In the Shadows of the Minarets

On June 7, the bombast of Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan finally caught up with him. In violation of Turkish campaigning laws, Erdoğan publicly and vehemently warned Turks of the disaster that would ensue in their country if they did not give his party, the AKP, the 367 seats in Parliament necessary to act unilaterally. Had the AKP reached this benchmark, it would have been bad for Turkey, but horrible for Christianity, which is already on life support in Turkey. Erdoğan’s grand vision was to consolidate authority in his own party so he could then change the Turkish constitution, granting himself virtually unlimited executive power. Not only did the AKP fail to gain the requisite seats, they lost seats, even falling below the threshold of 270 needed for one-party rule. For the first time since controlling the Parliament in 2002, Erdoğan and the AKP will have to share power by forming a coalition. Turkish voters made a clear statement in this election: they want to keep their secular republic.

It’s important to understand what “secular” meant in 1923 when modern Turkey was founded. It did not mean, as it does in the West, a ban on all religious expression in the public forum. It meant prohibiting the government of Turkey to acclaim Islam as the national religion. The Turkey we know today was founded by the national military hero Mustafa Kemal Atatürk who set to work immediately dismantling Islamic rule in Anatolia. Among many other reforms, Atatürk abolished the Sultanate (1922); abolished the caliphate and sharia law, ratified the constitution (1924); dispensed with the Islamic calendar in favor of the Gregorian calendar (1925); deleted the constitutional provision making Islam the national religion of Turkey (1928); adopted a modified Latin form of Turkish alphabet (1928); gave women the right to vote and hold office (1934); adopted Sunday as a legal weekly holiday (1935). For Kemal Atatürk, the Father of the Turks, secular meant, unofficially, acknowledging the place of Christianity in the volatile history of Asia Minor.

One sees banners and busts of Atatürk all over the country from Istanbul to Bodrum. It is not coincidental that the huge protests in Taksim Square in 2013 took place under the steady gaze of the Father of the Turks mounted upon the Cumhuriyet Anıtı, or Monument of the Republic. Since taking power in 2002, Erdoğan has been attempting to scuttle Attatürk’s democratic reforms. In doing so, Erdoğan has not only disenfranchised millions of Turks, he has imposed an increasingly authoritarian rule that seeks to effectively bury Christianity under the countless minarets of Islam.

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The Submission of Byzantium
In the Patristic era, Asia Minor was a crucible of Christian theology. The Seven Churches John refers to in Revelation are all here. St. Paul came from Tarsus, the capital of Cilicia near the Syrian border. Antioch was a vibrant Christian community mentioned in Acts. The Cappadocian Fathers and St. John Chrysostom formed Asia Minor into an epicenter of foundational Christian theology during this time. While Christianity was barely scratching the surface in Gaul and Britain and while Julian the Apostate was attempting to resuscitate paganism in the West, the Christological beliefs we now profess weekly at Mass were being formulated in the stalwart sees of Constantinople, Antioch, and Nicea. The way of the Church passes directly through Asia Minor into the western world. Once an indispensable part of Christian Byzantium, the Secular Republic of Turkey is now 99 percent Muslim.

Two years ago I traveled extensively through Turkey visiting interesting sites from the classical past. Every step of the way history seemed to follow the same progression: Hellenistic to Roman to Christian to Muslim. The first three eras seemed to share a quasi-symbiotic relationship. The sacred sites of the Roman era, often quite remarkable architecturally, were revered for their beauty by Christians who understood the pursuit of beauty as a longing for God. Thus, Christians could inhabit the marvelous Greek and Roman temples and reorient them to their proper purpose. Islam, however, was not interested in proselytizing, but submission. Contrary to popular belief, the word “Islam” means submission, not peace. The sacred sites were almost invariably destroyed during the Arab invasions with precious few exceptions, such as Aya Sofia in Istanbul. In Aphrodisias, the beautiful Temple of Aphrodite was begun in the first century B.C., though mosaic fragments suggest Hellenistic origins to this cult center. Later, Christians adapted the structure for their own use in the fifth century, creating a nave and apse. It remained an active church until 1200 A.D. when the Seljuks destroyed it. One sees early depictions of Christian crosses in slabs of marble half buried in the ground.

