How did Turkey go from being one of the most prominent countries in Christian history where the Nicene Creed was written to a nation with almost no Christians? In this episode of Neighborhoods & Nations, Steven Morales visits the Hagia Sophia Grand Mosque to help us understand the religious history of Turkey.
The Hagia Sophia Cathedral
Steven Morales: I’m at a cathedral that for hundreds of years was the largest physical building on earth. There are people everywhere. There are about 84 million people in Turkey. And this year they’ll receive about 47 million tourists by the end of the year. That’s a lot. And many of them make this cathedral their first stop. Hagia Sophia.
And you can see why. I mean, it’s massive. One of the oldest cathedrals still intact in the world today. But its meaning goes beyond just its beautiful architecture. Its history is layered. Hagia Sophia was originally built as a Christian cathedral, but then in 1453, when Ottomans conquered the city, they turned it into a mosque. They later added the minarets to give it this mosque-cathedral hybrid vibe.
Fast forward all the way to the 20th century and things changed again. The Turkish government turned the mosque into a museum, and that’s how things stayed until just a few years ago.
News reporter 1: Turkey’s highest administrative court has issued a ruling to convert Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia from a museum back into a mosque.
News reporter 2: President Recep Tayyip Erdogan says it will open for prayers in two weeks, but it’s a controversial one that hits at the heart of the country’s religious-secular divide.
News reporter 3: Hagia Sophia is holding Muslim Friday prayers for the first time in over 80 years.
Steven: In a way, this cathedral, this building is a microcosm of the religious history of Turkey. It was here where the Apostle Paul launched his first missionary journey, jumpstarting the Great Commission to reach the nations. And over time, this city became a thriving hub for Christianity. I mean, just look at this cathedral. When I walked in here, I thought to myself, man, this feels like a Catholic church. But today it’s a mosque. I mean, I had to take off my shoes to get here. It’s carpeted. So what once was the capital city of Christianity has slowly declined. And today Christians make up less than 0.2% of the population. I want to take you on a journey through the layered past of this country and its people, beginning with one question. How did Turkey lose all its Christians?
How Did Turkey Lose All of Its Christians?
Steven: To explore the answer to this question, we have to understand how prominent Turkey has been in Christian history. Not only did the apostle Paul evangelize and plant churches here. We know the seven churches that Jesus directed his message to in the Book of Revelation. Those are all here. Jesus told them and us not to be lukewarm. But to stand fast until the end, no matter what. Those words must have ripped a man named Polycarp a few decades later. Polycarp sounds like a Pokemon, but he was a real guy.
He was one of the first major church leaders in Turkey. He was also one of the church’s first martyrs. It was around 155 A.D. The Roman emperor was persecuting and killing many Christians. And the story goes that Polycarp refused to renounce Christ, telling his executioners “86 years I had served him, and he has done me no wrong. How then, can I blaspheme my King and Savior?” That is a kind of difficult environment for Christians. You might think that that’s when Christianity began disappearing, but the church persevered. And just 150 years later, something happened here that would shape the way Christians think and pray and worship for centuries, not just in Turkey, but at churches all over the world, including Europe.
To understand that turning point, we need to take a trip to another city not that far from the city.
The Town Formerly Known as Nicaea
Well, it’s not called Nicaea anymore. Today, it’s a small town called Iznik. But you can tell this place is laced with history. These walls were probably finished in the fourth century, right around the time of a major shift in world history. Constantine, the Emperor of Rome, proclaimed his conversion to Christianity, and this was a game changer. All across the Roman Empire Christians went from being persecuted to being recognized as part of the official state religion. In 325 A.D. Constantine summoned together 300 church leaders from around the region to come right here for a church conference that we call the First Council of Nicaea.
This conference is really important. At a time when people were questioning if Jesus was even God and other key beliefs, these leaders gathered together to affirm the truth about Jesus with clarity and conviction. These affirmations collectively became the Nicene Creed. It was an amazing summary of some of the most important teachings of the Bible, but it’s also an amazing display of unity among church leaders and churches flourished here for many years. These church ruins right here, for instance, date back to the early 1200s. It’s not hard to imagine Christians standing right here listening to the Bible being read, praying, singing, and maybe even reciting the Nicene Creed.
So a lot of people have debated over the years where the Council of Nicaea itself might have met. Researchers found the remains of a church structure when the government commissioned aerial photos of the region in 2014. It’s underwater. Kind of easy to see now because that there’s the tide is lower, there’s just less water. But you can see the basic layout of the building. Scholars think the structure was damaged in a major earthquake and eventually sunk below Lake Iznik. They’re still studying it, but this very well might be the spot where early Christians made history. Oh, man. It’s right there.
So at this point, things seem pretty awesome for Christians in Turkey, right? But history took another turn. Empires rise and fall. And as Islam began expanding in the seventh century, the landscape changed drastically for Christianity. And when the Ottomans came to power in the 1400s, things changed even more. All over churches like this one right behind me were turned into mosques, and many more mosques were built from scratch.
