Greek Orthodox divers find a cross thrown into the Golden Horn on the feast of Epiphany. (photo: Mustafa Ozer/AFP/Getty Images)
Turkey is a secular democratic state — two-thirds of which occupies the Anatolian peninsula — and is overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim. Yet, 1,700 years ago it was where Christianity evolved from an obscure sect to the dominant world religion it is today. Constantine the Great, the first Roman emperor to embrace the Gospel, moved his capital from Rome to a more central location in Anatolia, choosing the Greek town of Byzantium to build his Christian Rome, later called Constantinople in his honor. Located on the trade routes between Asia and Europe, Constantinople quickly developed into the Mediterraneans unrivaled cultural, economic, political and religious hub.
Led by its emperors and ecumenical patriarchs, the church of Byzantium dominated Christian thought, art, culture and ethos for a thousand years. Long envied by other Christians and Muslims, Constantinople finally fell to Ottoman Turkish tribes in 1453. The Ottoman victors found an empty and impoverished capital and quickly saw to its restoration.
Islam supplanted Christianity as the majority religion among the sultans subjects, but Christians continued to thrive for the next five centuries. The sultan enhanced the ecumenical patriarchs authority, appointing him civil leader of the Ottoman empires multiethnic Orthodox community. The sultan also created an Armenian Apostolic patriarchate centered in Constantinople, endowing him with similar powers over the Armenian community.
The fortunes of Turkeys Christian minorities took a tragic turn early in the 20th century. For centuries, Ottoman Turkeys Christians, particularly Armenians and Assyrians, nurtured cultural and economic ties to Great Britain, France and Russia. These ties were viewed with suspicion, particularly during World War I, for the Ottomans had aligned themselves with Austria-Hungary and Germany. Turkish forces began displacing, incarcerating and, in some instances, massacring whole communities. Between 1915 and 1918, an estimated 1.75 million Armenian, Assyro-Chaldean and Syriac Christians perished, though Turkey disputes the events and the number of dead.
The Ottoman Empire collapsed after the war and, after an independence campaign waged by Kemal Atatürk and settled by the Treaty of Lausanne, the modern and staunchly secular Republic of Turkey was born. The treaty also called for a massive exchange of populations between Turkey and Greece. Almost overnight, entire Greek communities — numbering 1.25 million people — were deported. Many of these communities existed before the birth of Christ. Greece deported a half million Turks. A large Greek community remained in Constantinople, now called Istanbul, which was exempt from the terms of the treaty. In 1955, anti-Greek riots broke out in the city, prompting another mass exodus, leaving a few hundred Greek families under the care of the ecumenical patriarch.
Demographics. Historically ethnically diverse, Turkey is today comparatively homogenous. Three-quarters of Turkeys 77.8 million people are ethnic Turks and 18 percent, Kurds. Other ethnic groups include Abkhazians, Albanians, Armenians, Bosniaks, Circassians, Jews, Greeks, Pomaks and Roma.
As much as 99.8 percent of the population is Sunni Muslim. Most of the remaining 0.2 percent is Christian or Jewish. Turkeys tiny Christian communities include 50,000 Syriac Orthodox; 35,000 Armenian Apostolic Christians; 21,000 Latin Catholics; 20,000 Greek Orthodox; 6,000 Chaldean Catholics; 3,670 Armenian Catholics; 2,200 Syriac Catholics; and 40 Melkite Greek Catholics.
Sociopolitical situation. By regional standards, Turkeys education and health care systems are competitive. A policy of 12 years of public elementary and high school education is universal. However, many public schools, especially in poor, rural areas, are saddled with poor facilities and a lack of resources.
Access to public health care is universal. Despite sweeping government reforms in 2003, the health care system as a whole continues to lack sufficient personnel, and many institutions operate without adequate equipment and supplies. Many Turks in underserved areas do not have access to quality care.
Turkey enjoys full integration in the international community. It nurtures close relations with the United States, was among the first countries to recognize Israel and entered negotiations for full membership in the European Union in 2005.
Economic situation. Turkeys economy is complex and includes robust agricultural, commercial and industrial sectors. Significant economic growth, which spiked in 2007, declined significantly in 2008 and contracted by 5.6 percent in 2009, largely due to the global recession.
Religious situation. The Turkish constitution guarantees religious freedom. Nevertheless, as part of its fundamental commitment to secularism, the government places considerable restrictions on all religious communities. The current government, led by the center-right Justice and Development Party, has loosened some of these restrictions and has reached out to Turkeys Christian minority.
Discrimination against Christians and other religious and ethnic minorities remains a serious problem, particularly in rural areas. It is a source of concern for the European Union as it considers Turkeys bid for membership.