By Sam Martyn
The population of Turkey is more than 99% Muslim. At least that is how Turkey wants to be understood officially. The reality, of course, is much more complicated. Atheists and non-religious secularists make up a significant percentage, as do heterodox groups such as Turkey’s very large Alevi population. One minority that did all but vanish nearly 100 years ago, however, was Turkey’s Eastern Orthodox population. It remains only as an echo, as a memory in the minds of a generation that shrinks substantially with every passing year. But for a few regions in Turkey, that faint trace continues to influence Islamic folk belief and practice.
In 1923, the Republic of Turkey was founded from the remains of the Ottoman Empire. The Turkish empire had stretched from the Balkans, through Anatolia and the Levant, and across northern Africa. The new Turkish republic, by contrast, was limited roughly to the region of Anatolia. During the the Ottoman period, ethnic and religious minorities lived side by side with their Turkish Muslim neighbors in Anatolia for centuries. This Ottoman synthesis is often romanticized, with some going so far as to depict the Ottoman empire as having been a glorious cosmopolitan utopia. Though the reality is that Christians and other minorities occupied a clear second class status in the empire, these disparate groups had in fact carved out a relatively peaceful coexistence. European travel narratives describe a strange syncretism that had developed between Islam and Christianity, particularly in the more rural area areas having a large Christian population. Travelers reported observing people attending the mosque on Friday and some of the same people attending church on Sundays. This was especially true of so called, “crypto-Christians.” Because of the incentives offered for conversion to Islam, such as tax exemptions, some Orthodox Christians publicly identified as Muslims while retaining their Christian traditions and practices in private. Even among those whose religious identity was more defined, it was not uncommon for Muslims to ask their Orthodox neighbors to make appeals for them through the mediation of some saint or to relay an offering to the church in hopes that a prayer might be answered. This Ottoman world in general and this syncretism in particular is beautifully described in Louis de Brenières carefully researched novel, Birds without Wings.
Following the Ottoman defeat in World War I and the subsequent Turkish War of Independence to expel from Anatolia the allied powers that had defeated the Ottomans, the Republic of Turkey was established. The new Republic set on an intensely nationalistic program of ethnic and religious homogenization. The ideal citizen in the new Republic was both ethnically Turkish and religiously Sunni. The new government arranged for population exchanges with Greece whereby Turkish Muslims in Greece and Greek Christians in Turkey (though many of the Christians forced to leave did not even speak Greek, and vice versa) would be exchanged and resettled. From a bureaucratic perspective, the arrangement must have seemed sensible enough, but one must imagine the trauma it represented for families and whole villages that were uprooted after generations and centuries.
Before the founding of the republic and exchanges, the Black Sea coast of Turkey was one Anatolian region that had a sizable Christian minority. Christians even comprised the majority in many towns. There was even growing evangelical protestant presence. The American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM) had established Anatolian College at Merzifon for the training of ministers. The town of Fatsa in the province of Ordu reportedly included a Protestant congregation of more than 70 families. That congregation still exists in the city of Thessalonica in Greece. Today, there are less than 200 known believers across the Black Sea region, and most of those are evangelical Protestants that have come to faith in the last 30 years. Still, vestiges of its earlier religious character remain.
The region is haunted by the former presence of its Christian population, especially its Eastern Orthodox population. Traveling the coastal area, one encounters church buildings dotting its towns and cities. Many stand empty and abandoned. Others have been repurposed for use as museums, art galleries, theaters, and mosques. One sees little outward evidence of the kind of syncretism that was common in the Ottoman period, but there are reports that it persists privately. Reported practices include hanging a cross or a picture of Mary or some other saint over the bed of one who is sick, and drinking wine (forbidden in Islam) from an old communion chalice for healing. Relics like these, leftover from the region’s past, appear to be quite plentiful in Turkey’s Black Sea region. My own neighbor keeps a rather large wooden, rustic icon recovered from an Armenian church in his home. In a small evangelical congregation in one Black Sea coastal city, otherwise conservative Muslims come regularly with their entire families to request prayer for healing or for favor in finding work. Occasionally Turkish Muslims will come asking for help with a case of suspected demon possession, a situation for which Christians are especially remembered as having expertise.
Despite the nationalizing efforts of the Turkish state over the last century to paint Christianity as foreign and a threat, the collective memory of a world “before the Christians left” endures. A very small few can remember having Christian neighbors, but later generations have heard stories from their grandfathers and grandmothers. Their presence, though no longer physical, continues to linger in spiritual practice.