So here in Nicaea, you can see there are mosques everywhere now. And these, like the Green Mosque and others like it express the artistry and also the dominance of the Ottoman Empire. But even their influence fluctuated. In the early 20th century Turkish authorities seized many churches and turned them into museums, declaring a secular government. Keep in mind that at this time around 1900, Turkey was still 20% Christian. But then Ottoman forces unleashed a campaign of genocide, killing over a million Armenian Christians and expelling many out of the country. And today, Christians make up only point 0.2% of the Turkish population.
And even then, only a tiny handful of them are Protestant. And the Muslim and secular majority have no gospel presence near them. It’s crazy to think about, but in Turkey, there are more Christians here in the first century than in the second.
So right now, the World Nomad Games are taking place here in the Iznik. Not really sure what that is. But check it out. Check out some of the local music.
Gospel Opportunities in Present-Day Turkey
Steven: And that leads us to today. Present-day Turkey. Looking at the numbers, there are many reasons to mourn the decline of the church here. But to be clear, the church in Turkey has not died.
Adam: We long for the gospel to be preached.
Steven: This is Adam. He pastors one of the few Protestant churches in Turkey and faces the challenge of being a religious minority every day.
Adam: Our people have no real knowledge of Christianity. For this reason, we have to change many misunderstandings or false teachings. For example, many Turks think that the Bible has been changed. Many Turks think that Jesus was just a prophet. Many Turks think that going to church is a sin and that if they go to church they will go to hell.
Steven: So in Turkey, you learn from a young age that Christians are bearers of bad news, which isn’t a surprise when the two largest cultural influences are Islam and secularism. Textbooks and schools present the Crusades as the true purpose of Christianity to fight, oppress, and invade. All of this fuels the fear of mission work in the country.
Hazim: In other words, people in this country have prejudices that the missionaries are undermining this country, and making foreigners come here.
Steven: This is Hazim. He is one of the few believers in Turkey who can say that he is a second-generation Christian. When he was a kid he remembers hearing of only three or four Protestant churches in the entire country. Today, he estimates that number has grown to 70 to 80.
Hazim: As I said, the church is growing somehow, by the grace and the blessing of the Lord, by prayers. But of course, what we want is for the church to be much bigger, to develop much more, and to have an awakening in Turkey. We want people to know the Lord and people to be saved, that’s what we want.
Steven: Now, perhaps you see that and think, well, it’s still not much. And it seems like Turkey is pretty resistant to gospel work. If we really want to reach the nations, then maybe let’s just focus our efforts somewhere else. Well, before you do that, consider this. When you break down Turkey’s present-day population, you’ll find that it’s a bit of a melting pot.
It’s Muslim and secular, it’s European and Asian, it’s East and West. And in part, it’s that clash of religious and cultural forces that have made it difficult for Christianity to thrive. But that obstacle is also an incredible opportunity for the church. Think about this, 47 million tourists visit Turkey every year, and they’re coming from hard-to-reach countries like Iran, Georgia, and Saudi Arabia. But that’s just scratching the surface. Today, Turkey hosts the largest refugee population in the world, while the US has less than one refugee per 1,000 Americans and the UK has less than two, Turkey hosts 24 refugees for every thousand Turks living on its border. Most of those refugees, about 3.6 million men, women, and children come from Syria, which ranks high on persecution watch lists.
There are at least another 300,000 more coming from Iraq and an estimated 120 to 300 thousand from Afghanistan. Afghanistan recently rose to the number one spot in Open Doors’ list of most dangerous countries for Christians to live in, making it essentially inaccessible for most Western Christians.
And yet hundreds of thousands are now arriving at Turkey’s borders. This isn’t just a coincidence. It’s no doubt the effect of war and sin. But it seems to me that it might also be a God-given opportunity for the church to respond to their physical and spiritual needs.
Will Christians Respond to God’s Call and Go?
I think sometimes as Western Christians, we can take an overly pragmatic approach to mission. We want our dollar to stretch as far as possible. We want to fund work that will yield a high return. We want to scale. We want to multiply. And all of that sounds really good, right? I mean, higher numbers mean more people saved, but that also usually means that we’ll go to the places with the least amount of resistance and regions of the world where persecution and oppression are the greatest end of being, where we send the least amount of resources and support because the ROI just isn’t that great. These places are too hard to reach, we say, and investing our dollars, time, and energy isn’t worth it. Is that right?
Hazim: We can look at things negatively. We can say that everything is very difficult, but the Bible says that where there is sin, where there is hardship, the grace of the Lord increases even more. Jesus Christ says “Go all over the world and preach the gospel”.
Steven: The truth is, in the Great Commission, we’re not told to make the most amount of disciples possible. We’re actually told to make disciples of all nations, to reach all people groups.
Hazim: Go not only to the easy regions or countries but to all parts of the world and preach the gospel of the Lord, he says. This is then our first responsibility. If the Lord has given us this opportunity, we must preach the gospel of the Lord.
Steven: So the opportunities are vast, not just to reach Turkey, but to reach the rest of Central Asia, the Middle East, and the world. So maybe instead of asking ourselves where all the Christians and Turkey have gone, we should be asking, “When will Christians from around the world see what’s happening in Turkey, respond to God’s call, and go?”
Hazim: We must say to the Lord, “Lord, I am here, ready. I want to go wherever you send me.” If the Lord is with us anyway, if the Lord sent us surely the blessings of the Lord will be wherever we go. For the Lord has sent us, and a light will shine into that place where we are now.