Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Conversions to Orthodoxy in Turkey

English version originally from pravoslavie.ru, here. A bit like the translation I posted of an article about a convert to Orthodoxy from Islam in the UK, this article is a translation of a translation of a translation. I'm pretty sure the original was in Greek, then translated into Bulgarian, then into Russian, whence the English (for which I am not responsible). It is of high interest for a number of reasons. The most obvious is that it is the first I've heard of conversion of Turks to Orthodoxy, as most missionary activity in the country is done by Evangelicals and Catholics. The second is that it's an interesting comment on current Turkish sociology. As I understand, Turkey is rapidly becoming polarized between secularism and Islam, with Islam gaining ground. It would not surprise me that conversions to Christianity are a result of a reaction to the increasingly ugly face of Turkish Islam. The article highlights the absolute importance of disentangling religion from ethnicity, both on the Greek and the Turkish sides.

Besides Istanbuli Greeks and recently immigrated Russians, the largest group of Orthodox Christians in Turkey is under the Patriarchate of Antioch, in the provinces of Hatay and Mersin. This is the last remnant of the formerly much larger extent of the Patriarchate of Antioch in what is now eastern Turkey, which until early modern times had important dioceses in Diyabakr and along the Turkish-Georgian border. Hatay, comprising Antioch and Alexandretta, is an interesting case because the region's entirely Arabic-speaking population was a part of French-mandate Syria that joined with Turkey on the eve of World War II. For that reason, its Christian population was saved from both the Armenian Genocide / Sayfo and the expulsion of Greek Christians from Asia Minor. Church life in Hatay is quite active, celebrating the liturgy bilingually in Turkish and Arabic unlike the Patriarchate of Constantinople, which only worships in Greek. Even if you don't read Turkish there are lovely websites from parishes there that are worth looking at:


Ortodoksluk (Turkish for Orthodoxy)

The Church of St. Peter and Paul in Antioch, once the seat of the patriarch
-also see NOCTOC's article about this church here

The Church of St. Michael in Mersin

The Church in Samandağ-- be sure to look at their videos!


But without further ado, the article:


A Сonversation with two Orthodox Turks, Ahmet and Necla

In Turkey, which is the canonical territory of the Patriarchate of Constantinople, there are very few Greek parishioners left. The Orthodox community has been supplemented to some degree by Russians who have taken up permanent residence there. However, there are also some Turks who have become Orthodox in the Patriarchate. Lately their numbers have grown. Orthodox literature is being printed for them in Turkish, and articles about the newly-converted are being published. Ahmet and Necla are two of the thousand or so Turks who have changed their faith; and unlike others, they do not hide this at all. They related their stories to one Bulgarian website, ”Dveri na Pravoslavieto”—their spiritual searches which led them to Orthodoxy, and what it means to be a Christian in Turkey. We offer the text of this conversation to the readers of Pravoslavie.ru.

—The Turkish press explains the current numbers of Baptisms in their country as a ”return to their own roots” by Turkish citizens of Greek or Armenian extraction. Did your own nationalities play a decisive role in your conversion to Christianity?

Ahmet: Ethnic origin has played a role in some cases, but not in ours. I myself was born in Cappadocia, and I have relatives who came from the Caucasus. As far as I know, I have no Christians in my family background. Joining the Orthodox Church was the result of my own personal choice.

Necla: My mother is from Kavala, and my father is a Pontian. Some people in my family speak Romeian (the local Greek dialect spoken among the islamacized population. –Y. Maximov). But the decision to leave Islam and become Orthodox was my own personal choice, regardless of my origins.

—Historically, Turkish identity was so tightly bound with Islam that many Turks are completely unable to accept the idea that it is possible to be a Turk without being a Moslem. How do you view this?

N.: It's true, many people do not consider you a ”Turk” if you confess a different religion; especially if you are a Christian or a Jew. They think that you not only belong to another religion, but to another nationality.

