Turkey (MNN) — Not since
the end of World War I have the halls of a politically-sensitive monastery
rung with prayer.
While the Turkish constitution
includes freedom of religion, worship services are only permitted in
"buildings created for this purpose," and officials have restricted
the construction of buildings for minority religions. However, the government appears to have relented on its prohibition on the
monastery, in a gesture of good faith to religious minorities.
Todd Nettleton with Voice of the
Martyrs says that on August 15, "The Greek Orthodox church was allowed to
hold a service in the Sumela monastery which is a quite well-known monastery in
Turkey. This is the first time that
church services have been held in the monastery since Turkey's independence."
Orthodox Christians from Russia, Greece and other countries came for the service. Authorities have also said worship
can take place at the monastery once a year.
It's a boon, considering that all services were previously banned.
Given the recent accounts of the abuse
believers suffer in the country, there are questions as to the motivation of
the sudden change of heart. Nettleton
says the issue may actually be about financial benefits. "We're going to have all of these people from
other countries: they'll come in for this service, they'll bring money and
spend it, so it's good for the economy to have them here."
It's also doubling as a public relations
move. Nettleton explains, "They also
talked about the idea of peace among different religions, which is a nod to the
European Union that Turkey is hoping to join, which, so far, has pointed to the
religious freedom issue as part of the reason they haven't welcomed Turkey."
Roughly 99.8 percent of the population is Muslim, but
there's an interesting dynamic at play. Nettleton says, "Their religious
identity and their national identity are wrapped up in each other. In their minds, to be a Turk is to be a
Muslim," adding that "it is a huge decision for a Turkish person to say, ‘I'm
not going to be a Muslim anymore. I'm going to follow Jesus Christ.'"
It's seen as unpatriotic to leave
Islam, so while evangelism is not specifically forbidden, many prosecutors and
police view it with suspicion. Those
caught "proselytizing" are often arrested and charged with disturbing the
peace, "insulting Islam," or conducting unauthorized educational
Within the last few years, the
harassment has stepped up and turned deadly. In 2007, three Malatya
Christian bookstore workers were brutally murdered. There is still no verdict, and the case resumes this
In 2009, assailants stabbed Gregor
Kerkeling to death. A few months later, another Christian man was openly
threatened because of his missionary activities. Some Christians report heavy pressure from
their families because they openly identify themselves with a church. Some have been beaten. Church
buildings have been vandalized and severely damaged in increasing numbers.
Yet, the hope of Christ is still changing
hearts. A goodwill gesture from the government,
whatever the motivation, is an encouraging move. It keeps the doors open. Pray
for opportunities for Christians in Turkey to share the truth of who Jesus is
with those around them.