Turkey’s Christian history dates to the first century. The city of Antioch was the place where followers of Jesus were called “Christians” for the first time, as well as being the site of one of the earliest and oldest surviving churches, established by the apostle Peter. Much of present-day Turkey, originally part of the Byzantine Empire, was once Christian. Today, Christians number approximately 250,000 – less than 0 .4 percent of Turkey’s population.
The Ottoman Turkish government oversaw the first genocide of the last century, in which 1.5 million Armenians, Assyrians, and Greeks were killed through systematic, coordinated government action. (See Armenia and the Armenian Genocide, herein.)
Under the 1982 constitution, the state has pervasive control over religion and denies full legal status to all religious communities. Religious communities in Turkey face restrictions on their rights to own and maintain property, to train clergy, and to offer religious education. Minor successes in expanding property rights and freedom for religious dress have been achieved under the new constitution but have been subsequently eroded. These setbacks suggest that the lack of progress on longstanding religious restrictions is due to an absence of political and cultural will, rather than merely structural impediments.
The Turkish government continues to interfere in the administration of the Greek Orthodox Church’s Holy Synod as well as with the Armenian Patriarchate, including the selection of leadership and members. While the government has continued to train Sunni Muslim clerics and fund the construction of Sunni mosques, it has restricted the land use and administration of Christian communities. Christians are not allowed to train clergy in the country. The Greek Orthodox Theological School of Halki Seminary has been closed since 1971.
Many Christian properties that have been seized by the Turkish government have yet to be returned to Christian communities, despite the government’s 2011 decree, which established a process for the return of, or compensation for, properties.
In order to protect and preserve the ancient Christian community in Turkey, the U.S. government, at the highest levels, should continue to emphasize the importance of their presence in Turkey and in the region.
- Work toward equitable, constructive, stable, and durable Armenian-Turkish relations based upon the Republic of Turkey’s full acknowledgment of the facts and ongoing consequences of the Armenian Genocide, and a fair, just, and comprehensive international resolution of this crime against humanity.
- Pressure Turkey to fulfill private and publicly stated promises that the Greek Orthodox Halki Seminary will be reopened and permit other religious communities to open and operate seminaries.
- Require Turkey to permit religious communities to select and appoint their leadership in accordance with their internal guidelines and beliefs.