Reflections on a Holiday in Istanbul

Covering the Christian persecution “beat” as a writer can be depressing. On a near-daily basis I receive newsletters from Christian groups such as Voice of the Martyrs and Barnabas Fund, and I scan the internet regularly to check the latest developments. The news invariably seems to be bad, and getting worse.

So it is refreshing to gain a different perspective. I have just returned from a short holiday in Istanbul, and it was encouraging to see that circumstances are not quite as grim as I might have imagined.

Turkey is ranked at No. 41 in the Open Doors 2015 World Watch List of the 50 countries where it is most difficult to live as a Christian. The organization comments:

There is a high level of nationalism in Turkey. The general opinion is that a Turk is born a Muslim. As a result, the attitude towards those who convert to Christianity is very hostile and will almost always result in accusations of ‘insulting the Turkish identity.’ This is regarded as a serious offence. There are very few Christian converts from a Muslim background and the pressure on them to return to Islam can be immense. Although the level of violence against Christians is relatively low, four churches were attacked and damaged in Turkey over the past year.

Violence may be low, but we must remember that eight years ago three Christian employees of the Turkish Bible publishing house Zirve were tortured and murdered, with no one convicted of the crimes.

Meanwhile, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan appears to be leading the country down an ever-hardening Islamist path that includes a refusal to take responsibility for the killing of more than a million Armenian and Assyrian Christians 100 years ago.

Yet little of this was visible during my short visit. For example, I was able to buy English-language newspapers that offered translations from two of Turkey’s leading dailies, Hurriyet and Zaman, and encountered a lively debate about the killings in Armenia, with several columnists affirming that it was indeed genocide.

I also read criticism of the authorities for their inability to secure convictions against those involved in the Zirve murders.

Walking through the streets I found a few souvenir shops offering a limited selection of Christian-themed memorabilia. At Hagia Sophia, once a monumental church, now a museum, the souvenir store was selling ornately bound Bibles. I passed a modern church that was bustling with people, and right in the city’s most cosmopolitan district, Istiklal Street, I spotted a Bible Society store.

This is not to say that the World Watch List findings are wrong, and I am also guessing that conditions in rural Turkey are different from those in sophisticated Istanbul. But it is simply to stress this: God is at work, even in the darkness. Perhaps especially in the darkness.

And I suspect that even if I were, somehow, able to take a brief holiday in North Korea or Saudi Arabia or the ISIS-held parts of the Middle East I might come away with the same conclusion: God is at work.

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