Non-Muslim Minorities

Turkey Table of Contents

Because of the absence since 1965 of census data on the ethnic background and religious affiliation of Turkish citizens, the size of non-Muslim communities in Turkey in 1995 was difficult to estimate. The 1965 census enumerated about 207,000 Christians, about 169,000 of whom resided in urban areas and about 38,000 in the countryside. The Christians included Armenian, Greek, and Syrian Orthodox; Armenian and Syrian Catholics; and members of various Protestant denominations. The Jewish population in 1965 numbered about 44,000, all but a tiny fraction of whom were urban residents. By 1995 it was estimated that the size of these populations had decreased substantially, the Christians to just under 140,000 and the Jews to about 20,000. The members of these religious minorities are found primarily in the coastal cities and towns, but some live in the mountainous regions of eastern Anatolia near the borders with Armenia and Georgia.

In 1995 members of religious minorities continued to occupy an anomalous position in Turkish society. Non-Muslims remain to some extent second-class citizens, although they generally are not subject to overt discrimination. A disproportionately large segment of the minority population is represented among the wealthy business and professional groups. Proselytizing by non-Muslim religions is strongly discouraged by the government. Under the law, a Muslim man or woman may marry a non-Muslim spouse, but such marriages are infrequent and usually do not entail conversion.

The Syrian Orthodox, or Jacobite, community, which numbered about 50,000 in 1995, ranks as the largest Christian denomination in Turkey. An Arabic-speaking community that uses ancient Aramaic in its liturgy, the Syrian Orthodox historically have lived in villages in the vicinity of Mardin and Midyat in southeastern Turkey. Since the late 1980s, intense fighting in this region between government forces and the PKK has threatened many villages and prompted a migration to local cities and even to Istanbul, where a community of Syrian Orthodox, initially established during the Ottoman era, was estimated to number 10,000 in 1995. The Syrian Orthodox Church has its own head, referred to as a metropolitan. The metropolitan (Timotheos Samuel Aktash in 1995) resides in an ancient mountain monastery near Midyat. Also, an estimated 2,000 Syrian Catholics, whose ancestors converted from the Syrian Orthodox rite, are scattered in small communities in the southeast. Syrian Catholics retain the distinct Syrian Orthodox rite but recognize the spiritual authority of the Roman Catholic pope.

The Armenian Orthodox (or Gregorian) community, with some 35,000 members in 1995, ranks as the second largest Christian denomination in Turkey. In addition, an estimated 7,000 other Armenians belong to an autonomous Orthodox church, to an Armenian Catholic church in union with Rome, or to various Protestant denominations. In 1995 the Armenian Orthodox Church's patriarch, Karekin Bedros Kazandjian, resided in Istanbul. In 1995 the Armenian Orthodox Church maintained more than thirty churches and chapels, seventy-five elementary and middle schools, and two orphanages. Armenian Catholics maintained ten churches in Istanbul, as well as six elementary and middle schools.

The Greek Orthodox Church, the largest Christian church in Turkey as recently as 1960, had fewer than 20,000 members in 1995. The Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, located in the Fener quarter of Istanbul, is the central church authority for Greek Orthodox Christians in most of Europe and beyond. Because the patriarch's authority extends to all Orthodox believers outside Greece and the Middle East, he is considered the honorary head of the church for communities of Orthodox Christians living in the United States, Canada, Central and South America, Australia, and New Zealand. From these communities, the patriarchate in Istanbul receives moral and financial support. The ecumenical patriarch's status has been affected by the continual tension in Turkish-Greek relations. During the 1950s and 1960s, thousands of members of the Greek Orthodox community left Turkey on account of the discrimination or overt hostility they experienced following Greco-Turkish conflicts over the status of Cyprus. The diminution of the community has weakened the patriarchate and undermined its status in its dealings with the Turkish government. Nevertheless, the patriarchate's importance has remained considerable because of its ecumenical and international connections.

Other Christian communities present in Turkey include several small groups affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church. Melchites (Greek Catholics) and Maronites live among the Arabs in southeast Hatay Province. Although accepted by the Vatican as part of the Roman Catholic Church, Melchites and Maronite Catholics retain their own separate liturgies. Chaldean-rite Catholics live in the Diyarbakir region, while Bulgarian, Greek, and Latin-rite Catholics live in Istanbul and Izmir. The total number of Catholics of various persuasions in early 1995 has been estimated at 25,000.

Since 1948 the Jewish population has decreased steadily. In 1995 the Jewish community, estimated at 18,000 to 20,000, consisted primarily of Sephardic Jews. At least 90 percent of Turkey's Jews live in Istanbul, where a chief rabbi presides. In 1995 the Jewish community maintained one high school and four elementary schools offering limited courses in Hebrew.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress