On Sunday 28 May, President Erdogan emerged victorious for another term after elections in Turkey. He has been president since 2014, and was previously prime minister of Turkey from 2003 to 2014. The country is currently number 41 on the World Watch List – so what does Erdogan’s win mean for persecuted Christians in Turkey? We spoke with an Open Doors persecution analyst to find out.
Was this win a big surprise?
“No, but his clear win in the first round was. It’s clear that the opinion pollsters have failed to grasp the support Erdogan still has. But we shouldn’t be totally surprised: in every election in the past years, including the constitutional referendum in 2017, when Erdogan’s name was on the ballot paper, he won – despite high levels of optimism among the opposition.
“However, due to the very high inflation, and the slow response to the devastating earthquake, which turned out so deadly (partly) because building standards had not been enforced, it was clear Erdogan was probably at his most vulnerable point in his two-decade reign.
“But his narrative about a strong and independent Turkey, free from foreign influences, won from the Western-focused narrative of Kilicdaroglu [his opponent]. One source told me that even Turks in the earthquake hit area voted for Erdogan, because they believe he is the strongman with the means to quickly rebuild the area.
“Having said that, Kilicdaroglu did very well, especially given the media environment which is dominated by AKP-leaning broadcasters, in addition to strict controls on social media and the internet (e.g., blocking of opposition websites).”
How are Christians and other religious minorities likely to greet this news?
“Turkish Christians in the first place signal that they respect the Turkish government and obey Turkish law, and that they view the government as God-given, in line with Romans 13, whoever leads the country.
“As an analyst, I would say that the strong religious-nationalist narrative Erdogan promotes does not leave much space for religious minorities to have a public role and voice. One should not underestimate the influence of Turkish nationalism. In this narrative, a ‘real’ Turk is a Sunni Muslim. So, if you are a Kurd, an Armenian or a Syriac, you will be viewed with suspicion at best. If you are an ethnic Turk, but you converted to Christianity, you equally will face societal opposition.”
What could this mean for the church in coming years?
“Erdogan will likely continue his current path, which means that religious minorities will keep feeling like outsiders in Turkish society. At the same time, one should be aware that Turkey is very diverse, like the nearly 48% support for Kilicdaroglu showed, and that individual Christians can have (very) different experiences being Christian in Turkey, depending on family and societal environment. It is not likely that the position of religious minorities will now deteriorate strongly, although no improvement in their current, rather bad, status should be expected either.”
What has happened to religious freedom while he has been in charge?
“In his first years in the 2000s, Erdogan actually had a pro-European agenda which allowed religious people, including Christians, more space. It was the time that government officials were willing to listen to church leaders. However, this has all changed, especially following Erdogan’s coalition with the ultranationalist MHP in 2015 and the coup in 2016, which was the start of a crackdown on all dissenting voices, and which has led to significant deterioration of all freedoms, especially political, in general.
“For the Protestant community, the real blow came with the security designations and entry bans for mostly Western Christians. In the last five years, around 80 people received such a designation, which has heavily affected the people involved and the communities they are/were part of.”
How many Christians are there left in Turkey?
“According to the World Christian Database, 170,000 are left in the country (0.2%), down from more than 20% of the population before the Armenian Genocide. Most of those Christians are Armenian Apostolic or Syriac Orthodox, next to other Christians from an Orthodox background (Greek, Ukrainian, Russian, Bulgarian).”
What is the state of the church in Turkey at the moment?
“The Protestant churches continue to face legal challenges, including not being recognised as ‘religious congregations’. This creates lots of practical difficulties when dealing with authorities, trying to rent a place to worship or opening bank accounts (which is impossible). Zoning requirements are regularly used to prevent official recognition of buildings used as a church as ‘places of worship’. Official seminary training is forbidden for all denominations and the Greek Orthodox Halki Seminary, which was closed in the ’70s, remains closed till this day.
“Although the number of Christians from a historical background is probably further dwindling due to migration, some local growth has been reported as well. The Protestant community has seen steady growth in the recent past.”
What will it mean for Christians overseas, in places like Syria and Iraq?
“In 2019, Turkey invaded parts of northern Syria to create a buffer zone with Turkey. Turkey made use of Arab groups, including radical Islamic fighters, who now control the area. Due to the violent and radical nature of these groups, most Christians have fled the area. During 2022, Erdogan suggested several times to further increase this safety zone, which would put an even larger group of Christians at risk, but this has not happened so far.
“In the north of Iraq, Turkish forces regularly conduct both airstrikes and ground operations, allegedly targeting members of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). In recent years, these attacks hit predominantly Christian villages as well, causing severe damage to civilian property and forcing many Christians to flee, leading to the emptying of these communities. These attacks are likely to continue.”
Please keep praying for our persecuted church family in Turkey
Although no Christians were killed in Turkey during the past twelve months, a higher number of church buildings were damaged, desecrated, converted into mosques or otherwise attacked. During the past year, Christian asylum seekers and refugees, including converts from Islam from Iran, Afghanistan, Syria and other nations, are facing very high levels of discrimination and abuse.
Please pray that the Lord will bring good from Erdogan’s appointment, and that the church will be strengthened to continue sharing the gospel and be a light in the nation.
Lord Jesus, we pray that You would comfort those who are feeling dismayed at the election result and revive their hope for the future. Help the church to continue to champion the widow, the orphan and the refugee. May the love and witness of believers draw many others to You. And grant wisdom and compassionate leadership to Erdogan and his government – help them to see the value of Christians in Turkey and increase religious freedom in the country. Amen.
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