Christianity Today Middle East Published Articles

Christians Assess Criticism of Turkey’s Earthquake Efforts

Image: Burak Kara / Getty Images

As the dust settled on the rubble of Turkish cities, citizens began asking hard questions. Why was the government response so slow, and why did so many buildings fall in the first place?

Some Christians have joined the chorus.

“During the earthquake, some serious mistakes were made,” said Melih Ekener, executive director of SAT-7 TURK, an inter-denominational satellite television ministry with offices in Istanbul. “But with the destruction of cities with large Christian populations, we are feeling more alone than ever.”

The mistakes came both before and after, he said. But the church paid a disproportionate price, as the ancient cities of Antakya, Iskenderun, and Diyarbakir collectively held the majority of Turkey’s Christians—about 1 percent of the overall population of 85 million.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has pledged to rebuild affected areas. And with a local death toll of over 40,000 and one million people displaced across a 10-province region roughly the size of Switzerland, any government would struggle, Ekener said.

But nodding his head at a long list of reported failures both before and after the 7.8-magnitude earthquake and 7.5-magnitude aftershock, Ekener said trust in official institutions has been shaken.

The results are tragic.

Not all can be blamed on the government. The earthquake damaged the local airport and road systems, bottlenecking equipment necessary for rescue. Freezing temperatures, lack of electricity, and the sheer scale of devastation handicapped relief efforts.

But three or more days were lost due to poor coordination in the centralizing of effort.

“The system makes sense,” said Ekener. “But it does slow things down.”

One Turkish Christian, requesting anonymity due to the sensitivity of the situation, was blunt, warning there will be consequences for mistakes.

“Earthquakes don’t kill people; the shoddy works of men do,” said the senior ministry leader. “The government failed this test, and many who could have been saved died.”

Elections are scheduled for June but may be postponed.

Analysts remarked that after a 7.6 magnitude earthquake in 1999 killed 18,000 people in northwest Turkey, the army acted quickly to lead the emergency response. But given the nation’s long history of military coups, when the Islamist-tinged Justice and Development Party (AKP) of now-president Erdogan came to power in 2002 it established civilian control over the largely independent brass.

As an unintended consequence, the military, like everyone else, had to wait on the official Disaster and Emergency Management Authority (AFAD). And AFAD, critics remarked, is headed by a graduate of an Islamic seminary with no experience in the field.

“For years, the AKP has packed almost every institution in the country with their staunch loyalists, often purging people with real know-how and expertise,” said Mustafa Akyol, a Turkish senior fellow at the Cato Institute’s Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity and an expert in Islam and public policy. “The result has been a huge loss of quality and competence.”

Following a 2016 coup attempt, the government removed tens of thousands of civil servants, many connected to a rival Islamic movement accused of conspiracy. Other civil society organizations have also been suppressed, and Akyol said an effective, national effort against disasters is impossible in a climate of suspicion against domestic enemies.

Drawing no connection, an AFAD internal report described deficiencies in personnel and earthquake preparedness. It still consisted of more than 10,000 employees.

Erdogan acknowledged “shortcomings” in the earthquake response, pledging to care for every affected citizen. But he also blamed “dishonorable people” for spreading lies and rumors against the government.

Ekener said that after delays, overall coordination has been smooth.

But while the “after” errors have been tragic, critics point to a criminal “before.”

“They failed…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today on February 23, 2023. Please click here to read the full text.

Christianity Today Middle East Published Articles

Turkey Turns Another Historic Church into a Mosque

The Turkish government formally converted a former Byzantine church into a mosque Friday, a move that came a month after it drew praise from the faithful and international opposition for similarly turning Istanbul’s landmark Hagia Sophia into a Muslim house of prayer.

A decision by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, published in the country’s Official Gazette, said Istanbul’s Church of St. Saviour in Chora, known as Kariye in Turkish, was handed to Turkey’s religious authority, which would open up the structure for Muslim prayers.

Like the Hagia Sophia, which was a church for centuries and then a mosque for centuries more, the historic Chora church had operated as a museum for decades before Erdogan ordered it restored as a mosque.

The church, situated near the ancient city walls, is famed for its elaborate mosaics and frescoes. It dates to the fourth century, although the edifice took on its current form in the 11th–12th centuries.

The structure served as a mosque during the Ottoman rule before being transformed into a museum in 1945. A court decision last year canceled the building’s status as a museum, paving the way for Friday’s decision.