A.: This can be explained by historical causes. The Ottoman order divided ethnic groups into millets along religious lines. For example, all the Orthodox comprised an ”Orthodox ethnos,” and the administration did not assign any meaning to their nationality, be it Bulgarian, Serbian, or Greek. In Cappadocia, where I come from, religion was what divided inhabitants between Romeians and Turks. The Orthodox people in the state of Talas, my native land, spoke Turkish as their native language, and even served the Liturgy in Turkish. But their membership in the Orthodox Church is what categorized them as the ”Romeian people.”

Just the same, Turkish history knows other, excellent examples. In the past, in various parts of the Turkish diaspora, Turkish communities accepted Christianity. There are Christian Turks in Central Asia, there are the Orthodox Gagauzians,[1] and there are thousands of Turks who have become Christian in Turkey. That they are Christian does not mean that they are not Turks. I am also a Christian now, but I am also one hundred percent Turkish, and Turkish is my native language. So, this division of people according to religious orientation is becoming more and more outdated. People are still surprised when they hear that one or another Turk is a Christian, but little-by-little, this is becoming more normal.

—What is your occupation?

N.: I am a dietician, and I do volunteer work.

A.: I was a manager in a large government company, and lived for a while in the United States. Later, I had a business in Belgium.

—Ahmet, probably your desire to become a Christian arose while you were living and working in a Christian country?

A.: No, the ground had been cultivated much earlier. Unfortunately, Christianity in Turkey is viewed as something that comes from the ”outside.” This is a mistake, because Orthodoxy is a part of our land's history. This can be seen from the privileges that Mehmet the Conqueror gave to the Constantinople Patriarchate.

I had some idea of Christianity from childhood, although it was through the prism of Islam. Many Moslems have great respect for Christians, which is bound up with the fact that the Koran accepts Jesus as a prophet. In general, Moslems also respect the Most Holy Mother of God. I think that you have seen the crowds of faithful Moslems who gather in the Romeian churches of Istanbul in order to venerate the holy shrines, and ask for help. In Turkey, we are prepared to accept the message of Christianity.

If there are problems, they are bound up with the education that both sides receive, and with ignorance. For example, many Moslems do not understand the meaning of the teaching on the Holy Trinity and think that we worship three gods, and that Christianity is a political religion. I do not say this as a criticism of Islam, but only present the fact as an example to show how uninformed they are.

—Necla, did your search also begin in Turkey?

N.: Yes, when I was studying in the university. My family was on the whole religious, but without following all the precepts of Islam to the letter. I considered myself a Moslem until I began to distance myself from Islam during my studies in Ankara. My parents allowed me the freedom to decide my relationship to religion. While I was in Islam, I felt an emptiness that demanded fulfillment. I read, and searched. I entered upon a path that led me to Orthodoxy.

—It would follow that your path to Orthodoxy was the result of ”local” experience, without any influence from outside of Turkey?

A.: Any influence from American or European Christianity can only do harm. I never felt comfortable with the Christians there. They repelled me from Christianity by turning it into psychotherapy. They go to church on Sundays to talk. However, religion has an aim of filling a certain other emptiness. In Europe, Christianity has been relegated to holidays without any connection to religion. Take the Nativity of Christ, for example. Many people greet each other with the words, ”Happy holidays,” instead of Happy Nativity.” In Europe, people have a superficial connection to Christianity, without an understanding of its spiritual meaning.

—How do the Christians in your country differ from Europeans?

N.: In that they are much closer to the essence and traditions of Christianity.

A.: And in that they are more religious.

N.: We go to church every Sunday, read the Holy Scriptures every evening, pray together, and strive to fulfill all the demands of our religion.

—Are you in contact with the local Orthodox community?

A.: We are in close contact, because we are in church every Sunday. There are many nice people in the Romeian community, and we have found friends. Every person has something to share with us. Liturgy is served in various churches. We often visit the church in Nihori. Lakas Vingas, the president of the community, lets us say the ”Our Father” in Turkish.

