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Fact Sheet: Turkey

Fact Sheet: Turkey

Capital: Ankara
Chief Cities: Ankara, Istanbul, Izmir
Population: 51.8 million (1986 est.); Agriculture – 58%, industry and commerce – 17%, Services – 25%
Languages: Turkish, Kurdish, Arabic
Government: Republic
Chief religions: Muslim (primarily Sunni), Christianity and Judaism
Natural resources: Coal, chromite, copper, boron and oil

Originally known as Asia Minor, Turkey was the site of Christianity’s evolution from obscure sect to state religion.

After the legalization of Christianity in 310 A.D., Constantine the Great partitioned the Roman Empire into halves. Rome served as the political capital of the West and the eastern city of Byzantium, later renamed Constantinople in honor of its founder, became the hub of the future Byzantine Empire.

Located on the trade routes between Asia and Europe, Constantinople developed into a major political, religious and economic power. Merchants and ambassadors from every realm in the known world passed through its impressive gates. There they created small communities similar to those they left behind.

Known for its intrigue, Istanbul, as it is now called, is a cosmopolitan city Though the majority of the population is Muslim, small groups of Christians continue to worship in their small, crumbling churches, relics of the city’s Byzantine past.

Following are the Christian populations still remaining in Turkey:

Though its Greek Christian community was decimated in the early 20th century, Istanbul formally remains the center of Eastern Orthodoxy. The Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, the symbolic leader of Orthodoxy, resides in the Greek district known as the Phanar. In the patriarchal cathedral, no longer the majestic Haghia Sophia but rather the unassuming church of St. George, rituals dating back to the fifth century are celebrated with marked solemnity Today, only 3,000 Orthodox Christians are left in the whole of Turkey.

In July, the current patriarch, Dimitrios I, will make a pastoral visit to his faithful in North America, the first such visit by an ecumenical patriarch.

Despite centuries of repression, their ancient culture remains alive in the sturdy hearts of the 50,000 Armenians scattered throughout Turkey. The latest wave of persecution occurred in 1915 when more than 1.5 million Armenians were massacred. Today, the Armenian community in Istanbul struggles to exist, its influence and size slowly disintegrating.

On December 20, 1989, in a rare meeting, the late Armenian Apostolic Patriarch of Constantinople, Archbishop Shnork Kaloustian, presented a list of problems and possible solutions concerning the Armenian community to Yildirim Arbulut, the Premier of Turkey and Turgud Ozal, the President.

Among others, they include the right for the Armenian Apostolic Church to possess land and the return of all church holdings taken after 1936 by the Turkish government.

Following the brutal excesses of the Russian Revolution and Civil War, more than 60,000 White Russian refugees poured into Istanbul seeking asylum. For many it was the beginning of a long journey that took them to Yugoslavia, Berlin, Paris and finally New York. Others stayed in “Tsargrad,” the “City of the Tsars,” as the Russians formerly called Istanbul.

Many of these Russians worshipped in St. Stephans of the Bulgars, an unusual prefabricated church built in 1871. The church continues to serve the city’s Slavic Orthodox community.

There are also several Catholic communities in and around Istanbul. The earliest group came in 1261 from Genoa, Italy, after Constantinople was recaptured by the Byzantines from the soldiers of the Fourth Crusade.

The Genoese enjoyed almost complete autonomy within the Byzantine capital. They were ruled by a governor selected by the senate of Genoa, spoke their native language and worshipped in their own churches.

In modern Istanbul this Italian community continues to cling to their faith and identity. Called “Zevantines” by the Turks, these people still attend Mass in Italian in the Gothic Franciscan Church of St Anthony of Padua.

On the banks of the Bosphorus is the Polish colony of Polonezkoy Polish Catholics, lead by Adam Czartorski, helped defend Turkey in the Crimean War in 1854. Following the war, Sultan Abdul Mecit I, in recognition of their service, granted them land as a refuge from Tsarist repression. Polnezkoy, with its horses, orchards and fields, reflects 19th century Poland.

Today more than 5,000 Roman Catholics are scattered throughout Turkey.

Several other Christian groups
are also represented in Istanbul. Bulgarian, Chaldean (approximately 2,000 believers in the whole of Turkey), Maltese and Syrian (around 12,000 believers) communities continue to embrace their traditions and faiths. Like the larger Christian communities, they too struggle to survive.

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