In Turkey’s devastated earthquake zone, the temperatures are falling, the death toll is rising, and the country’s small population of Christians are praying, grieving, and mobilizing.
Rescue workers raced to find survivors trapped in mountains of rubble after a 7.8-magnitude earthquake struck southeast Turkey along its border with Syria on Monday morning and a 7.5-magnitude aftershock followed hours later.
Officials reported at least 14,251 people dead in Turkey and 3,100 dead in Syria, but the toll could reach far higher as the window for reaching victims narrows. The World Health Organization warned deaths could exceed 20,000.
Tens of thousands are injured and homeless on both sides of the border, including many Syrian refugees who had fled their homes to escape the war and violence plaguing their own nation for years. Turkey’s president declared a three-month state of emergency, but the road to recovery will be far longer, and the needs will run much deeper.
A Global Response and a Local Effort
Rescue teams and aid organizations from around the world are rushing to deliver critical supplies and medical assistance to the overwhelmed region, while local churches are also preparing to offer long-term ministry for years to come.
That’s a big task for a small population of Christians in a country that used to be considered a cradle of Christianity but that now can be a crucible of difficulty for believers seeking to offer the gospel in the majority-Muslim nation.
In the land where the Apostle Paul launched his first missionary journey, Christians haven’t lost hope.
But in the land where the Apostle Paul launched his first missionary journey, Christians haven’t lost hope. Even as they grieve their own losses, they’re also gearing up to offer physical help to the suffering and gospel hope to their neighbors, long after rescue workers go home.
A Lesson from Past Disasters
Turkey isn’t a stranger to earthquakes, and past disasters show what the region likely faces in the future. In 1999, a massive quake struck the city of Izmit, about 60 miles southeast of Istanbul. The tremor caused catastrophic damage, destroyed more than a quarter million homes, and killed at least 17,000 people.
Two years later, the rubble was cleared, and major streets were repaired, but the long-term suffering continued. Many people still struggled to find homes and jobs, and many others still grieved the loss of loved ones and grappled with life-altering injuries.
Years after such disasters strike, the memory of loved ones crushed in rubble still often crushes the souls of survivors living with lifelong trauma that can’t be smoothed over like a repaved road.
In similar scenes this week, mothers watched their children’s bodies pulled from collapsed buildings, and many survivors felt like Job in the Old Testament, losing almost everything they had in a single day.
Though many know the suffering of Job, masses of people in the region still desperately need to know the God of Job.
But though many know the suffering of Job, masses of people in the region still desperately need to know the God of Job.
The lack of gospel influence is a heartbreaking reality in a land once considered the capital of Christianity, but it’s also a heart-stirring opportunity for a small Christian community that still clings to what Job once declared: “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.”
A Rich History
If you want to trace the history of Christianity in Turkey, grab your Bible, and flip open to the books of Acts. You’ll find the Apostle Paul visiting the ancient city of Antioch. In Acts 11, we learn that Paul and Barnabas spent a whole year there: “And in Antioch the disciples were first called Christians” (Acts 11:26).
Flip to the book of Revelation, and you’ll see Jesus addressing seven different churches and telling them to hang onto their Christian hope, even during suffering and persecution. Those churches were in Turkey.
Turn the pages of history, and you’ll find persecution did come to Turkey, but so did church growth. By the year 325 A.D., the Council of Nicaea was meeting in northeastern Turkey to write one of the most important documents in church history: The Nicene Creed.
Though the country became a center for Christianity, persecution returned and intensified. Today, about .2 percent of the population are Christian. Only a small handful of that group are Protestant.
Churches that do exist face government restrictions, social opposition, and sometimes physical danger.
But that hasn’t stopped their gospel witness. When a team from Radical visited Turkey last summer, one local believer reported: “The church is growing somehow, by the grace and the blessing of the Lord…We want people to know the Lord, that’s what we want.”
A Present Hope
That’s still what the church wants, even after disaster has hit their region this week, and suffering has visited everyone.
The city once known as Antioch, where the disciples were first called Christians, is now known as Antakya. Earlier this week, the earthquake destroyed a church in the town, and brought disaster to a nearby city, where reports say an evangelical pastor and his wife were killed. Their 10-year-old son survived.
But even as believers grapple with loss like so many others, they are also mobilizing to help their suffering neighbors. In Antakya, First Hope Association, a Protestant NGO based in Turkey, is helping with rescue and recovery efforts and setting up food and mobile hygiene units. Similar efforts are multiplying across the area, both big and small.
A worker in the region reports that “about 45 of our church members have sheltered in a church we just planted.” He says that as believers get their bearings, they also want to help their neighbors. He notes that while the Turkish church is quite small “it has contributed in an outsized way in past events.”
As Radical joins those working to coordinate long-term recovery efforts, pray that Turkey’s small Christian community would once again have an outsized influence in delivering physical help and gospel hope.
And pray that many will come to embrace the Christ-centered reality that Job once proclaimed in his deepest suffering: “I know that my Redeemer lives.”
Editor’s note: Radical has workers in the region of the world and we are coordinating ways to support long-term recovery efforts. A portion of all funds given to our Urgent Initiative are set aside for emergency relief efforts. Give today to support Radical’s response to the crisis.