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Turkey: showing the way

Turkish pastor Zekai Tanyar is a former chair of the Evangelical Alliance in his country. He spoke to Lindsay Shaw of SAT-7 about the current situation of Turkey’s Protestant Churches

Lindsay Shaw

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Christian humanitarian relief among Yazidi and Syrian refugees | photo: Gokhan Talas/SAT-7

LS: How are current events affecting the church in Turkey?
The problems in Syria and Iraq haven’t had negative effects on the church apart from seeing so much human suffering. There are 1.8 million refugees from Syria and Iraq in Turkey. Some of the churches in South Eastern Turkey – around Diyarbikir, Mardin and Van – took a very active role in channelling humanitarian aid to refugees, particularly Yazidis. There are only three to four churches in this vast area, so their efforts have been tremendous. They have left many church activities aside to help these desperate people.

The amount of help for Yazidis from the government was limited, so we organised ourselves as churches to deliver aid given by churches locally and from abroad. The aid is still continuing. Currently we’re helping some of the refugees from Kobane at a huge camp of around 30,000 people in Suruç.

Outside of that there’s gradual growth in all of the fellowships; some new ones popping up here and there. It’s very different from the early 1980s, when the number of Protestant fellowships was a handful in a country three times the size of Britain. But even now in Eastern Turkey, the size of Britain, there are only six or seven churches and they are very small fellowships.

LS: This year marks 100 years since the mass deportations of Turkey’s Armenian population. How have Turkey’s Protestant churches responded to this?
The good thing is that the atrocities have been written and talked about much more in the last 15 years in Turkish society as a whole. Some authors have publicly said this was a genocide and, praise God, there is much more openness to discuss it. More and more biographies are coming out, describing how people have discovered that their grandmother or some ancestor was Armenian – they were taken in and assimilated by Muslim Turkish families.

As Protestant churches we are a mix of Muslim Background Believers (MBBs) and Armenian Evangelical churches. We’ve always related closely and there is no animosity at all as far as churches and believers are concerned.

The wonderful thing is there have also been steps to find reconciliation with Armenian churches outside Turkey. We recently had a gathering in Istanbul with about 20 church leaders from US Protestant Armenian Evangelicals and about 20 or so from Armenia. We had a couple of days of real reconciliation, forgiving and asking forgiveness, acknowledging hatred.

We estimate there are currently around 100 Protestant churches throughout the country. About 50% of them are house fellowships. Others will have some sort of meeting place, most often a rented shop floor or an office. A new law since 2005 allows churches to register as associations and there are now around 30 of these. Before that the churches had no legal identity as such, but both our efforts as churches and stipulations from the EU prompted Turkey to change its laws.

LS: How can SAT-7’s arrival on Turkey’s satellite TV system, Turksat, help change the negative perceptions about Christianity?
It’s a major step. It’s going to help to chip away at the prejudice. Things won’t change overnight. We’re talking of centuries of prejudices and fears, but every time people see and hear and think, ‘Oh, I didn’t know that’, ‘I didn’t see Christians like that’, it helps. I’m sure that for some people it will go further and make them seek the Lord by hearing Bible truth.

SAT-7 presents not only the New Testament but also teaching on it. So looking back, you will probably see a major step up in responses to the gospel in coming years in the same way that in the 1980s a new translation of the Bible saw a step up in numbers of believers.

Also we are quite sure there are lots of secret believers out there, so it will help to strengthen them.

LS: Can you describe the journeys of people in your church to overcome the stigmas associated with coming to Christ?
Generally it’s easier for the men. They can stick their necks out more, whereas in these conservative societies the woman is under the jurisdiction of the father or older brother. Very often people will not rush home and tell. Initially, they will keep it quiet and make excuses as to why they are going out on a Sunday. Then sometimes they will quote from the Bible in a conversation to hint at what’s happened. Those who are more courageous might say: ‘Hey, I’m reading this’ or ‘I’m researching this’.

We encourage them to let the family see the changes in their lives and their love. I think of one case of a man who’s now a church leader. His whole behaviour towards his wife changed. He had treated her roughly before, but she was very much against his converting. We asked her, ‘Do you want him to go back to his old ways?’ She said, ‘No, no, he’s a good husband and father now, he doesn’t beat me; but does he have to be a Christian to do that?’ That’s how people think, but in time she also became a believer.

There are sons and daughters who are threatened or thrown out by their families. We’ve had cases where girls are studying at university and the family has stopped their education for a while because they feared they couldn’t control who they mixed with.

There’s always that initial strong reaction and it’s a case of remaining faithful to the Lord and showing love towards the family at the same time. Families hurt. It’s understandable: they feel they are losing their son or daughter and our aim is not to hurt our families, so it’s a hard thing to balance. It’s a case of going slowly and praying that their hearts will change.

Often families won’t sit and try to convince the convert or ask what there is that isn’t in their own religion. It’s more an issue of ‘What shame you have brought to us’! You are now seen as a traitor to the whole family and to the nation because of this inextricable link between your national and religious identity. That’s the issue – what are we going to tell the family, the relatives. It’s a shame-based culture and your identity is as a Muslim and a Turk.

So the challenges in a Turkish church are more complex than in the typical UK congregation. I’m not an expert on the UK, but you have your challenges, especially for young people and the way the media is aggressively anti-faith. But whether you’re in the East or the West the real issue is: ‘Is your God real?’ That should be the challenge for any conversation. ‘OK, you’re telling me this, but is it real?’

LS: Of what does your ministry consist?
I was chairman of the equivalent of the Evangelical Alliance in Turkey. My wife and I also pastored a church for 30 years and we also have a secular job for our income. We handed over the leadership of our church this last summer to a wonderful ‘younger’ team. But basically ministry consists of loving people and encouraging them to love God and one another. It involves sensitive evangelism, building people in their faith, helping people to understand that the values of God and the gospel are different from those they may have inherited. We have to help them to rethink their attitudes to daily issues, whether it’s work, school, marriage, whatever.

It’s that whole thing in Romans 12 of renewing your mind. We’re coming to people from a society that hasn’t had Christian input (even if sometimes that’s a veneer) for centuries. So the church is there to help, to weep with those who weep, to rejoice with those who rejoice, to make sure we become a family of believers and not just churchgoers. People who come to Christ are losing a lot of their family so it’s seeing that they are brought into God’s love and the living out of this love.

For more information about SAT-7 TÜRK and SAT-7’s Arabic, Farsi and children’s channels broadcasting to 15 million viewers across the Middle East and North Africa, visit www.sat7uk.org