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Christians in Istanbul
Interior of the Church of St Saviour in the Istanbul precint of Chora. Photo: flickr/CharlesFred

The number of non-Muslims in Turkey has decreased significantly since the foundation of the Turkish republic. This decline also has its roots in discriminatory state policies towards non-Muslims, Turkification policies, and expropriation.

In the 1920s, under the "Citizen Speak Turkish" campaign, non-Muslims were threatened if they spoke their native languages in public. When the Wealth Tax (Varlik Vergisi) was applied to non-Muslims in 1942, high property taxes forced many to sell their houses at low prices to Muslims. Those who could not pay their tax debt were sent to a labour camp in Askale in Eastern Turkey.

In September 1955 a pogrom against non-Muslims, especially Greeks, but also Armenians and Jews, was organised in Istanbul by the secret service, the police and ultra-nationalist groups. The false news of the bombing of Ataturk's birthplace in Thessaloniki was used as an excuse to attack non-Muslim businesses, houses, and churches. In total, 4,348 Greek-owned businesses, 110 hotels, pharmacies, schools, factories, 73 churches and over a thousand homes were badly damaged or destroyed. 15 people died. A second shock came in 1964. That year, the government passed a law forcing Istanbul Greeks who had Greek nationality to leave Turkey within 48 hours. This law directly affected about 12,000 Greeks. However, since most of them left with their families, the actual number was significantly higher.

In 1971, the Greek theological school in Istanbul was closed and has yet to reopen. In 1974, it was decided that real estate acquired by non-Muslim foundations since 1936 would have to be returned to their previous owners. The ruling led to the confiscation of at least 4,000 properties belonging to Turkey's Jews, Armenians and Greeks. The confiscations went on until the 1990s.

To this day, non-Muslims are not allowed to make a career in the armed forces, to become civil servants in “sensitive” institutions like the foreign ministry, to teach Turkish or Turkish history at state schools, including minority schools.

Istanbul telephone book from the 1950s

The biggest Christian group in Turkey today (an estimated 70,000 people) is the Orthodox (Gregorian) Armenians, almost all of whom live in Istanbul. The Armenian Orthodox Patriarchate in Istanbul, located since 1473 in the Kumkapi district on the historic peninsula, is one of the four main Armenian Patriarchates. 

The Armenian community has 33 churches and 20 schools, two hospitals (one Orthodox, one Catholic), several cemeteries, homes for the elderly and sports clubs. There are two daily newspapers in Armenian (Jamanak and Marmara) and one weekly, Agos, published both in Turkish and Armenian. Aside from the Orthodox-Armenian, there is also the Catholic-Armenian community, with around 3000 members, some churches and schools. A small Armenian Protestant community also lives in the city.

The second-biggest Christian group (around 40,000 people) are the Roman Catholics. Most of the remaining Levantines of French and Italian origin are Catholic. It is foreigners residing in Turkey, however, who make up the biggest group in the Catholic community. Istanbul is home to several Catholic churches, the biggest being St. Antoine, on Istiklal Street.

The Greek Orthodox Church has a rich history and the Patriarchate of Constantinople has an important position in the Orthodox Church, though the actual number of its followers in Turkey has fallen to around 5,000. In Istanbul the community runs three high schools, one hospital and two very small newspapers. Arab-speaking Orthodox Christians from Hatay and Antakya are also members of the Greek Orthodox Church.

The Assyrian Christians are estimated to number around 20,000 in Turkey. Their historic settlement, called Tur Abdin, has its main monasteries around Mardin and Midyat in South-eastern Turkey. Due to the war between the Turkish army and the PKK, many Assyrian Christians have moved abroad – or to Istanbul, where they have two churches. Since they are not a recognized minority, the Assyrian Christians don't have any schools.

October 2008

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