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A Visit to Turkey and Its Christian Communities

by Robert L. Stern

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Twice a year, the Holy See’s Congregation for the Eastern Churches convokes a meeting of Catholic donor agencies to exchange information and coordinate assistance to the churches under its jurisdiction. During the meetings in January and June 2005, participants received reports on the situation of Christians in Turkey. A by-product of these discussions was a visit to the Republic of Turkey from 31 August to 6 September 2005 by a small delegation of donor agency representatives.

Dr. Otmar Oehring of Missio Aachen led the delegation that included Nadim Amman of the Archdiocese of Cologne, Marie-Ange Siebrecht of Church in Need, Father Leon Lemmens of the Congregation for the Eastern Churches and me.

Our fact-finding mission was concerned with the condition of Christian minorities in the country.

Cultural roots. The culture of modern Turkey – and urban Turkey is modern indeed – cannot be fully understood without familiarity with its ancient roots.

In the fourth century, the Roman Emperor Constantine decided the administration of his vast empire needed to be more centrally located. He built the great city of New Rome on a peninsula jutting into the Bosporus (a body of water dividing Asia from Europe), the site of the ancient Greek town of Byzantium.

Known for centuries as Constantinople (Constantine’s city), it was built to be a Christian capital, unlike old Rome, a pagan city with a Christian veneer.

Constantinople continued for a thousand years as the capital of the Eastern Roman (or Byzantine) Empire, a pluralistic polity of cultures, languages and peoples, until its conquest by the Ottoman Turks, one of the many nomadic tribes of Central Asia who migrated West and eventually embraced Islam.

For centuries, Turkish tribes had pushed against the frontiers of the Byzantine Empire. Gradually, their control extended over large segments of Anatolia, the heartland of Byzantium and modern Turkey.

It culminated with the conquest of Constantinople, which the Ottomans called Istanbul, by Sultan Mehmet II in 1453.

Though culturally and ethnically heterogeneous, the Byzantine Empire’s state religion was Christianity. For the Turkish tribes, Byzantium was the enemy. So, from antiquity, there was reason for them to view Christians with suspicion and hostility. Members of the Christian ethnic communities that continued to live within the lands of the Ottoman Empire as subjects of the sultan – respected by the Muslim Turks as “People of the Book” – were treated as foreigners.

The Byzantine emperors often gave commercial concessions within their territory to Italian city-states such as Genoa and Venice. (The presence of the Latin Church in Asia Minor dates to that period.) European Christian governments pressured the sultan to make similar concessions. In 1535, the first of the “capitulation” agreements gave France a protectorate over the Christians of the Ottoman Empire.

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Tags: Christianity Cultural Identity Unity Turkey