Enjoying a delicious chicken shish kabob one afternoon in Selçuk, near Ephesus, at a table set up in a narrow street, I thought of St. John and Mary, who settled here after those momentous events in Jerusalem. In the sixth century, Byzantine Emperor Justinian had a grand church built on the site of what was believed to be St. John’s tomb. It was located under the central dome and became one of the most sacred pilgrimage sites in Christendom until Arab raids made Ephesus unsafe. The Seljuk Aydinoglu clan converted the magnificent church into a mosque, just as Mehmed II had done to Aya Sofia in Constantinople, now Istanbul. In 1402, Mongol tribes destroyed the building. The Council of Ephesus met in 431 at the smaller church that existed before Justinian’s project.

Near Ephesus, another vital Christian hub of the early Church, I visited Meryem Ana Evi, or the Mary House. The shrine is a small stone structure high in the hills built upon the site where, tradition says, Mary lived and died. There are a few reasons to believe the tradition. The first church in the world known to be dedicated to Mary was established here. Further, the ecumenical council of Ephesus in 431 promulgated the dogma of Mary as theotokos. There is also the oral testimony of the villagers of Kirkince, the spiritual descendants of the Christians of Ephesus, which acclaims the Dormition of Mary here. Three popes have visited the site: Paul VI, St. John Paul II, and Benedict XVI. This is holy ground that, somehow, evaded the ravages of Islam. The gifts the Pontiffs left are on display. As I pondered these things, I noticed an enormous mosque at the end of the street. The structure looked new and seemed too big for the town it dominated. Mary and John now are also in the shadows of the minarets.

In Hieropolis, the big attraction for classical history buffs is the Plutonion, the black opening filled with noxious fumes, of which Strabo wrote, that leads into the dreaded Hades of ancient myth. There is also an impressive Roman theater with an elaborate skene erected under Roman Emperor Severinus in 60 A.D. The skene was collapsed by an earthquake but has since been almost completely restored. Here, too, Christianity enters the drama of Rome. About 150 yards north of the theater, St. Phillip established a church. It had long been believed that he died here, but his tomb had never been found until just a few months prior to my arrival. Again, the question came to mind. Why does Christianity lie in ruins here while Islam marches on? Another question underlies this one. The Church Fathers notwithstanding, how Christian was Asia Minor?

How Christian was Asia Minor?
Until Constantine’s Edict of Milan brought Christianity officially out of the hiddenness of their house churches and underground cemeteries, the Church was a disparate collection of mostly unnoticed oddballs, particularly in the west. It was not long after his edict that Constantine I moved the imperial capital from Rome to Byzantium, renaming it New Rome, and inserting himself into ecclesial matters. Bishops, unused to thinking politically, were unprepared for the clamor of the imperial court. By the time Constantine’s son Constantius assumed control of the empire, Christians found themselves caught up in ongoing political intrigues within the Roman government. As John Morris states in his interesting book The Age of Arthur:

Yet the early Christians were ill-prepared for premature success. In 312, civil war made Constantine emperor of the west. As men realised that the new ruler was a devout Christian, bishops were bewildered by sudden promotion from the status of furtive sectaries to that of influential government advisors, and veteran confessors mistrusted the mass of new converts who embraced the emperor’s religion. The body of simple Christians was confused, for the rival partisans of innumerable discords within the empire, social, regional, and political, all learned to argue in a Christian idiom, and to discover that some older trend in Christian thought served their interest. (Emphasis mine.)

The desire for unity was strong throughout the Byzantine world and the powers at work in the Roman governmental structure did not hesitate to use Christianity as a means of achieving that end. This is in part what allowed the Arian crisis to fester for so long.

By the time the “red whirlwind of the desert” swept through Anatolia in the seventh and eighth centuries, it found Christianity a house divided. The constant theological debates, excommunications, deposings, and intrigues made unity difficult and left Christians in the region confused. Theological discord was compounded by Imperial interference. Consequently, the simple promises of Islam—one God, bread, and protection—seemed adequate for those whose faith may have been as a barren fig tree. We don’t talk about the martyrs of the Arab invasions. We only talk about the martyrs of the Roman persecutions. The only meaningful resistance to the militant Islamafication of this region came from Europe, not Asia Minor. Byzantine prelates were right to be suspicious of the sudden increase of conversions.

Prior to my Anatolian odyssey, I had assumed the influence of Christianity would be more obvious in Turkey. Yet, as the miles rolled by, the question pressed me ever more insistently. How is it possible that a region so crucial to the spread of Christianity to the West could now be almost bereft of any evidence of its Christian past, except in the ruins that lie alongside the rubble of Rome?

