During the past century, Christianity in Turkey (and before Turkey was founded, the Ottoman Empire) has experienced a sharp decline. A once vibrant Christian population now finds itself on the border of extinction. When the Ottoman Empire entered World War I on the side of the Central Powers in late 1914, its Christian population (in the region that later became Turkey) numbered 4.5 million. By 1923, the year that the Republic of Turkey was founded, that number had declined to 250,000 in a population of 12.5 million. Today, Turkey’s five Christian communities number 1,700–2,000 Greek Orthodox Christians; 60,000 Armenian Orthodox Christians; 15,000–30,000 Armenian Christians; about 3,500 Roman Catholics; and some 4,000 Protestants. The surrounding population is 98 percent Muslim.
The major reason for this decline is persecution, taking the form of violent repression and heavy-handed discrimination. During World War I, 1.5 million Armenian Christians were killed in genocidal violence. During the first twelve years of the Republic of Turkey (1923–1935), a regime based on an aggressive secular nationalist ideology, Christians were subject to continual repressive violence. Subsequent decades were punctuated by further episodes of violence, including a massive pogrom against the Greek Orthodox Church in Smyrna and Istanbul in 1955 that the state incited and the local population carried out, and further incidents in 1963 and 1974, both related to Turkey’s conflict with Greece over Cyprus. The past decade has seen violence against Christian minorities, including the 2006 murder of a Roman Catholic priest, Fr. Andrea Santoro, at the hands of a Muslim assassin; the 2007 murder of Armenian journalist Hrant Dink at the hands of a Turkish nationalist; and other killings.
Strong policies of discrimination and nonviolent repression are aimed directly at diminishing Christian communities and continue through this day. The government carries them out both to further its secularist ideology and to satisfy the demands of Islamists in its population. First, Christians as well as Jews have faced comprehensive economic disenfranchisement, including laws that discriminate in employment, a property rights regime that has confiscated and expropriated their property, and a taxation regime that inflicts a heavy financial toll. Second, the government has interfered strongly in the governance of Christian communities as well as in their freedom to worship, to educate, and to build facilities. The 1971 closure of the Greek Orthodox Theological School of Halki exemplifies this impulse. Third, the government has promoted the Islamization of Christian churches and properties. Fourth, the government has failed to act against or punish groups that carry out violence against Christians. Fifth, the regime, from the time of its founding, has implemented a system of assigning codes to members of Christian, Jewish, and Alawite minorities in order to control them. Many Christians carried hopes that the Justice and Development Party under President (formerly Prime Minister) Recep Tayyip Erdoğan would advance religious freedom for Christians after this party came to power in 2002, but they have been largely disappointed.
In response to persecution, Christians have carried out strategies of all three types: survival, association, and confrontation. Turkey’s semi-open system enables this multifaceted response, though Christians are still constrained by their tiny size, a hostile regime, and a hostile surrounding population.
They persist in worship, but in the face of laws and policies that make it difficult. Over the course of the past century, they have fled the country in great numbers, particularly after pogroms but also continually through this day. They seek to gain acceptance by publicly voicing favor for policies of the regime such as its bid to join the European Union, privately hoping that greater religious freedom will result. They have had to scale back their cultural activities and limit their activities mostly to worship.
Churches in Turkey have also sought to strengthen their position through strategies of association. Several of them, most actively the Ecumenical Patriarch of the Greek Orthodox Church, have pursued ecumenical and interreligious ties, both within the country and internationally. They seek to ally with outside advocates, including human rights groups. They make consistent appeals to the government for greater freedom, but with little result. To a small degree, they engage in providing social services. Some promote forgiveness and reconciliation, for instance the journalist Hrant Dink who was murdered in 2007.
Strategies of confrontation can also be found, though they are fewer. Dink is an example of a Christian who pursued justice knowing that his life was in danger—an acceptance of martyrdom. None of the communities engages in protest, whether nonviolent or armed. They commonly document human rights abuses and engage in legal strategies. Generally, they have seen little progress in religious freedom though they continue to press for it.