And as with the Hagia Sophia, the decision to transform the Chora church museum back into a mosque is seen as geared to consolidate the conservative and religious support base of Erdogan’s ruling party at a time when his popularity is sagging amid an economic downturn.

Greece’s Foreign Ministry strongly condemned the move, saying that Turkish authorities “are once again brutally insulting the character” of another UN-listed world heritage site.

“This is a provocation against all believers,” the Greek ministry said in a statement. “We urge Turkey to return to the 21st century, and the mutual respect, dialogue and understanding between civilizations.”

Protestant believers agree. “The Hagia Sophia is…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today on August 21, 2020, in cooperation with the AP. I contributed additional reporting. Please click here to read the full text.

Christian Century Middle East Published Articles

Hagia Sophia’s Muslim Prayers Evoke Ottoman Treatment of Armenians

Via Turkish Presidency

Declared a mosque in principle, Hagia Sophia is now a mosque in practice.

Following his decree earlier this month, Turkish President Recep Erdoğan’s joined a coronavirus-limited 500 worshipers to perform Friday prayers in the sixth-century Byzantine basilica, underneath the covered frescoes of Jesus and the Virgin Mary.

Hundreds more gathered outside.

International condemnation resounded after the Turkish Council of State ruled to revert the UNESCO World Heritage Site back to its Islamic status. Conquered in 1453 by Ottoman sultan Mehmed II, the massive church was turned into a museum by the founder of the modern Turkish republic, Kamal Ataturk, in 1934.

Underreported in much of the criticism was a wider complaint.

“The action of the Turkish government evokes heavy memories on the desecration and destruction of holy sites of the Armenian people and other Christian nations by the Ottoman government for centuries,” said Garegin II, Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of All Armenians.

There are an estimated 11 million Armenians worldwide, including 3 million in their modern nation-state.

Representing the diaspora from the Holy See of Cilicia, in Lebanon, Catholicos Aram I went into more detail.

“Soon after the Armenian Genocide, Turkey confiscated thousands of Armenian churches and transformed them into bars, coffee shops, and public parks,” he said, “ignoring the reactions and appeals of the international community.”

As Erdoğan is doing again now—and not just to the Hagia Sophia.

Turkey has assured the frescoes will be uncovered for all visitors (3.7 million last year) outside of prayer times—and now without a museum entry fee. More than 400 other churches continue to serve the 1 percent of Turks that are Christians.

But Erdoğan’s remarks in Turkish revealed a wider agenda. “The resurrection of Hagia Sophia is the sound of Muslims’ footsteps…”

This article was first published at Christianity Today, on July 24, 2020. Please click here to read the full text.

Current Events

Hagia Sophia Converted Back to Mosque by Turkey’s President

As Christians feared and many expected, the Hagia Sophia is now—again—a mosque.

The Turkish Council of State ruled today that the original 1934 decision to convert the sixth-century Byzantine basilica into a museum was illegal.

When Ottoman sultan Mehmet II conquered then-Constantinople, he placed the iconic church in a waqf—an Islamic endowment administering personal property, usually designated for religious purpose. The original stipulations opened the building for Islamic prayers, and sharia law keeps waqf designations in perpetuity.

Shortly after the decision, President Recep Erdogan signed—and tweeted—a decree handing the building to Turkey’s Religious Affairs Directorate.

In a televised address to the nation, Erdogan said the first prayers inside the Hagia Sophia would be held on July 24, and he urged respect for the decision.

“I underline that we will open Hagia Sophia to worship as a mosque by preserving its character of humanity’s common cultural heritage,” he said, adding: “It is Turkey’s sovereign right to decide for which purpose Hagia Sophia will be used.”

Istanbul-based Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, considered the spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians, warned in late June that the building’s conversion into a mosque “will turn millions of Christians across the world against Islam.”

Greek Orthodox Archbishop Ieronymos II earlier stated that Erdogan “would not dare.”

And UNESCO reminded Turkey of its international obligations, as the Hagia Sophia is registered as a World Heritage site.

“A state must make sure that no modification undermines the outstanding universal value of a site listed on its territory,” the UN body stated.

In response to the Turkish decision, the Russian Orthodox Church expressed regret, stating it could lead to “greater divisions.”

The foreign minister of Cyprus called it a “flagrant violation” against “a universal symbol of the Orthodox faith.”