State Funding of Mosque Building
Throughout the country I saw innumerable spires atop minarets. Looking across the landscape one sees them everywhere thrusting upward into the sky like missiles. One is hard pressed to find a steeple lifting high the cross. There were so many mosques present everywhere I went that it began to seem more than a manifestation of Turkish devotion. Moreover, the mosques throughout Turkey are large; many are enormous. The funding needed to build these structures must be incredible. In Istanbul, there are huge mosques not more than 100 meters apart in some places. In this “New York City of Turkey,” I finally found a Catholic church that was still active at St. Anthony’s along Istiklal Street near Taksim Square, where protests were still taking place. A kindly, hoary-headed Slovenian priest who had studied for a time in Chicago patiently listened to my frustration.

Nodding slightly with a smile of resignation, he told me that for the past three years, the government had been funding a mosque building campaign. Additionally, the imam at each mosque is on the government payroll. This would be like the U.S. government paying Catholic pastors at each parish. This lead to an obvious follow up question: In a nation where only 30 percent of the population regularly pay taxes, where does the money come from? The answer, mostly, is Saudi Arabia. Of course, the minority religions like Judaism and Christianity do not receive any government funding. While I was speaking to this priest, he suddenly fell into an awkward silence. A few moments later he explained that a “spy” had come over near us to eavesdrop. Apparently, this is a regular occurrence. Along with his corruption, Erdoğan’s paranoia is growing each year, too.

Of Turkey’s 70,000,000 people, about 22,000 are Jewish and 100,000 are Christian; approximately 30,000 of these are Catholic. These Catholics continue to petition the government to return St. Paul’s Church to them for worship. St. Paul’s was confiscated by the government in 1943 and now serves as a museum. There has been a great deal of property confiscated from Christians over the decades. Now that Turkey wants into the EU, the latter is pressing for a legal framework for returning confiscated property to its rightful owners. But, as Europe has been doing all it can to eradicate its own Christian heritage, it seems unlikely that Erdoğan will be persuaded. Two Italian Catholic priests were killed in Turkey within the past 8 years. Few in Europe or the U.S. lifted an eyebrow.

I have to admit that as the miles rolled by on my long journey through Anatolia all those pointed minarets began to take on a menacing aspect. I began to feel angry, as though something had been robbed, corrupted. What had been robbed was the Christian heritage of this deeply fascinating region. What was corrupted was the whole story of Asia Minor, of which Christianity is an integral component. The countless mosques with their government funding indicate the closing of the modern Islamic mind to anything like truth, goodness, and beauty, demanding unquestioning submission instead. The mosques are a propaganda campaign meant to delete centuries of history from the common memory, while also providing Erdoğan with handy evidence of his zeal for fashioning an Islamic autocracy, which pleases his peers in the region. President Erdoğan, while presenting a “progressive” face to the west, seeks to tighten further his grip within Turkey, controlling the media, brutally quashing protests, imprisoning scholars, artists, and writers, doctoring election results, spying on churches, and surreptitiously trying to incite Syria into war. He allows arms and ISIS recruits to pass freely across the Syrian border. Islamists in Turkey, finding a friend in Erdoğan, are now demanding the Turkish Parliament re-establish Aya Sofia as a mosque. If they succeed, beautiful centuries old Christian artwork will once again be lost.

The Turks have rejected Erdoğan, and, while this may be good for democracy, it remains to be seen if it will be good for Turkish Christians. Turkey seems to be supplanting Attatürk’s understanding of “secular republic” with a thoroughly western interpretation. The protest’s humanist movement, like that in Egypt and Syria, lacks the teleological framework that gives substance to the moral imperatives of Christian humanism. While there is always hope in the cross, there are no solutions in the shadows of the minarets.

Editor’s note: The image above, titled “Prayer on the Rooftop” was painted by Jean Leon Gerome in 1865.


  • Tom Jay

    Tom Jay is Academy Dean at a charter school in Scottsdale, Arizona. He also teaches Latin I to fifth graders. Prior to his current position, he taught junior high at a parochial school in the Diocese of Phoenix. Tom is a graduate of the University of Dallas and also holds a Master in Humanities with a Concentration in Classical Education from UD.

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