Turkish Churches Face Twin Hurdles

Monday, November 18, 2002

Two major hurdles face evangelical churches in Turkey: lack of trained leadership and suitable buildings. A Turkish church planter says conditions are now right to do something about both.

Visiting the Christian Aid office on Monday, the man who had already planted several churches told Christian Aid that part of the problem of Turkey's evangelical churches is that there is no provision for them in the Turkish constitution. "Turkey's laws are based on the way things were when the Lausanne Treaty was signed in 1923," he said. "At that time there were virtually no evangelicals in Turkey. So the only Christians recognized by the constitution are Roman Catholics and Greek Orthodox."

Until recently, all churches were banned from constructing new buildings or renovating existing ones. That all changed earlier this month, he said, when the Turkish Parliament changed laws to allow churches to buy land, construct new buildings, and repair old ones.

"Turkey wants very much to be part of the European Union," he said, "so this is prompting a lot of changes in traditional ways of doing things, especially in the area of human rights."

Still, evangelical churches are looked upon as an anomaly by the government. Meeting in storefronts and houses, they aren't considered true churches and authorities view them with an air of suspicion and illegitimacy, including the false notion that they are cells spawning the overthrow of the government.

This leader tried to overcome that problem by officially incorporating as a foundation to train Christian leaders, support gospel workers and assist poor Christian families. His application was turned down because his plan discriminated against Muslims! "Religious alliances" and religious political parties are banned in Turkey, which strives to maintain a secular orientation of government.

Despite the lack of organizational structure, the leader said there is a fine spirit of cooperation among all evangelical churches. "We work together as brothers, not as competitors," he said.

He now plans to start a program to train Christian leaders as part of his main church's ministry. He said about 100 believers are eager to be trained and go out as gospel workers if funds were available. Ministries in Europe and Canada are willing to supply teachers. The program will provide six months of instruction followed by six months of internship in the local church for about ten couples at a time. The leader himself never had formal training but after college completed a Theological Education by Extension course.

These believers come from four churches he has planted plus several house groups. These include three congregations in Ankara with a total of 200 members and another church and several house groups elsewhere with another 100 believers. The total number of evangelical believers in all of Turkey (population 67 million) is only about 3000.

"Some of the house groups have no local leadership," he said. "I go to them once a month, or they come to one of our main churches once a month."

He said the original church meeting in a store front only seats 95 people. "If we had more space, we would have more people," he said. Due to overcrowding, he divided the congregation in two a couple of years ago; the second congregation meets in the same building at a different time with a different leader as pastor. The combined total of the two congregations is 160 members.

For more information, contact insider@christianaid.org and put MI-333 416-KCT on the subject line.