Turkey: a ‘church with open doors’ in an Islamic society

EVEN THOUGH CHRISTIANITY LOOKS BACK ON AN ALMOST 2,000-YEAR HISTORY IN TURKEY, today, after various waves of persecution, there are hardly any Christians left in the country. Archbishop Martin Kmetec of Izmir, Turkey, recently spoke about the situation with Aid to the Church in Need about the current situation in Turkey.

Slovenian by birth, the archbishop is a member of the Order of Friars Minor. After serving for almost 11 years in Lebanon, he has been living in Turkey since 2001. In 2020, Pope Francis appointed him as archbishop of Izmir, an archdiocese located in the western part of the country.

Christianity has a rich history in Turkey. Prior to World War I, about 30 per cent of the people living in the territory of what was then the Ottoman Empire were Christian. Today, it is estimated that only about 0.2 per cent of the Turkish population is Christian. How many Catholics are there in the Archdiocese of Izmir?
I estimate that about 5,000 Catholics are living in my archdiocese. There may be even more, if you count migrants and refugees. They mainly live in the inner-city of Izmir and other large cities. We have communities also in Konya, Antalya and other cities along the coast. In terms of geographical area, our archdiocese is very large, comprising about 40,000 square miles. The farthest parish that belongs to us is Konya, which is located about 380 miles from Izmir; its southern counterpart is Antalya, which is about 240 miles away.

Are you free to proclaim the faith?
As a Franciscan, I consider the witness of life to be the core value, the fraternal life. St. Francis said that one should preach the Word whenever an opportunity to do so presents itself. We try to do that, for example on the social networks and on the archdiocese’s new website.

We try to be actively involved and to be a living Church. Our mission is a mission of a Church with open doors. For this reason, all our churches are open to the public at certain times. Sometimes devotions are held, and someone is always there at the church to greet visitors and to answer any questions they may have. This is the way of evangelization we have chosen in light of the present situation.

Once a secular country, Turkey is currently experiencing an Islamic re-birth. Are Christians being discriminated against? I would not say that Christians are generally being discriminated against. But negative incidents do occur when dealing with authorities and administrative bodies. The Catholic Church is not recognized as a legal entity.

Archbishop Martin Kmetec

However, I would say that there is a dialogue of life. Take the Caritas organization as an example: Caritas is a part of the Church, a part of our archdiocese. They have an office in every diocese. And they help everyone, Christians and Muslims and anyone else who is defenseless. We also meet with the imams of our area, for example on the “Day of Fraternity.” Several priests and I visited the mayor of the city and we used the opportunity to present him with a gift, a Turkish translation of the papal encyclical encyclical Fratelli tutti, which deals with environmental issues that affect all of humanity.

Does an ecumenical dialogue exist in Turkey?
In general, our relations with other Christian churches are good. The Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I, for example, has a good relationship with the Focolare Movement and the new Apostolic Vicar of Istanbul, Bishop Massimiliano Palinuro.

Likewise, here in Izmir we get together with the Orthodox Christians, but also with the Anglicans, on various Christian feast days. Armenian priests recently celebrated an Armenian liturgy at our Catholic Church of St. Polycarp, because they do not have their own church in Izmir. We also worked together with the Armenians in Izmir to open a small book shop for the Bible Society. These are promising signs of an ecumenical dialogue.

Turkey is a popular holiday destination. How important is it that Christians who travel to Turkey also visit the Christian churches?
Very important. I would like to remind the tourists that the origins of our faith are here. Here, the first Church was established among the nations. The first ecumenical councils, which shaped the Catholic faith, took place in what is today Turkey. The mission for Europe had its origins here.

A German priest supports us in our pastoral care program, taking care of all the Catholics from Germany who live here. I would be happy if we could find another priest to serve the other communities, at least in the summer during the tourist season. But that is also a financial problem. Perhaps the European Council of Bishops’ Conferences would consider helping us.

—Volker Niggewöhner