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HomeArticleTurkey’s Dwindling Christians: A 60-Year Legacy of Expulsion and Denial

Turkey’s Dwindling Christians: A 60-Year Legacy of Expulsion and Denial

Turkey’s Dwindling Christians: A 60-Year Legacy of Expulsion and Denial

Tourists seen near mosaics of the Virgin Mary and Jesus inside the Byzantine Orthodox Church of the St. Saviour in Chora (known as Chora Church) in Istanbul. On May 6, 2024, it reopened as Kariye mosque, after 4 years of restoration. (photo: Valeria Ferraro/SOPA Images / Getty)

 

ANALYSIS: Christians’ status remains precarious in the country that bridges West Asia and Southeast Europe.

This year’s 60th anniversary of one of Turkey’s periodic ethnic cleansing of Christians poses a challenge to the world’s Christians and to a rules-based international order, say experts, while the country’s religio-nationalist government continues to deny a history of genocide but claims to be a secularist state worthy of joining the European Union.

In March 1964, Turkey, a NATO member allied with the United States, decreed that Greek Orthodox Christians living in Istanbul were forced to leave the country within two weeks and only allowed to take a suitcase weighing not more than 44 pounds and cash worth not more than $22 U.S. ($222 in 2024). All Greek citizens living in Turkey were deported, despite being born in the Muslim-majority country and never having visited Greece. Christians of Turkish citizenship followed.

Because the Turkish government took measures to freeze assets and block business transactions, the expelled Christians were uncompensated for abandoned homes and businesses. Properties were appropriated by the Turkish government during this ethnic cleansing, and the seizures continued for more than a year.

By 1965, only about 30,000 of Istanbul’s pre-1964 Greek community of 80,000 remained. This number continued to drop. In an interview with the Register, professor Elizabeth Prodromou of Boston College said, “The Greek Orthodox community in Turkey today lives under conditions of existential vulnerability, related to their miniscule numbers (between 1,700 and 2,000 people), in a population of approximately 90 million, the century-long government policies of violence and nonviolence dedicated to the elimination of the Greek Orthodox population, and the intensified social hostility in Turkey toward ethnic and religious pluralism. Of course, the remarkable indifference of the international human rights and broader policy communities towards these issues aggravates these factors.”

The expulsion of Greeks in 1964 and 1965 were part of the ethnic cleansing by Turks during the Ottoman Empire, which ruled from the 13th century until 1922, and the Republic of Turkey, which continues till this day. Armenian Christians were persecuted by Ottoman authorities during the First World War, leading to the deaths of more than 1 million people, while Chaldean, Greek, Syrian and Assyrian Christians were also targeted. In 1923, the nationalist Turkish government also deported 1.2 million Greek Orthodox Christians, except those living in Istanbul. Then, in 1955, government-sponsored riots against Greeks in the city saw 1,000 injured and as many as 37 deaths. In addition, more than 200 Greek women, girls and boys were raped.

The 1964 ethnic cleansing in Istanbul, which Greeks call Constantinople, came as tensions arose between Turks and Greeks on the nearby island of Cyprus, which became independent of Great Britain in 1960. Fighting between the two communities culminated in Turkey’s threat to invade, which was forestalled by a warning from U.S. President Lyndon Johnson. However, the Turkish army invaded Cyprus in 1974, which divided the island into the Republic of Cyprus and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. Only Turkey recognizes the latter jurisdiction.

The Ecumenical Orthodox Patriarchate is located in Istanbul and led by Patriarch Bartholomew, a frequent visitor to Pope Francis and fellow advocate of ecumenism. Bartholomew serves as a mediator and facilitator among the various Orthodox churches in the world. Turkey interferes with the election of the patriarchs by requiring that they be Turkish citizens, while holding veto power. In 1971, the Turkish government closed the only seminary in the country.