N.: Yes, I read for the Turkish-speaking people (she laughs).

—Is it hard for you to follow the services when they are in Greek?

A.: We prepare for each service at home. We also have a dual-language New Testament, so that we can follow the service using the Turkish text. It is important to understand in order to participate.

—The tragic schism of Fr. Euphemios from the Constantinople Patriarchate in the 1920's and the founding of the schismatic ”Turkish Orthodox Church”[2] made it much more difficult to introduce the Turkish language into the parishes of Constantinople, although this has been done long ago by other Christian denominations.

A.: Yes, that is so. We hope that with time there will be services in the Orthodox Church in the Turkish language. Today, only the Symbol of Faith is read in Turkish. It is also necessary that the problem with Fr. Efthimiou's successors be resolved—there can't be enmity between the Churches. All the Orthodox in Turkey should be under the Ecumenical Patriarchate.

—Have you encountered any negative reactions from people in your society after you were baptized? Does anyone harass you?

A.: I have not experienced anything negative and I can't say that I have been harassed.

N.: I have not met with any negative reactions. My family was surprised, but they respect my choice.

—Do you consider that there are many others who would follow your example and convert to Christianity?

A. and N.: Yes, many

—Nevertheless, so far very few have been baptized.

N.: The fact is that there are many more who have been baptized than those who ”show” that they have been baptized. They are afraid of the reaction of those around them. These are secret Christians.

A.: Yes, there is fear. But this should change, just as the attitudes in society toward those who change their religion should change. In any case, the Orthodox Church does not proselytize. To the contrary, there are strict requirements demanded of those who want to come in from another faith. These people have to go through a long catechism, and their sincerity is tested.

—Does that mean that it is not easy to enter the Orthodox Church?

N.: Yes, in past years, but we really pressed for it.

—Do the attacks against Christians, like for example the murder of the Catholic priest, Fr. Santoro, in Trabzond, and the killing of Christians in Malatya make you fearful? Who do you think is behind these attacks?

A.: I do not think that something like that could happen in the capital. The country is visibly changing as the talks concerning the acceptance of Turkey into the European Union continue. Turks are becoming more open and tolerant. Naturally, however, certain radical groups are reacting to these changes. These are dark forces who have nothing in common with the government, and are on the periphery of society.

Original interview in Bulgarian from: Как едно турско семейство откри православието // Двери.Бг Russian translation by Yuri Maximov
English translation from the Russian by Nun Cornelia (Rees)

04 / 05 / 2010




[1] The Gagauz people descend from the SeljukTurks that settled in Dobruja, together with the Pechenegs, Uz (Oghuz) and Cuman (Kipchak) people that followed the Anatolian SeljukSultanIzzeddin Keykavus II (123676). More specifically, one clan of Oghuz Turks migrated to the Balkans during the inter-tribal conflicts with other Turks. This Oghuz Turk clan converted from Islam to Orthodox Christianity after settling in the Eastern Balkans (in Bulgaria) and were called Gagauz Turks. A large group of the Gagauz later left Bulgaria and settled in southern Bessarabia, along with a group of ethnic Bulgarians. — Trans., from, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gagauzia.

[2] The so-called “Turkish Orthodox Church” was begun during the war between Greece and Turkey, by a supporter of the Turkish nationalists named Pavlos Karahisarithis (he later changed his name to Zeki Erenerol). He formed a schismatic church (calling himself “Pope” Eftim (Efthimiou) with the backing of Kemal Ataturk, who used the group as a tool against the Greek population and the Ecumenical Patriarchate. The church has very few followers at present, and its spokeswoman, the granddaughter of Pope Eftim, was arrested in 2008 for alleged links with a Turkish nationalist underground organization. It was also suspected that the Turkish church served as headquarters for the organization.

16 comments:

orrologion said...

A Turkish girl studying in the US converted at my parish in the past year. She has since returned home.

midwinterspring said...

