Turkey: “A Church with open doors” in an Islamic society
Even though Christianity has a tradition of nearly 2,000 years in Turkey; today, after various waves of persecution, There are almost not any Christian in the country. Yet the archbishop of Izmir the West of country, Mons. Martin Kmetec reminds that “Turkey is where the first church was born”, in the west of the country.
Christianity in Turkey has a long tradition. Before the First World War, the territory of the former Ottoman Empire still had about 30% Christians. Today, it is estimated that around 0.2% of the Turkish population is Christian. In the archdiocese of Izmir, the country’s third city near by the Aegean Sea, the population of Christians is around 5,000. Archbishop of Izmir, Mons Martin states, “If we add migrants and refugees who live around city center of Izmir or in other big cities, it will be a little more. They mainly live in the city centers of Izmir and in other big cities”. The Archbisop Martin Kmetec originally from Slovenia and belongs to Order of Conventual Minor Friars. He worked in Lebanon almost eleven years then came to Turkey to live in 2001. In 2020, His Holiness Pope Francis appointed him Archbishop of Izmir. “We have communities in Konya, Antalya and other cities on the coast. Our Archdiocese is very large; its territory covers approximately 100,000 km2. Konya is the furthest parish, it is 550 kilometers far from Izmir; and Antalya, which is located about 450 kilometers away is on the southern coast of Turkey. There are too much distances here. “
Can you freely proclaim the faith?
Archbishop Martin Kmetec:
– Giving testimony for life and fraternal life is a priority for me as a Franciscan. Saint Francis said that the Word should be preached in every occasion. We are trying to do this on social media and on the new Archdiocesan website. We try to be actively involved and to be a living church. Our mission is to become a Church with open doors. For this reason, all of our churches are open to the public at certain times. Sometimes there is mass or liturgy. There is always someone on hand to greet visitors and provide information if they have any questions. This is our way of evangelism in this situation.
The first church was born in here among the nations. Also the first ecumenical councils which marked the Catholich faith took place in this region that is known as Turkey nowadays.
Once Turkey was a secular country, now is currently experiencing an Islamic renaissance. Are Christians experience any discrimination due to their belief?
– I would not say that Christians experience any discrimination generally. However, there may be some negative experiences in dealing with authorities or administrative services. In Turkey, the Catholic Church is not recognize as a legal entity. Nevertheless, if we talk about dialogue, I would say that there is a dialogue of life. Fro example Caritas Organization is a part of our Church, of our Archdiocese. There are Caritas Offices in every dioceses and they help everyone both Christians and Muslims and all those need help. We also meet the imams of our region in various occasion, for example on “Brotherhood Day”. I went to the mayor of the city with some of priests and had an occasion to offer a gift: the Turkish translation of Pope Francis’ encyclical Fratelli tutti. The encyclical Laudato si’, which deals with environmental issues that affect all of humanity, has also been translated into Turkish.
Is there an ecumenical dialogue in Turkey?
We have generally good relationships with the other Christian Churches. The Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, His Beatitude Bartholomew I, maintains good relations with the Focolare Movement and the new Apostolic Vicar of Istanbul, Bishop Massimiliano Palinuro. In Izmir, we also meet the Orthodox Churches, but also the Anglican ones, on various Christian holidays. Recently, Armenian priests celebrated an Armenian liturgy in our Catholic Church of Saint Polycarp, because they do not have their own church in Izmir. We also collaborated with the Armenians of Izmir to open a small bookstore for the Bible Society. So there are good signs of ecumenical dialogue.
Turkey is a very popular country for vacationers. Is it important for Christians visiting Turkey, also visit Christian churches?
Yes, it is very important. I would like to remind them that the origins of our faith are here. Here was born the first Church among the nations. The first ecumenical councils, which marked the Catholic faith, took place in this territory, now it is known as Turkey. The mission for Europe was born here. We have a German priest who takes care of the Catholics of German origin living here to support our pastoral activities. I would be happy if we could find another priest to serve the other communities, at least in the summer during the tourist season. But it also requires a financial support. Perhaps the European Council of Episcopal Conferences could think of ways to help us.