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Turkey’s Melting Pot

The lively cultures & faiths of Hatay

by Sean Sprague

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In the cultural center of the modern Turkish city of Antakya — known in the ancient world as Antioch — the halls are alive with the sound of music.

A recent concert begins with a solemn Greek Orthodox chant sung in Arabic. That is followed by a Sunni Muslim prayer, then a spirited rendition of the traditional Jewish Hava Nagila, some Armenian chant and finally an Alawi song — all performed by members of a 48–person local choir in white silk robes, accompanied by a dozen musicians playing Turkish, Arabic and Western instruments.

The choir’s performance brings the audience to its feet for a standing ovation. But the concert offers more than just music: It is a living example of how so many different faiths and cultures in this corner of Turkey manage to dwell side by side — literally in harmony. The choir’s brochure puts it proudly: “We are the children of the same God, speaking different languages, believing different religions — our differences are our richness.”

That richness helps define the southern Turkish province of Hatay — a place that has survived a troubled history to emerge as a remarkable blend of peoples and traditions.

Hatay is a small finger of fertile land in the center of southern Turkey, beside the Mediterranean Sea, jutting into Syria, close to the city of Aleppo. The Orontes River Valley runs through the middle; its banks and surrounding hills are known for wheat, corn, apricots, peaches and citrus fruit.

In Hatay, Arabic is spoken as widely as Turkish. Its population, though largely Sunni Muslim Turks, includes notable minorities: Alawi Arabs, Orthodox Arabs, Armenians, Syriac Christians, Latin Catholics, Protestants and Jews.

But there has been a steady exodus of Christian and Jewish minorities, as people have left the region in search of a better life.

“Young people, especially the Christians and Jews, have been leaving Hatay for decades,” says 50–year–old Mizel Kacanci, an Arabic–speaking Orthodox Christian who himself left Hatay 20 years ago to work in Germany. “All my five brothers and sisters left Antioch,” he explains, “but I came back to look after my parents, who are in their 80’s now. And today the economy here is much better than before.”

Mr. Kacanci’s parents, Jan and Janet, live among constant reminders of their faith — both in their community and in their home. Their modest house is filled with icons of Jesus and the saints. And on Sundays they walk to the nearby Orthodox church.

Antioch’s religious diversity attracts a wide array of believers — including a thriving and growing community of Korean Protestants.

Pastor Seongho Chan is a cherubic–faced evangelist who has been in Antioch since 2007. He runs a church in what used to be an Ottoman bank.

“Denomination doesn’t really matter in Turkey,” he explains. “About 20 people come on Sunday for Communion while another ten come out of interest. They want to taste God’s love.”

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Tags: Christianity Turkey Religious Differences Assimilation