Christian Roots: Turkey's Dwindling Catholic Community

Collection with 21 media items created by Piero Castellano

Turkey 29 Nov 2014 00:00

Izmir, Turkey

The largest community of the smallest Christian minority in Turkey has felt neglected for decades and is now facing an uncertain future. The recent visit of Pope Francis to Turkey reinforced anxieties within Izmir's catholic community as he was the first Pope not to visit the tiny but important diocese. Although he had announced his wish to visit the House of Mary in Ephesus, like his predecessors, security problems at the remote shrine made it impossible. Catholics in Izmir are well aware of security problems, but nonetheless they bitterly feel that they are the collateral victims of sectarian tensions in the region.

The history of Christianity in Turkey is almost as old as the Church itself. St. Paul was a native of Anatolia and preached in Ephesus and Miletus. Jesus’ favorite apostle, St. John, the Evangelist who wrote the Apocalypse, is said to have moved to Ephesus with the Virgin Mary. The Apostle’s tomb is near the Ephesus archaeological site and an enormous basilica was built on it. It is ironic that the most vocal opponents of Turkey’s accession to European Union used the “Christian roots” of Europe as an argument against it; the roots of christianity are all in Turkey. It was in Ephesus that the Third Ecumenical Council, the famous “Theotokos Council”, confirmed the Nicene Creed on which the Roman Catholic doctrine is still based, and which declared the Virgin Mary “Mother of God”. Despite this rich history, it is ironic that such Christian roots are usually overlooked in Turkey.

It is commonly said that Turks are 99% Sunni Muslim, and it is true that Turkey’s religious policy take it as a fact. While Orthodox, Armenian and Chaldean Christians are recognized as indigenous religious minorities, the Latin Catholic Christians are not. There are about 35,000 Catholics in Turkey. Most of them are so-called “Levantines”, or descendants of French or Italian expatriates who settled in Ottoman Empire. Izmir, the ancient Smyrna, was their most important city, and it was the most cosmopolitan city in Turkey.

Izmir’s most popular Catholic Church is the Dominican Church of the Holy Rosary, in the traditionally Levantine district of Alsancak. Every Thursday Father Stefano Negro, the parish priest, holds mass for a meager audience of elders.

“It was very different, when the Church was built in 1904,” tells the Dominican friar, a keen historian of his adopted city. “The Church was crowded and rich, because the parishioners considered it a symbol of their identity.

The Great Fire of Smyrna, in 1922, changed everything, along with the birth of the Turkish Republic. However, the turning point was in 1934, when foreigners were not allowed to work anymore in Turkey.” The skilled workers and entrepreneurs who had helped to make Izmir the economic capital of the Ottoman Empire emigrated, and the Catholic flock of Izmir began to dwindle.

The remaining Levantines are descendants of Italian or French families, and all of them feel uncomfortable in the “New Turkey” of President Erdogan. In the traditionally secular republic there was room for many minorities, but the Islamist rhetoric of the current ruling party is underscoring more and more the Sunni Muslim character of the Turkish State.

“This is not my church,” a lady in her 60's whispers before Father Stefano’s mass. “I was born in Karsiyaka, and I went to St. Helen’s Church. It was always open, and on St. Helen’s Day we could bring our cross in procession in the streets and everybody in the neighborhood celebrated with us. Now it’s impossible [and] we keep a low profile, should we irk religious zealots that are increasingly sensitive...”

Another lady, also in her 60s, comments bitterly that “Turkey is going back in time”. However, the others disagree staunchly. “It’s not true, it was never like this! This is something new, especially in Izmir, and it’s not, like some say, because of immigration from the East”.”Truth is,” the first woman comments “that Turks are angry at Europe. They are angry because they feel rejected. They see Islamophobia rising in the same Europe that keeps closing its doors as a Christian club. So they [Turks[] turn to their religious identity and don’t like us anymore.” The lady, who asks not to be mentioned by name, was born in Izmir, in the elegant Karsiyaka district. When she got married she move to Italy, where she lives with her children and grandchildren. Despite this, she keeps coming to her “hometown”, as she calls it, for several months a year. “But every time it’s more difficult” she laments.

Father Stefano, who came to Turkey in 1976, mostly agrees with the lady. When the military junta ruling the country after the 1980 coup started a fiercely nationalistic policy, the Catholic clergy was seriously worried they would be expelled. To be able to stay, Father Stefano managed to acquire the Turkish citizenship. “But I often have problems," he explains. "Now, every time the police check my ID, they argue about my religion indicated on it. ‘If you are really a Turk, how come that you are not a Sunni Muslim?’”

Things have worsened under Erdogan, with his religious and nationalist rhetoric centered on the Sunni identity of the country. Father Stefano, a witty friar with a sharp humor, turns sad when he talks about the size of his flock. “I can see them dwindle from the number of funerals I celebrate. It’s clear in the mass, where worshipers are all with white hair. There are weddings, sure, but most of them are mixed ones, and children have to be educated in public schools, where religion classes are mandatory, and of course we talk of Sunni religion [in the religious classes].” There are some newcomers to the church, most of whom are Catholic families of NATO military base personnel or technicians working in Izmir.

If the mass is attended by white haired, depressed worshipers, the atmosphere is completely different at the Italian school of Alsancak. Alsancak is an international elementary school and Turkish private kindergarten, managed by Italian nuns and secular teachers, both Italian and Turkish. Sister Roberta also has grey hair, well visible since religious dress is banned in schools, but she has the energy and high spirit of an elite soldier. “We don’t care of habits, we don’t need habits. We are the habits, we are nuns, even when we don’t dress as such” she proudly declares.