And in Greece’s second-largest city, Thessaloniki, protesters gathered outside a church that is modeled on the Hagia Sophia and bears the same name. They chanted, “We’ll light candles in Hagia Sophia!” and held Greek flags and Byzantine banners.

During his address, Erdogan rejected the idea that the decision ends the Hagia Sophia’s status as a structure that brings faiths together. “Like all of our other mosques, the doors of Hagia Sophia will be…

This article was first published at Christianity Today, on July 10, 2020. Please click here to read the full text.

Christianity Today Middle East Published Articles

Will Trump’s Turkey Sanctions Help Andrew Brunson More Than They Hurt Turkish Christians?

This article excerpt was originally published at Christianity Today, on August 16.

Trump Erdogan Brunson
Photo Illustration by Sarah Rogers/The Daily Beast

… But some analysts say high-level pressure may do more harm than good, for both Brunson and Turkey (and Europe). And Americans who serve the gospel overseas often have dual sympathies, pained by the resultant suffering of the local citizens they serve.

“I would love to have US advocacy for my release,” said one American who previously worked in Turkey, “even though as a Christian I could stay [in jail] as long as I needed to.”

But wishing to stay anonymous so that he can return to Turkey, his reasoning is almost the reverse of expectations.

“Politically, being detained creates a negative image of Turkey in the US,” he said. “I would want to get out as quickly as possible to continue to advocate for that part of the world, helping them see the Turkey I love.”

And this Turkey is suffering, said a Turkish evangelical involved in ministry for over a decade, who also requested anonymity to discuss politics.

“Economic disaster!” he said of the currency devaluation. “Our people are already poor, but now the crisis deepens.”

Erdoğan has engaged President Trump’s rhetoric tit-for-tat, accusing him of an “evangelical, Zionist” mentality. But worries over Erdoğan’s economic policies and his control over Turkey’s central bank have resulted in a near 50-percent decline in the lira this year, as inflation has soared.

As Trump celebrated, Erdogan cried conspiracy.

And Turkey’s minorities unexpectedly asserted they were just fine.

“Statements alleging and/or alluding to oppression are completely untrue,” stated 18 Christian and Jewish leaders, headlined by Greek Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople. “Many grievances experienced in the past have been resolved.”

Many religious freedom analysts view the statement as evidence of the opposite: that minorities in Turkey are manipulated by the government in order to counter American claims of persecution. Many grievances continue.

And the above-mentioned Turkish ministry leader fears the worst.

“The response of the US is putting Turkish Christians in danger. People take it as a reason to attack us, and Christophobia is growing,” he said.

“Probably Brother Andrew will be released. But we’ll stay here and face all the effects after him…”

Please click here to read the full article at Christianity Today.

Middle East

Erdogan in Egypt: Teenage Turkey Tests Her Limits

Erdogan with his image of prominence, popularity

I had the opportunity to witness the keynote address of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on September 13. Beginning a tour of Arab Spring nations, he met with military, political, and business leaders in Cairo, and then spoke generally to the nation from the historic Opera House, in a session hosted by Cairo University. The following are a few highlights from his speech, concluding with some personal observations:

  • For a lecture scheduled to begin at 4pm, Erdogan began speaking at 6:45pm. Attendees had been asked to arrive no later than 3pm for security.
  • The audience chanted continually during the speech, lauding Erdogan for his regional politics.
  • Erdogan praised Egypt and her revolution, as well as historic Egyptian-Turkish ‘sisterhood’.
  • A devout Muslim, Erdogan laced his speech with Quranic references, though in a different setting he praised the virtues of a ‘secular’ state which values religion.
  • He believed the spirit of liberation in the Arab world was spreading to America and Europe to sensitize the whole world against injustice.
  • Turkey and the Arab world will dismiss orientalist myths that the region cannot support democracy or strong economies.
  • In a nod to protestor concerns and as a prod to military leadership, Erdogan stated the coming elections should be held according to a set schedule.
  • Erdogan highlighted the dramatic increase in trade between Turkey and Egypt, and pledged it would only increase further in the future.
  • He declared that Egypt is Turkey’s key to Africa, just as Turkey is Egypt’s key to Europe.
  • Erdogan spoke of his efforts to get Syrian President Assad to reform, but stated he can no longer trust him in his pledges.
  • Alarmingly and surprisingly, Erdogan predicted that Syria will now face sectarian problems, which are played upon by foreign forces.
  • He stated that the illegitimate policies of Israel are the biggest obstacle to peace in the region, especially in her disregard for international law.
  • Erdogan prompted the greatest applause when he reiterated Turkey’s diplomatic efforts against Israel will continue until an apology is received for Turkish deaths aboard last year’s flotilla.
  • He also condemned as illegitimate the deaths of Egyptian officers in an Israeli raid across the Sinai border; he also offered his condolences to their families.
  • He expressed hope the Israeli people would realize their settlements are illegitimate, and that they are leading the nation into difficulties.
  • Erdogan pledged to hold Israeli leaders accountable while expressing he bore no ill will against the Israeli citizen, who like all must be respected on account of their creator.
  • He promised to always stand side by side with Palestine, hoping for an independent state in the framework of the United Nations.
  • Erdogan counseled the United States to reconsider its stance toward Palestinian statehood, to better accord with traditional concerns of justice in American foreign policy.
  • He believed Fatah and Hamas needed to keep from being divided and to love each other.
  • Erdogan predicted the Egyptian economy would rebound after elections, and promised that Turkey would stand by Egypt’s side forever.
  • Erdogan closed by announcing he cannot forget, and will never forget, what was accomplished in Tahrir Square.

