(Reuters) - Turkey is overwhelmingly Muslim but hosts several ancient Christian communities — dwindling remnants of sizeable populations that prospered for centuries in the Muslim-led but multi-ethnic, multi-faith Ottoman Empire.
They include Syriac Christians, Greek Orthodox, Armenians and Catholics. Modern Turkey was founded as a secular republic by Kemal Mustafa Ataturk on the empire’s ashes in 1923.
Here are some details about Christians in Turkey:
— At the beginning of World War One, Christians still made up 20 percent of the population. However in May 1915, Ottoman commanders began mass deportation of Armenians from eastern Turkey thinking they might assist Russian invaders.
— Thousands were marched from the Anatolian borders toward Syria and Mesopotamia (now Iraq) and Armenians say some 1.5 million died either in massacres or from starvation or deprivation as they were marched through the desert. There are some 70,000 Armenians left in Turkey. Turkey says large numbers of both Christian Armenians and Muslim Turks were killed during the violent and chaotic break-up of the Ottoman Empire. The number of Christians has now fallen to around 100,000 in a total population of more than 70 million.
— Syriacs number 20,000, the majority living in Istanbul. Syriacs migrated throughout the 20th century to Europe, fleeing first from persecution by the new secular republic, and later, from violence between Kurdish separatists rebels and the Turkish military in the southeast. Syriac Christians speak a form of Aramaic, the language of Jesus. They are not an officially designated minority in Turkey like the Greeks or Armenians, so have no special protection for rights such as private education under the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne’s provisions for non-Muslim minorities.
— Istanbul is the ancient seat of Orthodox Christianity but Greek Orthodox, who make up 20,000 of the population, often complain of discrimination and prejudice. Istanbul, the former Constantinople, was capital of the Greek-speaking Orthodox Christian Byzantine Empire for centuries until it fell to Muslim Ottoman Turks in 1453.
— Turkey’s 30,000 Catholics hope the government will return the St. Paul church, which was confiscated by the state in 1943, to Christian worshippers. It is used now as a museum.
— St. Paul, the great evangelizer of the early Christian Church, was born in Tarsus in modern-day Turkey and Pope Benedict proclaimed 12 months of events to honor him in June 2008.
— Pope Benedict made a sensitive, fence-mending visit to Turkey in November 2006 after he had sparked protests from the Muslim world with a speech that Muslims said portrayed Islam as a religion tainted by violence and irrationality.
— He was praised for visiting Istanbul’s famed Blue Mosque and praying there facing toward Mecca “like Muslims.”
— Under a reform long sought by the European Union that Ankara hopes to join, Turkey’s parliament approved last year a law aimed at boosting the property rights of non-Muslim minorities. Turkish authorities have expropriated millions of dollars worth of property belonging to Christians or their churches, especially the Greek Orthodox, over the decades. The law would allow foundations to re-acquire some confiscated properties but not those sold on to third parties — something that is unlikely to satisfy Christian communities. The EU has urged Turkey to create a comprehensive legal framework that allows all religious groups unrestricted freedom to operate. By law, Syriacs must attend state schools where teaching is in Turkish, but they can be taught about their own language and religion outside school hours. Brussels has raised concerns over restrictions on the training of Christian clergy in Turkey.
— Turkey’s Christian community has been targeted in a spate of attacks over several years, prompting concern among human rights groups and the European Union.
— The stabbing of an Italian Catholic priest in 2007 highlighted the attacks. Also in 2007, three Christians were killed at a Bible-publishing house at the Zirve publishing house in Malatya, a city in the country’s southeast region.
— Andrea Santoro, another Italian Catholic priest, was shot dead in the Turkish Black Sea city of Trabzon in 2006.
— Prominent Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink was killed in January 2007 in Istanbul by a young nationalist gunman. A prosecutor last month indicted a colonel for failing to provide protection for Dink, who had received death threats.
Sources: Reuters/World Christian Encyclopaedia/britannica.com