Churches have been restored and reopened to the public, but no new church has been built until now,” he added. 

Turkey, which once had large Christian minorities, is now 99 percent Muslim, and critics of the ruling party AKP have accused it of trying to Islamicize its officially secular society.

However, as part of its bid to join the European Union Amlara has made efforts to widen minority rights and return some seized property and restore churches, monasteries and synagogues.

The country’s ancient Syriac minority, which now numbers less than 20,000, live mostly in the southeast, and tend to be either Orthodox or Catholic.

The church will be built on land given by the local council and paid for by a Syriac group, the government spokesman, who asked not to be named, said.