Erdogan addressing the crowd

I have few strong opinions on Turkey. The nation has done well to craft for itself a strong economy and independent foreign policy. All is not perfect, of course: Turkey has major problems with her Kurdish minority, and human rights organizations complain about a lack of journalistic freedom and other issues. The Armenian massacre and the division of Cyprus are long unresolved issues still staining Turkish public image. Yet there is little denying the accomplishments of her democracy as well as her emergence from supervisory military rule.

I wonder, however, if Turkey in recent weeks has become like a teenager in an adult body seeking to assert his newfound power. Sometimes bravado is found right, as in Turkey’s early calls for Mubarak to heed the will of protestors. Sometimes bravado is found empty, as in Turkish impotence to stand up to Syria. Sometimes bravado takes on unwise enemies, as in Turkey’s threat to freeze EU relations if the presidency – assigned by rotation – is awarded to Cyprus. And sometimes bravado can be for its own sake, as in Turkey’s increased tension with Israel.

To be sure, Turkey’s diplomatic row with Israel is a matter of principle. Turkey opposes the Gaza blockade and the illegal settlements in the West Bank. Turkish citizens were killed by Israeli commandos in international waters, no matter how much provocation may have been directed at the soldiers. Yet the feeling is that Turkey’s response to Israel is measured and calculated. Is Turkey using her Israel policy to enhance her regional power?

Certainly Turkey is placing Israel in a no win situation. An apology conveys guilt, and admission of guilt can precede liability. Israel’s soldiers, though the initiators of overt hostility (as opposed to the symbolic hostility of breaking the blockade), were severely attacked. No nation will sell out its military to appease a demanding neighbor, unless her soldiers were clearly at fault (which remains disputed, of course).

Yet Turkey’s announcement of downgrading diplomatic relations came immediately on the heels of Egyptian outrage at her military leadership for failing to take a hard line with Israel following the death of her officers in a cross-border Israeli military raid. Turkey had already been lauded by many liberals and Islamists alike as a possible model for democratic transition. Shortly thereafter the Arab Spring diplomatic tour begins.

Beyond rhetoric, the main substantial element of this tour is the promotion of business. This seems shrewd. While the West and the IMF offer loans and the Gulf States offer cash influx, Turkey seeks job creation. It remains to be seen how much capital remains in Turkish hands, but this is the appropriate action of a growing economy, and may well serve to buttress Egypt’s economic needs as well. Is there more behind the courtship, however?

Though Egyptian populism celebrated Erdogan’s arrival, political leaders – both liberal and Islamist – were more cautious. Despite claims to historic ‘sisterhood’, Arab-Turk relations have not always been rosy. Is Turkey carpet-bagging on Arab Spring gains?

It remains to be seen if the Turkish teenager is ready for adulthood. Turkey has been an ally to the West, while maintaining relationships with Syrian and Iran. She has been an Islamic model, while maintaining relationships with Israel. Turkey’s efforts to craft a ‘Zero Problems’ foreign policy are coming apart at the seams, but this could simply be the teenager outgrowing his clothes (after significant muscle flexing).

Can Turkey stand as an independent actor on the world’s stage? Can she continue to risk offenses against entrenched Western positions? Is Turkey too big for her britches, or has she reached geopolitical maturity? Perhaps like a teenager, the only way to know is to test her limits.