During the past century, Christianity in Turkey has experienced a sharp decline, and today Christians comprise less than 2 percent of the Turkish population. In large part, this is due to strong policies of discrimination and non-violent repression that continue through this day. The government perpetrates such repression both to further its secularist ideology and to satisfy the demands of Islamists in its population. Christians as well as Jews have faced comprehensive economic disenfranchisement as well as interference in the governance of Christian communities. The government frequently fails to act against or punish groups that carry out violence against Christians.

Scholarly Analysis: Christian Responses to Persecution in Turkey

Egypt, Libya, Israel-Palestine, Gaza, Iraq, Syria, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Turkish-Occupied Cyprus

Panel: Findings from the Middle East & North Africa 
Moderator: Christian Sahner, University of Cambridge
Speakers: Joshua Landis, University of Oklahoma
Elizabeth Prodromou, Tufts University
Mariz Tadros, Sussex University
Christian Van Gorder, Baylor University

Christian Demographics

During the past century, Christianity in Turkey (and before modern Turkey was founded in 1923, 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 is modern-day Turkey numbered 4.5 million. By 1923, when the Republic of Turkey was founded, that number had declined to 250,000 in a population of 12.5 million. Today, the U.S. government estimates that Turkey’s population of 83 million is 99.8 percent Muslim, mostly Sunni. Turkey’s largest Christian communities, which are concentrated in major cities and in the nation’s southeast, self-report their population sizes: there are approximately 90,000 Armenian Apostolic Orthodox Christians, 25,000 Roman Catholics, 25,000 Syrian Orthodox Christians, and 15,000 Russian Orthodox Christians.

History of the Christian Community

The major reason for the decline in population 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), under 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 in 1955 against the Greek Orthodox Church in Smyrna and Istanbul 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.

Current Situation of the Christian Community

Strong policies of discrimination and non-violent 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. 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. ID cards designate religious affiliation, which enables employers easily to discriminate against Christians, particularly during hiring processes. 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 historic Greek Orthodox Theological School of Halki exemplifies this impulse: as of 2022, the Turkish government has not allowed the school to reopen, and has thus hampered the Greek Orthodox community’s ability to educate clergy for over 50 years. The government has promoted the Islamization of Christian churches and properties and has failed to act against or punish groups that carry out violence against Christians. From the time of its founding, the regime 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. President Erdoğan’s administration has promoted Sunni Islam to the detriment of religious minorities, and President Erdoğan himself has orchestrated the suppression of individuals who criticize his regime while exercising freedom of religion or belief. President Erdoğan’s antisemitic statements in a televised speech in May 2021 reflect his administration’s broader encouragement of intolerance towards religious minorities. 

Responses to Persecution

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 small numbers, a hostile regime, and a hostile surrounding population. 

Christians persist in worship, but they do so 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 engage in protest, whether nonviolent or armed. They commonly document human rights abuses and engage in legal strategies. Generally, they have seen little progress.


This country profile draws on research by Dr. Elizabeth Prodromou and on the report In Response to Persecution by the Under Caesar's Sword project. It was updated by Joseph London at the University of Notre Dame in June 2022.