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Turkey’s Christians Face Increasingly Dangerous Persecution

Newsweek here provides an excellent summary of the ongoing and worsening plight of Christians in Turkey. The conversion of Hagia Sophia to a mosque, followed closely by the conversion of the historic monastery of Chora also, significantly worsened the situation of Turkey’s embattled Christian community. Both conversions demonstrated yet again the Turkish government’s contempt for the nation’s rich Christian heritage.

Dr. Anthony J. Limberakis, National Commander of the Order of Saint Andrew the Apostle, Archons of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, has stated in enduring terms the significance of the conversion of Hagia Sophia: “This unwise decision casts a shadow over the commitment of the government of Turkey to religious tolerance and religious freedom. The Turkish government’s decision is a deeply ill-advised act of memoricide that ignores Turkey’s rich Christian history and further threatens the religious freedom of the Ecumenical Patriarchate and the remaining Christians of that land. It was undertaken in defiance of the United States, Russia, France, Greece and many others.” Read more here.

For previous coverage of the persecution of Christians in Turkey, see here.

“Turkey’s Christians Face Increasingly Dangerous Persecution,” by Lela Gilbert, Newsweek, April 13, 2021:

Once upon a time, tourists in Turkey eagerly made their way to Hagia Sophia—a historic architectural marvel shimmering with the golden light of ancient mosaics. Although marred by many centuries, images of Jesus, Mary and John the Baptist reflect the spirit of a fledgling Christian world. In fact, Turkey’s earliest churches are recalled in the New Testament itself—in Antioch, where St. Paul began his missionary journeys, and in the Seven Churches portrayed by St. John in his Book of Revelation.

Christianity once flourished in Turkey, until the Ottoman Empire’s 1915 genocide of Armenians, Assyrians, Greeks and other Christians. Now the Islamist regime of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his neo-Ottoman agenda has magnified Turkey’s anti-Christian hostility. Since a failed coup attempt in 2016, the regime intensified its scapegoating of Christians, while occasionally making deceptively amiable gestures toward them.

In July 2020, Erdogan officially declared that Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia—beautiful mosaics and all—would once again become a mosque. Erdogan announced that this would gratify “the spirit of conquest” of Mehmet II, the Ottoman sultan who captured Constantinople from the Christian Byzantines in 1453, and turned the church of Hagia Sophia into a mosque.

That, and the transformation of Istanbul’s beautiful Chora Church of the Holy Saviour, merged into a swelling stream of Turkish Christian churches being confiscated, shuttered, torn down, or converted into mosques.

Troubles within the Greek Orthodox patriarchate and a disputed election of the Armenian Orthodox patriarch have also sounded international alarms. But even more troubling are the enmity and abuse displayed by the regime toward Christians themselves, both as faith groups and individuals.

During the genocidal ISIS invasion of Syria and Iraq, floods of refugees poured into Turkey. Most were Muslim, but a considerable number of them were Christians representing venerable Middle Eastern churches. As a bloc, the refugees were useful to Erdogan who, if his political demands weren’t met, periodically threatened to release millions of them into Europe.

Meanwhile, according to numerous sources, Christian refugees in Turkey have been treated with contempt, consigned to remote locations, far removed from existing churches or co-religionists. Neither Turkish speakers nor Muslims, the Christian men could not legally find employment, while language and religious issues sidelined women and children struggling to work or attend school.

Unwarranted confrontations with authorities have become commonplace.

My friend Charmaine Hedding is founder of Shai Fund, a Christian charity. After the ISIS invasion in Iraq, she visited Turkish refugee centers across the country several times in order to provide food vouchers for destitute Christian families. On one visit, quite unexpectedly, she and two colleagues were roughly taken aside by a local government official. He ordered them into a room, locked the door and then angrily slammed a Koran onto the table in front of them. He pointed a finger at each of them, demanding that they convert to Islam. This angry radical lectured them for several hours before their release. They were terrified.

One beloved Christian, who selflessly assists refugees who fled ISIS, is a Chaldean Catholic priest named Father Remzi Diril, who visits and comforts Christian families, providing religious services, sacraments, infant baptisms and charitable assistance. He “logs thousands of miles tending his flock, the community of Iraqi Christian refugees in Turkey. Their exact number is unknown, but it is estimated to be 40,000.” Unsurprisingly, Father Diril has also faced harassment.

Ominously, Father Diril’s elderly parents—71- and 65-year-old residents of a tiny Christian community—were kidnapped from their home in 2020.

AsiaNews reported in March 2021, “Turkey’s human rights agency has rejected the request by Fr. Remzi Diril for an investigation. Nothing is known about his father who went missing over a year ago while his mother’s body was found naked, with signs of torture.” This horrific crime remains unresolved….

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