Discussing religion in Turkey with people who have not visited the country often leads to mistaken assumptions. Upon learning, the largest religion is Muslims; they automatically assume society operates on strict Islamic rules. However, its political system is of a secularised structure; hence religion and politics are separations of church and state. This began with the constitution that the Republic signed in 1923. The separation of church and state, like the United States structure, means people have freedoms to practise religious beliefs as they choose.
Over the centuries, the country, one of the earliest known areas of human habitation and development, has played host to many ethnicities and religious traditions. Unlike other regional countries mostly composed of Muslims, the other religions of Christianity and Judaism feature heavily in its history. For a country that follows many Western ideals, there is an overwhelming majority of practising Muslims. Despite a clear disconnect between secularism and mostly one religion population, Turkey enjoys a religious tolerance not found in Middle-east countries and allows for the open practise of many faiths.
Discussing Religion in Turkey
Of the 99% Muslim population, 72% are Sunnis, while 25% are Alevis. Even though Turkey is a secularist country, from elementary school to high school, students attend classes on religion. The focus of studies is entirely on the Sunni branch of Islam. According to the Constitution, religious organisations cannot enter the political arena or form faith-based schools; even though students learn Sunni Islam in school. The role of religions in politics was decided when they created the Turkish Republic. After taking power, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk took steps to implement religious freedom, and remove the influence of religious groups in politics. This era of reform is known as Kemalism.
Christian Religion: Did You Know?
Before forming the Republic, around 19.1% of the population was non-Muslim. By 1927, several years after Turkey’s independence, this dropped to 2.5%. Currently, only 120,000 are Christian. Even though the government believes in freedom of religion, over 99% of the population remains Muslim. However, it is essential not to ignore the historical significance of Christianity. You can learn more from visiting Biblical sites.
Cappadocian Fathers: Head to the central Anatolian region, and the UNESCO Goreme Open-air museum, to find a collection of cave monasteries. As one of Turkey’s top visited tourist attractions, it surprises many to find out this area was home to early Christianity. Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory of Nazianzus, often called the three wise men, were all Greek Orthodox bishops during the 4th century and the last later became the Patriarch of Constantinople. Find out about Cappadocia.
Church of Saint Peter: Sitting in Antakya, and carved into the side of a mountain, this is one of Christianity’s oldest churches dating from the 4th century. The church’s garden also acts as a cemetery. Today, although no services take place, it opens as a museum to the public and followers make a pilgrimage there—more about churches in Turkey.
Ephesus and the Virgin Mary’s House: Head across to the western, Aegean region, and we arrive at Ephesus ruined city that hosts millions of visitors every year. Although the archaeology and reconstructed landmarks are stunning to see, the little gem facts revolve around its previous citizens that include Saint John and the Virgin Mary. Also, in the Bible’s Acts 19, Luke mentions the Artemis riots in Ephesus’s theatre. Just a short drive away, heading into the green hills of Selcuk, sits the Virgin Mary’s house that Catholics believe to be the place of her ascension. Funded and run by the Catholic Church, pilgrims make the journey there. More information about landmark buildings in Ephesus.
Seven Churches of Revelation: The Bible’s new testament talks of the revelation churches, of which the ruins all sit in the Aegean region. They were cities, like Smyrna, Ephesus, and Laodicea, that received letters from John of Patmos condemning them on what they did wrong. Many Christians sign up for guided tours to see them all. Read about the Churches here.
Jews in Turkey
Even though Jews make up minorities, they have lived here for over 2000 years. According to their Hebrew Bible, they believed Noah’s ark rested on Mount Ararat, in central Anatolia. Evidence shows Jews lived in certain Byzantine and Roman cities like Sardis. The largest population of Jews happened during the Ottoman-empire rule. When Mehmed the Conqueror invaded Constantinople in 1453, the city was struggling because of a sparse population, and he ordered all Jews moved there.
Nearly 50 years later, approximately 40,000 Jews settled there after fleeing the Spanish inquisition. To retrace the history of Jewish people, head to Istanbul, where synagogues still operate, although you need permission to enter. The Balat neighbourhood was the old Jewish quarter, and these days is a popular spot for walking tours. Otherwise, the Quincentennial Foundation Museum of Turkish Jews does an excellent job of retracing and telling their historical stories.
Need to Know for Travellers
Turkish citizens have freedom of choice whether they believe in God and how they practice. When you arrive, you soon see that religion does not rule public-life. Some places like Izmir have westernised societies with a small religious belief system; hence many Turkish people drink alcohol and smoke. Some rarely go to the mosque—others just on a Friday, the holy day in Islam. Likewise, newspapers frequently report practising younger generation Muslims decreases each year, and those identifying as atheist, agnostic, or non-religious are climbing.
However, head to places like Konya, Kayseri, and Bursa, and you will discover a conservative atmosphere with women wearing headscarves or the Hijab which covers their hair but not their face. Regardless of where you go, show the utmost respect, and don’t get into heated conversations, especially about the Quran.
Most mosques open to visitors, regardless of whether you are a Muslim. If women visit one, cover your head, arms, chest, and legs. Likewise, men should wear shirt and trousers out of respect. More about visiting a mosque. If you visit during Ramadan (different month every year) be respectful. Many working Turks will fast during this time and abstain from food and water during daylight hours. About Ramadan in Turkey.
Turkish Culture for Tourists: Religion in Turkey and the culture and traditions are all separate things. The most noticeable area to see this is food and drink, however, don’t be surprised to find yourself invited to a wedding or circumcision party. In this article, we give a general introduction to Turkish culture as well as hints, tips, and advice for first-time visitors to the country.
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