An interesting article, but I take exception to this part of your introduction:

"The second is that it's an interesting comment on current Turkish sociology. As I understand, Turkey is rapidly becoming polarized between secularism and Islam, with Islam gaining ground. It would not surprise me that conversions to Christianity are a result of a reaction to the increasingly ugly face of Turkish Islam."

What exactly is this "increasingly ugly face of Turkish Islam" you speak of?

Samn! said...

I would think that to many people, both Muslim or not, any move toward integrating Sharia-- and especially hudud-- into the civil legal system is rather ugly. To many Turks of all religions, the increasing presence of women in hijab on the street is ugly, because of the pro-Sharia political statement that it makes, for example.

midwinterspring said...

Samn,

I agree that that it would be a matter of concern if Shariah was being integrated into the civil legal system. But, thankfully, that isn't happening in Turkey and there are no political parties calling for such a thing. Indeed, this is precisely why I want to know what is meant by this "ugly face" of Turkish Islam.

As for women in hijab, it isn't these women who are declaring that their hijab is a "pro-Shariah political statement." Indeed, it is only the people who have formerly attempted to forbid the wearing of the headscarf in public who make such a claim. Why should we believe them rather than the women themselves?

Samn! said...

In my experience in Egypt and the Levant, hijab is always a pro-sharia statement. Much the same can be said for Turkey, as the rise of women wearing hijab is also concurrent with a rise of politicized Islam. Although the AKP has to more or less play by the rhetorical paradigms set by the militant secularists, their origins and history and rhetorical games show that they are in fact very much a pro-sharia party. And if you look beyond the legal parties to popular figures who are not an open part of the official political discourse, such as Fethullah Gülen, things get much scarier....

Jnorm888 said...

Thanks for posting this article!










Christ is Risen!

midwinterspring said...

"In my experience in Egypt and the Levant, hijab is always a pro-sharia statement."

So every woman you spoke to who wore hijab told you she did it because she is supporting Shariah as a basis for civil law? That's exceedingly strange. I can't speak for Egypt and the Levant, but I've never met a single Muslim woman in Turkey who would say such a thing -- and I'm well acquainted with a number of religious circles in the country.


"Much the same can be said for Turkey, as the rise of women wearing hijab is also concurrent with a rise of politicized Islam."

No, what we're seeing in Turkey is the opening of more spaces for religious women to participate in the public sphere. It isn't as though, for example, all of the women at universities in the 80s were secret Muslims who suddenly decided the time was right to display their political allegiance as Islamists. Rather, due to the rise of a more religious middle class (and the political influence that comes with this rise) a space has been opened for women who wear the headscarf to actually attend university, whereas previously they were excluded from this sphere. The same goes for the posh areas of Istanbul, where the sensitive secularists now have the terrible misfortune of having to coexist with women wearing cloth on their heads.

"Although the AKP has to more or less play by the rhetorical paradigms set by the militant secularists, their origins and history and rhetorical games show that they are in fact very much a pro-sharia party."

So now we're not talking about anything that is actually happening in Turkey, but the alleged intentions of the people who happen to be in power; intentions that certainly don't seem to be reflected in their actions, since they've done more than any preceding party to bring Turkey into compliance with EU norms. Has the EU made note of these intentions in their annual review of Turkey's accession progress? If this was an actual concern for the EU members working on Turkey's accession process, don't you think it would come up?

"And if you look beyond the legal parties to popular figures who are not an open part of the official political discourse, such as Fethullah Gülen, things get much scarier"

I'm sorry, but this is a truly bizarre description of Fethullah Gülen. Having spent a significant amount of time working with people in the FG movement, the idea that they represent some kind of stealth threat to Turkish secularism strikes me as quite fanciful. I'm well aware that he is presented as a nefarious figure by a certain Turkish political segment, particularly by people like Soner Cağaptay and the like, but their agenda is far too transparent to take them seriously. Fethullah Gülen is as revolutionary as a potato.

