FIRST TRACES OF CHRISTIANITY ON TURKISH SOIL

Today's Zaman
Sept 16 2009
Turkey

Located at the crossroads of migration and trade routes from Europe,
the Middle East and South Asia for millennia now, Turkey has been
influenced by a great mix of people, bringing with them not only their
own culture and customs but also a multitude of religious beliefs.

Indeed, the mosaic of faiths in Turkey is amazing, even
today. Surprising for some, but -- and although according to the
Turkish Statistics Institute (TurkStat) 99 percent of the Turkish
population is officially Muslim -- there are numerous non-Muslim
communities remaining in Turkey in the present day.

According to a report on religious minorities in Turkey, prepared by
the Turkish Foreign Ministry in December 2008, Turkey hosts 89,000
members of minority groups, including 60,000 Armenians, 25,000 Jews
and 3,000 to 4,000 Greeks.

Exact numbers, however, are difficult to establish since the Turkish
government officially recognizes only three minority religious
communities -- Greek Orthodox Christians, Armenian Orthodox Christians
and Jews -- and often ignores the many other communities as well as
numerous subgroups and sects. Other sources also count 15,000 Syriac
Christians, around 5,000 Catholics, 3,000 Protestants and a number
of smaller, undetermined communities of different rites such as the
Bulgarian and Georgian Christians, Anglicans, Chaldeans, people of
the Baha'i faith and the Yazidis.

This week, Today's Zaman wants to take the opportunity to have a look
into the history of Christianity in particular. Taking you on a small
tour through ancient Anatolia, we want to discover some of those
historical locations that can still be visited and which, indeed,
tell some interesting stories of the beginnings of Christianity on
what is today Turkish soil. Let's have a look.

In fact, Christianity took its earliest development under the
leadership of the 12 Apostles, the 12 earliest followers of
Jesus. After the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, many of these early
Christians returned to their homelands in Asia Minor -- to escape
from the persecutions in Jerusalem and to bring the "good message"
of the life and teachings of Jesus to the world.

Thus, it was St. Peter -- the "first Apostle" -- who in the middle
of the first century settled in the ancient city of Antioch (today's
Antakya) and decided to build the first Christian church there.

The church, which is actually a small cave cut into a mountain,
is said to be the earliest place where the early Christians met and
prayed secretly. A small tunnel inside the cave was used at that time
to evacuate the community in the event of sudden attacks by their
eventual persecutors. An altar, pieces of ground mosaics and some
traces of frescoes have been preserved from the early period of the
church. For pilgrims and other curious minds the place is definitely
a must -- not the least due to a small trickle of water in one corner,
which is said to cure sickness.

St. Peter, however, is said to have lived in Antioch together with
another very important apostle, namely St. Paul, a native of Tarsus
in south-central Turkey. Apparently St. Paul took advantage of the
excellent Roman road system and thus is said to have traveled three
times through southern and western Anatolia, preaching and converting
as he went. Many cities (for instance Perge close to today's Antalya,
Derbe and Lystra, close to today's Karaman and Konya) still remember
his life and work, with churches or other memorials named after him.

Walk in the footsteps of Apostle Paul in Isparta

Even now you can walk in the footsteps of St. Paul on a stretch of
well-preserved Roman road leading from the historical site of Adada
towards the larger village of Yukari Gokdere, both located in the
lake district around the western Turkish city of Isparta. The walk,
which takes about two to three days for an average qualified trekker,
passes through a small canyon and refreshing forest, all along Kovada
Golu National Park. A must for everyone, not only for Christians.

Where another saint, the Apostle John, is said to have taken the Mother
of Jesus, or Virgin Mary, to the ancient city of Ephesus in the Izmir
district of western Turkey. Mary is believed to have spent the last
days of her life here in a small house, known as Meryemana. The house
-- the ruins of which were found after a German nun had visions of its
location on the slope of a mountain in the region -- still survives
today and has been recognized as a holy site for pilgrimage by the
Catholic and Orthodox churches as well as being a Muslim shrine. To
Muslims, Mary is sacred as well due to the fact that she is the mother
Jesus, who is also seen as a prophet in Islam.

St. John, after he returned from Patmos, where he was exiled, is
believed to have written his gospel -- one of the four accounts that
make up the New Testament of the Christian Bible -- in Ephesus, on
Ayasuluk Hill. St. John eventually also died here. A fourth century
tomb was believed to house his remains, and so in the sixth century
Emperor Justinian erected a magnificent church, the Basilica of
St. John, on top of it. Izmir is the only official ecclesiastical
territory or diocese of the Roman Catholic Church in Turkey. The
archdiocese's mother church and thus seat of its archbishop is again
another church named after St. John.

In fact, Turkey is home to all of the so-called Seven Churches of
Asia, the seven major churches of early Christianity, as mentioned
in the Bible. The order of the seven churches -- Ephesus, Smyrna
(Izmir), Pergamum (Pergamon), Thyatira (Akhisar), Sardis (Sart),
Philadelphia (Alasehir) and Laodicea (near Denizli) -- follows a
route that a messenger would naturally follow in visiting those
western Anatolian cities.

A last place really worth seeing is definitely the western Turkish
town of Kale (Demre), which was in early Christian times Myra, the
metropolis of the whole Lycia region. The town is traditionally
associated with St. Paul, who frequently changed ships in its
harbor. However, one of Myra's early bishops was St. Nicholas,
well known to most of us in the form of the legendary gift-giving
and wonder-working Santa Claus. The church of St. Nicholas was first
built in the third century and held the saint's remains after he died
in A.D. 343. However, in the 11th century, Italian merchants smashed
the sarcophagus and brought the relics to Bari, Italy. Today Myra
is a place known for Christian pilgrimage. Some Byzantine mosaics
and floors are interesting to look at -- as well as the story of
St. Nicholas, of course.