According to Prodromou, Turkey has never apologized for its ethnic cleansing and continues to deny its existence. “They have never wanted to call a genocide a genocide and have refused to pay any compensation or reparations,” she said. Turkey seeks to erase what nationalists regard as a foreign presence, despite the pre-Islamic heritage of Greek speakers living throughout the Middle East. In the interview, she said Turkey’s supposedly secularist government policy wants to satisfy the poor, rural, conservative Muslim constituency of current President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

“Turkey is afraid to open up discussions about genocide because of fears about making reparations,” not only for the genocide of Greeks, but also of Armenians and other Christians, Prodromou said.

Prodromou cited as evidence Turkey’s decision to allow the use of the Hagia Sophia, the world’s largest church, as a mosque rather than as a museum in Istanbul. This is coupled with conversion of the Chora church, which is famed for its Byzantine Christian art, as a mosque on April 6, having until then preserved it as a museum. “I don’t know how they will ever protect and preserve those mosaics,” she said regarding the Chora’s delicate treasures. “That’s one of the reasons why there was a delay in announcing the conversion in 2019. There was literally no response from the international community. And even from the U.N. Economic, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) there were crickets,” she said.

Recalling that the exquisite mosaics lining the Hagia Sophia were plastered over by Muslims after the fall of Constantinople in 1453, Prodromou hopes it will not be Chora’s fate, which dates to the fourth century, long before the schism between the East and West.

The Chora church now lies in a neighborhood dominated by newcomers from the central Anatolian Peninsula, who support President Erdoğan, who has become increasingly Islamist. “Turkey is a mess, which means NATO is a mess, which means the transatlantic alliance is a mess and all of our gibberish about a rules-based international order and universal human rights are rendered a joke,” thus linking Turkish policy towards its minorities to its foreign policy and strategic commitments, explained Prodromou, an expert on religious geopolitics. She has served on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom and the International Relations Group of the International Orthodox Theological Association.

Both Greece and Turkey are members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), which was created in 1949 as a bulwark against the Soviet Union during the Cold War. The U.S. has long emphasized NATO’s cohesion and expansion, with Finland and Sweden as its newest members. In 1964, when Turkey expelled Greeks and invaded Cyprus, neither the U.S. nor other NATO countries resisted, however.

Professor Michael Rossi of Rutgers University told the Register that Turkey’s “denial is comical, considering that most of the primary sources about the Armenian genocide are from late Ottoman documents.” Acknowledging that Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the celebrated founder of modern Turkey, conducted a jihad (war of religion) against Christians, Rossi said that the inheritors of the supposedly secularist government are engaged in “a retroactive deletion of history. Turkey is a well-known example of a country denying its role in genocide.”

In a collection of essays titled “Documenting the Armenian Genocide,” Israeli authors Benny Morris and Dror Ze’evi challenged Turkey’s narrative that the killings were limited to a brief period during the Ottoman regime and led by a small group of fanatics. They wrote: “The destruction of these Christian communities was the deliberate policy of three successive Ottoman and Turkish governments — a policy that most Muslim inhabitants did not oppose, and many enthusiastically supported,” and was egged on by Islamic religious leaders.

Turkey had not allowed the construction of new churches for decades, relenting only in 2023, after the local Catholic Church donated land for a new Syriac Orthodox parish church with mediation from the Vatican and the Ecumenical Patriarchate. Prodromou said that despite this development, Christians’ status remains precarious. She noted the murder of a Catholic priest, Andrea Santoro, in 2006, the arrest and imprisonment of American evangelical pastor Andrew Bunson in 2016, and the shooting death of a parishioner at a Catholic parish in Istanbul in January 2024.

Despite Turkey’s long history of persecuting Christians, Prodromou said, “Most people don’t know, and most policy-makers don’t know. There are Turks with living memory, but they are dying out. Young Turkish students don’t know.”

In more than 20 years of teaching the subject to students from around the world, she said that her Turkish students had been unaware of the genocide of Christians and expulsion of Greeks. She concluded, “When Turkish students find out the details of their country’s history, they are disturbed. They want to live freely in a rule-of-law society. But Turkey is a hard-core totalitarian state with elements of Stalinism with its worship of [President] Erdoğan. They don’t want to live like that.”

 

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