Samn! said...

My experience in Turkey and with Turks living in North America has generally given me the impression that women wearing hijab do so as an Islamist socio-political statement. (The case is much clearer in Egypt, where it's exclusively done as a pro-Brotherhood statement or the Levant, where you can usually tell which Islamist party a girl's family belongs to by how she arranges her hijab).

Erdogan's political game is a complicated one. It's clear that he has no real desire to join the EU-- if he did, he would implement European-style civil rights and stop the persecution of religious minorities. He is also very much prone to making statements to rally his Islamist base- the one that got the most play in western-language press was the infamous "the minarets are our bayonets" quote, but it was hardly the only one. If we look at the career of Necmettin Erbakan, it's much the same, only less polished.

As for Gülen, he's a complicated case. While his movement is in some senses modernist, it is still clearly pushing for the Islamicization of Turkish society. From everything I can tell, he has a very traditional understanding of Islamic law, something that would be unacceptable to modern, educated elements of society. The particular circumstances around his exile and the amazing degree of security at his compound in Virginia at the very least make him a suspicious person.

midwinterspring said...

"My experience in Turkey and with Turks living in North America has generally given me the impression that women wearing hijab do so as an Islamist socio-political statement."

OK, but what does that mean? Did all of the Muslim women you spoke to tell you they wanted Shariah to become Turkey's civil law?

"(The case is much clearer in Egypt, where it's exclusively done as a pro-Brotherhood statement or the Levant, where you can usually tell which Islamist party a girl's family belongs to by how she arranges her hijab)."

Again, on what are you basing this? What do the women themselves say? It's hardly unique that people in a particular social group arrange their clothing similarly. It's simply not reasonable to suggest this kind of universality of intention for any cultural behavior, particularly when the professed religion in question is generally interpreted to require women to wear the headscarf.

"It's clear that he has no real desire to join the EU-- if he did, he would implement European-style civil rights and stop the persecution of religious minorities."

If you think it's as simple as Erdogan writing up a decree to bring EU-level civil rights to the country, you don't seem to be following the AK Party's actual attempts at constitutional reform. Nearly every law they pass in the direction of EU reforms is appealed by the CHP. I tend to agree with you that they should pay more attention to the rights of religious minorities. But it wasn't the AK Party that created these restrictions in the first place. And, more importantly, many of these restrictions are primarily targeted at Muslims, even if they happen to also impede Christian rights. Opening up the Halki Seminary, for example, would likely cause the CHP to scream bloody murder about setting a precedent for private Muslim religious schools. Like I said, this isn't to say the AK Party is above criticism, but the slow pace of reforms cannot be pinned on them alone.

And, again, the important question is what do the actual EU representatives tasked with monitoring Turkey's progress have to say about this? If there is an actual threat of Shariah law becoming Turkey's civil law, why hasn't this shown up on the EU's radar yet?

"From everything I can tell, he has a very traditional understanding of Islamic law,"

Practicing Muslims in general tend to have a very traditional understanding of Islamic law, at least as it applies to their individual lives. This is irrelevant to the question of their role in society.

"The particular circumstances around his exile and the amazing degree of security at his compound in Virginia at the very least make him a suspicious person."

Yeah, I can agree it looks weird. But the US government doesn't seem to have a problem with him. And, frankly, in a country like Turkey where the military can have soldiers spying on government officials, I'd say a little paranoia on the part of public religious figures is understandable.

Samn! said...

As for hijab, I'll admit to being more familiar with the question in Egypt and the Levant where wearing hijab almost always means attachment to a group that advocates making sharia civil law (the Ikhwan, Hezbullah, etc etc). In Turkey, it's a different situation because the degree of changes one can realistically expect are much less. Gradualism is not moderation.


As for Turkey and the EU, honestly I think both sides only continue to talk about it as a bargaining chip for internal politics. I really don't think anyone has any expectations of it actually happening. Unfortunately.

