On July 31, the Christian community of Turkey, numbering approximately 300,000 members and making up just 0.2% of Turkey’s population, issued a statement declaring that they enjoyed the freedom to practice their religion and traditions without interference or violence. The Christian community of Turkey is notoriously fragmented, consisting of the Greek Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic, and Assyrian churches (which further divides into separate sects), among others, making this statement all the more remarkable by the coming together of the disparate communities to issue a joint declaration.
While the lay members of the Christian community reacted to the declaration with equal parts bemusement and disappointment, the target audience of the statement was not them – rather, it was meant for the United States government. Just four days before the Christian declaration, Vice President Mike Pence delivered a speech to the so-called Ministerial to Advance International Religious Freedom in which he called out Turkey for its abuses against religious freedom. Vice President Pence’s concerns for religious freedom in Turkey were not meant to address the problems for Turkey’s Christian community, but to advocate for the release of imprisoned American pastor Andrew Brunson, who has been under arrest for nearly two years for supposed links to the July 2016 coup. For Turkey’s Christians, who have had at best a schizophrenic relationship with the Turkish state, the statement by the US government regarding religious freedom in Turkey puts them in an uncomfortable spotlight at home that they have been eager to avoid.
While the Trump administration has consistently highlighted the persecution of Christians in the Middle East, local Christians have not been so myopic as to buy into America’s gestures of solidarity. Turkish Christians’ complicated relationship with Western Christians dates back to the late Ottoman Empire, when missionary activity from Protestant, Catholic, and Russian Orthodox groups was permitted within its borders. American Protestant missionaries found that they had little luck with converting Muslims, so they instead turned their focus on the local Christians, who they perceived as backwards and primitive. Concentrating mainly on Armenians and Assyrians living in Eastern Anatolia, American Protestants set up orphanages and colleges to extol the virtues of Western civilization and convert the theologically distant Eastern Christians to their own version of Christianity. They were so successful at converting and dividing the communities that the Ottoman government was forced to create a separate millet (self-administrated religious body) for Protestants in 1850.
Apart from alienating the indigenous Christian community and significantly altering its structure, missionary activity also alarmed the Ottoman authorities, who understood the Western posturing of protecting Christians within the empire’s borders as an attempt to find an excuse to interfere in local affairs. During the First World War, the Ottoman state’s paranoia of its Christian populace turning into a fifth column culminated in the Armenian Genocide in 1915 and the expulsion of Greek Christians in the 1920s. Atatürk continued his predecessors’ paranoia of Christian disloyalty and subsequently removed the self-governing capabilities of religious minorities in the Turkish Republic and created a new state apparatus which would have tight control over the affairs of Christians. While the Turkish Republic was officially secular and granted rights to certain Christian minorities (which it often breached), the autonomy of its Christians was now severely limited.
Turkish secularism has never been of the American variety, in which the state largely stays out of the affairs of religion. Rather it has taken after the French variety of secularism, in which the state practices absolute authority over the religions within its borders. With the traditional Orthodox, Armenian, and Assyrian communities firmly under the sway of the government, it is the Protestant community that has once again come under the wrath of the Turkish state. While Turkey’s Protestant community numbers only a few thousand, the state’s phobia towards it is rooted in two factors; the fact that is largely led by outsiders from America and Europe like Richard Brunson (and therefore impossible to firmly administer), and the fact that a significant portion of its numbers are former Muslim converts – an extremely taboo activity in Islamic society.
Protestant-phobia has manifested itself violently in recent years, most infamously in the 2007 Zirve Publishing House murders, in Malatya, a city in Eastern Turkey. Two Turkish converts to Christianity and one German citizen were murdered by locals angry to learn that Turks had committed apostasy. Eager to avoid being connected with proselytizing Protestants, Turkey’s traditional Christian communities have largely shunned associating with the Protestant community, which they also perceive as theologically distant and a potential threat to their already dwindling numbers.
Given the economic and political crisis that has ensued in the wake of Trump’s economic sanctions and tariffs against Turkey (which has been amplified by President Erdoğan’s grotesque economic mismanagement) and the tone deaf stance of America’s supposedly pro-Christian stance in the Middle East (which utterly fails to recognize the nuances of local Christian sects), it comes as no surprise that Turkey’s traditional Christian community has done all it can to disassociate itself from Richard Brunson and the United States. Declarations of allegiance to the Turkish Republic may fall short of protecting the community, and President Erdoğan, who has proven himself to be no friend of any minority in Turkey, has been looking for people to scapegoat his economic mismanagement. Should Erdoğan turn his religiously tinged tirades into anti-Christian sentiment, the results could be devastating for Christians, who have often felt the brunt of anger for Turkey’s poor economic performance. For Turkey’s Christians, who are all too familiar with what it is like to be caught between imperial powers and the Turkish state, there is much reason to be nervous of the current economic crisis.