Turkey’s population is approximately 80 million (with an additional 3.9 million refugees according to the UNHCR 2019). The vast majority (98%-99%) are Muslim, and a quarter of those are Alevis (a small offshoot of Shi’a Islam). Christians in Turkey include indigenous Christian communities, Turkish Christian believers from Muslim backgrounds, and expatriates (including refugees). The largest Christian group is the Armenian Apostolic Church, followed by the Syriac Orthodox Church. Istanbul remains the seat of the Ecumenical Patriarch of the Eastern Orthodox Church; the Patriarch is recognised by the Government as the leader of the very small Greek Orthodox community. Also present are churches belonging to the Catholic rite (Armenian, Syriac, Chaldean and Latin), Anglican churches and other evangelical churches, many of which belong to the Association of Protestant Churches (TeK).
The constitution establishes Turkey as a secular state, affording no privileged status to Islam or Islamic law. While a founding principle of the modern Turkish state is the separation of State and religion, a degree of tension is inherent in this as the State must control religion to the extent necessary to prevent religion controlling the State. The constitution affirms the principle of non-discrimination, including on the basis of religion, and guarantees the free exercise of worship and religious rites, including freedom from religious compulsion, provided religious practices do not undermine the fundamental rights of others. Religious conversion is legally permitted, including from Islam, though social disapproval may be encountered. The Armenian Apostolic and Greek Orthodox churches, together with the Jewish community, have recognition under the Lausanne Treaty of 1923 – although their administrative structures do not have legal entity. These two churches may operate religious community schools, though restrictions on private universities prevent the operation of training colleges. All other religious groups must register as associations or foundations (with charitable or cultural objectives) in order to gain legal status. Although the Lausanne Treaty stipulated that recognised non-Muslims could govern personal status issues according to their own rites, all citizens of Turkey are now subject to the secular civil code.
Turkey ratified the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) on 18 May 1954 and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) on 23 September 2003. Both the Convention and the Covenant uphold the right to freedom of religion, including the right to hold a religion of one’s choice and the right to manifest that religion, and the principle of non-discrimination. Turkey’s ratification of the ECHR was made without reservation. Ratification of the ICCPR was made with a reservation that provisions relating to ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities would be interpreted in accordance with related provisions in the Turkish constitution.
Christians in Turkey enjoy a considerable degree of freedom, though pressures persist. Those who choose to leave Islam face family and societal pressure, though this rarely results in violence.
The attempted military coup of 15 July 2016 resulted in tens of thousands of job losses and arrests in political purges, as well as severe restrictions on independent media. Andrew Brunson, an American pastor, was detained two years from October 2016 to October 2018 on spurious terrorism charges and was finally released after the United States applied sanctions on Turkey. The Turkish economy was hard hit and “foreign powers” blamed by the Turkish media. Since then, significant numbers of foreign Christians resident in Turkey have been banned from the country. In 2018 the Armenian Apostolic Church in Turkey attempted to elect a patriarch as the incumbent was suffering from dementia and unable to function in his role. The election was prevented by the state and this state interference was condemned by the Constitutional Court. The death of the patriarch in 2019 opened the way for elections to proceed. In 2019 President Erdogan laid the foundation stone of a new Syriac church in Istanbul – the first such church to be built since the founding of the republic in 1923.