Turkey’s population is approximately 80 million (in addition, there are 3.7 million refugees according to the European Commission, January 2018). The vast majority (98%-99%) are Muslim, and a quarter of those are Alevis (a small offshoot of Shi’a Islam). Christians in Turkey include indigenous Christian communities, Turkish Christian believers from Muslim backgrounds, and expatriates (including refugees). The largest Christian group is the Armenian Apostolic Church, followed by the Syriac Orthodox Church. Istanbul remains the seat of the Ecumenical Patriarch of the Eastern Orthodox Church; the Patriarch is recognised by the Government as the leader of the very small Greek Orthodox community. Also present are churches belonging to the Catholic rite (Armenian, Syriac, Chaldean and Latin), Anglican churches and other evangelical churches, many of which belong to the Association of Protestant Churches (TeK).
The constitution establishes Turkey as a secular state, affording no privileged status to Islam or Islamic law. While a founding principle of the modern Turkish state is the separation of State and religion, a degree of tension is inherent in this as the State must control religion to the extent necessary to prevent religion controlling the State. The constitution affirms the principle of non-discrimination, including on the basis of religion, and guarantees the free exercise of worship and religious rites, including freedom from religious compulsion, provided religious practices do not undermine the fundamental rights of others. Religious conversion is legally permitted, including from Islam, though social disapproval may be encountered. The Armenian Apostolic and Greek Orthodox churches, together with the Jewish community, have recognition under the Lausanne Treaty of 1923 – although their administrative structures do not have legal entity. These two churches may operate religious community schools, though restrictions on private universities prevent the operation of training colleges. All other religious groups must register as associations or foundations (with charitable or cultural objectives) in order to gain legal status. Although the Lausanne Treaty stipulated that recognised non-Muslims could govern personal status issues according to their own rites, all citizens of Turkey are now subject to the secular civil code.
Turkey ratified the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) on 18th May 1954 and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) on 23rd September 2003. Both the Convention and the Covenant uphold the right to freedom of religion, including the right to hold a religion of one’s choice and the right to manifest that religion, and the principle of non-discrimination. Turkey’s ratification of the ECHR was made without reservation. Ratification of the ICCPR was made with a reservation that provisions relating to ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities would be interpreted in accordance with related provisions in the Turkish constitution.
Christians in Turkey enjoy a considerable degree of freedom, though a number of pressures persist. Those who choose to leave Islam face family and societal pressure, though this rarely results in violence.
The state of emergency declared following the attempted coup of 15th July 2016 has resulted in tens of thousands of job losses and arrests in political purges. Although there was little initial impact on Christians, the Association of Protestant Churches (TeK) has reported that Turkey’s Christian communities are increasingly being affected. In particular, a number of expatriate Christians are facing residency issues, deportation or entry bans. Andrew Brunson, an American pastor, has been detained since October 2016 on spurious terrorism charges. In May 2017 an estimated 100 properties belonging to the Syriac Church in south-east Turkey were found to have been re-registered with the State Treasury. In March 2018 the state approved the return of 56 of the properties to Syriac foundations.