Believers were first called Christians in Antioch, Turkey (Acts Chapter 11, verse 26). It was the appropriate place. Antioch was the homebase for missionary journeys by Paul. Theologians believe Antioch was where the Gospel of Matthew was written. It was home for the martyred Bishop Ignatius, the eloquent preacher John Chrysostom and among the teachers and prophets in the Antioch church were Simeon and Barnabas. That’s a rich pedigree.
Turkey is a key geographic location for ancient Christianity but the faith is under growing pressure. Turkey shows signs of imposing more and more restrictions on the church. The seven churches addressed by John in the Book of Revelation were all located in Turkey. They provide an insight for us as we discern the trends today.
Although government press releases tried to distance Erdogan from the Third Reich, his ambitions seem obvious. Simon Tisdall writing for the Guardian said: “Erdoğan, the founding leader of the neo-Islamist Justice and Development party (AKP), has ruled Turkey in increasingly authoritarian fashion since becoming prime minister in 2003. Barred under party rules from seeking a fourth term, he switched to the presidency last August and has been manoeuvring to increase his executive powers ever since.” (Erdogan Plan for Super-Presidency puts Turkey’s democracy at Stake, Simon Tisdall, the Guardian, March 25, 2016)
After the military coup the Erdogan regime rounded up an estimated 60,000 said to be part of the failed attempt. Among the 60,000 are judges, soldiers, police, civil servants and teachers. Turkey today exists under a militant state of emergency.
In this tense situation attacks against Christians have escalated to alarming levels “Shouting “Allahu akbar” (Allah is the greatest), a group of Islamists in Malatya stoned a Protestant church, breaking the buildings windows. Another group in Trabzon similarly attacked the Santa Maria church, breaking windows and using hammers to try to break down the door” William Reed reported for the Clarion Project. (www.clarionproject.org)
Attacks on Christians have been brutal. In 2006 a priest was murdered while kneeling in prayer in his church. The following year Christians working for a publishing house had their feet and hands tied and their throats cut by five Muslim assailants.
Last April, six churches in Diyarbakir, were seized by the government. Officials said this was for their own protection.
“But to the dismay of the city’s handful of Christian congregations,” notes a World Watch Monitor report, “this includes all its Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant churches. Unlike the state-funded mosques, Turkey’s ancient church buildings – some of which pre-date Islam – have been managed, historically, by church foundations. The new decision has effectively made the Diyarbakir churches – one 1,700 years old, another built only in 2003 – state property of Turkey, an Islamic country of 75 million.”
Uzay Bulut, is a Turkish journalist based in Ankara. Her work focuses on anti-Semitism and ethnic and religious minorities in Turkey. Last April she reported on a large mosque financed by Turkey in Maryland, USA, while ‘Christians in Turkey are waiting for the day Turkish state authorities allow them to freely build or use their churches and safely pray inside them.’
“In Turkey, some churches have been converted to stables or used as storehouses. Others have been completely destroyed. Sales of churches on the internet are a common practice,” she wrote (Turkey Builds Mega-Mosque in U.S., Blocks Churches in Turkey – Uzay Bulut, Gladstone Institute. April 18, 2016)
“Sadly, Turkey, a NATO member since 1952 and reportedly a candidate for membership in the European Union, has largely succeeded in destroying the entire Christian cultural heritage of Asia Minor.” Bulut wrote.
“Some citizens put their cows and horses inside the church, while the inhabitants of the neighborhood complain that the church has been turned into a site of drug addicts and alcoholics,” reported the newspaper Milliyet. The church mentioned here was located in the Izmir province, home of ancient Smyrna. The Apostle John wrote to Smyrna prophetically, “This message is from Him who is the First and the Last, who died and came back to life….I know your tribulation and your poverty (but you are rich) ….Do not fear what you are about to suffer….Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life.” (Revelation chapter 2, verses 8-10)
Those words from so long ago ring with relevance today. The name Smyrna means myrrh or bitterness.
The seven churches are Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamos, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea. Each letter was addressed to a specific church for the benefit of real people who faced daily, persistent challenges. The advice these letters convey speaks powerfully to all believers.
John is told to reveal his revelation. “Do not seal up the words of the prophecy of this book, because the time is near.” (Revelation chapter 22, verse 10)
The evidence from Turkey speaks volumes. Church buildings lay in ruins. Most are ancient sites for future research. But the message preached by Paul, Barnabas, Simeon and their peers is alive and winning hearts and souls beyond borders and boundaries.
The theme throughout the letters is clear. Judgment is real. The cares of this life and the world we live in may try with menace and manipulation to drown out the truths of faith. It is imperative we see beyond the deception and focus on the reality of the real living freedom and power.
The world system may swamp our symbols and centres of faith but it cannot conquer a heart which is with the Lord, no matter what!
Ron Ross is a Middle East consultant for United Christian Broadcasters (Vision FM). Previously he was radio news editor for Bridges for Peace in Jerusalem, Israel.
His career started at WINTV (Email: email@example.com)
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