As for 'traditional understanding of Islamic law'- this might be an issue that is too complicated for a com-box. I mean, first of all it's pretty clear that most Salafi or revivalist figures(from al-Afghani and Mawdudi to Sayyid Qutb and Osama bin Ladin) do not have any concept of traditional law. I'm not trying to say that there are particularly many Turkish figures involved in that discourse. However, to a non-Muslim or individualistically-minded Muslim, a traditionalist attitude toward sharia (traditionalist for my purposes in a Sunni context meaning close adherence to one of the madhhabs) is highly problematic. The edifice of Islamic law, from the content of the hadiths and on through the development of the legal presupposes that the sharia governs societies though the power of coercive force (that is, in the same way as a government governs societies). That is, the canonical texts not only assume that most elements of sharia are not to be left up to matters of personal conscience, but even prescribe specific means of enforcement and presume to dictate rules for people who do not wish to follow sharia, whether non-Muslim, apostate, or simply liberal. This, ultimately, is what scares people, whether in Turkey, in the West or in the Arab East, about most Islamic discourses today-- there are virtually no credible voices calling to make sharia purely a matter of conscience in principle (as opposed to as a halfway measure until a society becomes fully Islamic). To do so would require a serious rejection of traditional Islamic law and textual hermeneutic. This is necessary, but I'm not holding my breath... the trend in most countries seems to either be toward traditionalism or salafism...

Collator said...

There's a good article on Fethullah Gülen in the March 6, 2008 issue of The Economist. Or at least it seems well-written. I'll defer to the other interlocutors on its accuracy, since they know much more than I do on this issue. The article is generally positive toward Fethullah Gülen -- as is The Economist toward AKP, annoyingly over-using the term "mildly Islamist" every time they mention the party. But the article also mentions some of the worries about him.

John said...

Samn!,
Thanks for posting this. These are encouraging developments.

I don't discout concerns about the hijab, perceived "Islamization" of Turkey, or the disturbing stories one hears from time to time. But I have been to Turkey 5 times since 2003, and am returning in a few weeks. These trips have taken me from Istanbul to the Iranian border. My thoughts on this topic are based totally on my unscientific observations, and ongoing conversations and correspondence with my friends there (all AKP members.) First, you might say that Islam has always been worn a little lighter in Anatolia than in other areas. Second, hijab was often a political statement while the AKP was rising to power, but now that they are in place, it is less a factor. This seems counter-intuitive, but I saw far more women dressed this way in 2003 and 2004, than I did in 2006, 2007 and 2008. Again, this is just my personal observation, I was watching to try and see which way things were trending. Third, my friends in the AKP are there simply because they see it as the party of the rising middle class--the party that represents their interests, rather than the elite who ran things before. Finally, while substantive change is still painfully slow, there seems to be more progress in the treatment of religious minorities under AKP than before. (One could make the case that this is only lip service, but...there is some reason to hope otherwise.) In short, I do not fear the AKP. The real damage to Christians in Turkey seems to be the hold-over judges from the Kemalists, such as the legal action taken against the Suriani monasteries in the Tur Abdin.

Anonymous said...

You can find some more about this, here:
http://www.oodegr.com/english/ierapostoli/xwres/toyrkia/forum1.htm

There is also a Turkish-speaking section : http://www.oodegr.com/tourkika/index.htm

Drew said...

This is a terrific post! Thanks for sharing.

Robert Sweiss said...

This is very interesting topic. Question: do not any of the churches under the Ecumenical Patriarchate utilize the Turkish language alongside with the Greek in the liturgy? According to what I read, it appears that the Antiochians only do.

Samn! said...

Robert,

So far as I know, no churches of the Ecumenical Patriarchate currently use Turkish. Currently in Istanbul, they're refurbishing a church to serve as the parish for Christian migrants from Hatay-- the first new Orthodox church in Istanbul since the 19th century. I'm very curious to see if they will be allowed to use Turkish or if they will only use Arabic and Greek...