The kindergarten children are a merry mixed bunch, from Turkish, Italian, Spanish or American families. They are taught Italian language, but the education is strictly secular. However, Turkish citizens, even those with dual citizenship, cannot attend the elementary school. Only foreign children can continue their education in the nuns’ school and many families resent this. Sister Roberta shows a gift from a local tycoon, a container shipping business magnate, who says to own his success to the education he got at the Catholic nuns’ school.

Sister Roberta cameto Turkey in 1976, like Father Stefano, and she has seen hard times too. Despite various hardships she claims that nuns are highly respected for the education they give in the school, which in better times also hosted orphans and poor children. “We have always been here, since 1887, and we will stay.” After the 1922 fire, when all the foreign nationals had been evacuated on western warships, the youngest nun of the school volunteered to go back, soon followed by others, who kept the catholic presence in Izmir alive. However, Sister Roberta is bitterly disappointed that the Pope didn't come. “Of course we understand the security reasons, and God knows these are hard times. But it’s a bad omen, when it is too dangerous for the Catholic Pope to visit Izmir and the House of Mary in Ephesus.”

Many share her disappointment, and some are in disbelief. On the hill near Ephesus, where the House of Mary attracts pilgrims and tourists, a little crowd are waiting, in vain, for a surprise. “We hoped to see Pope Francis. He’s famous to change program at the last moment, maybe he will come here too. Why he didn't come? We don’t understand!” says the mother of a young boy who is busy lighting candles for the Virgin. They are from Izmir, but they are not Catholic: “We are Turks, we are Muslims and we are proud to be both.” she smiles “But of course we love Meryem Ana, Mother Mary!”

Maybe the dwindling Catholic community in Izmir and the cherished “Christian roots” of Europe could be the key to unlock both Turkey’s accession to Europe and the future of all its minorities.

Catholicism Catholics Christians Ephesus Francis God House Of Mary Islam Izmir John Minority Mother Pope Smyrna St. Mary Turkey Visit Christianity Muslims

Thumb sm
Catholics in Izmir - Turkey - 21 of 21
İsa Bey Mh., 2013. Sokak No:1, 35920 Selçuk/İzmir,Turkey
By Piero Castellano
29 Nov 2014

A group of religious tourists observes an inscription in memory of the visit of Pope Paul VI, in 1967, among the ruins of St. John’s Basilica in Ephesus, about 100 km from Izmir. Though Izmir Catholics are well aware of security problems, especially with the current turmoil on Turkish borders, they show bitter disappointment for the cancellation of the Papal visit, feeling once more neglected by the rest of the Christian world.

Thumb sm
Catholics in Izmir - Turkey - 01 of 21
Alsancak Mh., 1481. Sokak 3-13, 35100 Konak/İzmir,Turkey
By Piero Castellano
27 Nov 2014

The Holy Rosary Church in Alsancak was built in 1904 and was the only church that survived the Great Fire of 1922. After the fire, the church became a main communal center for Levantine Christians in Izmir.

Thumb sm
Catholics in Izmir - Turkey - 03 of 21
Alsancak Mh., 1481. Sokak 3-13, 35100 Konak/İzmir,Turkey
By Piero Castellano
27 Nov 2014

Prayers for the deceased can be read in Italian, French and Turkish, the languages spoken by Catholic worshipers in Izmir. In the second half of 19th century, foreign entrepreneurs and skilled workers formed a community of western citizens who made Izmir the gate to Anatolia. The Aegean city soon became soon the economic capital of the Ottoman Empire and foreigners born there, calling themselves Levantines, were able to build churches and practice their religion.

Thumb sm
Catholics in Izmir - Turkey - 02 of 21
Alsancak Mh., 1481. Sokak 3-13, 35100 Konak/İzmir,Turkey
By Piero Castellano
27 Nov 2014

Miss Caterina Ventura, the oldest member of Izmir's Catholic community, lights a candle at the Holy Lance altar, in the Church of Holy Rosary. Miss Ventura, born in 1921, was nine months old when her family fled to Italy, after the town was destroyed by the Great Fire at the end of Turkish War of Independence. Her family, of Italian and Greek ancestry, returned to Izmir after the new Turkish Republic was established.

Thumb sm
Catholics in Izmir - Turkey - 05 of 21
Alsancak Mh., 1481. Sokak 3-13, 35100 Konak/İzmir,Turkey
By Piero Castellano
26 Nov 2014

An old statuette of the Virgin Mary is placed at the Holy Rosary Church. The church was built in Izmir by the Dominican Friars in 1904, when the promulgation of the Rosary by Pope Leo XIII and the devotion to the Immaculate Conception were at widely embraced, after the sensation caused by the apparitions at Lourdes.

Thumb sm
Catholics in Izmir - Turkey - 04 of 21
Alsancak Mh., 1481. Sokak 3-13, 35100 Konak/İzmir,Turkey
By Piero Castellano
27 Nov 2014

A small number of worshipers attend a mass at the Holy Rosary Chruch in Izmir. Father Stefano Negro, the parish priest and keen historian of Izmir, says that he mostly holds funerals at the church. The few weddings he celebrates are almost always mixed, involving a non-Christian bride or groom.

Thumb sm
Catholics in Izmir - Turkey - 08 of 21
Alsancak Mh., 1481. Sokak 3-13, 35100 Konak/İzmir,Turkey
By Piero Castellano
27 Nov 2014

The relic of the Holy Lance, believed to date from the first century CE, is preserved at the Holy Rosary Church in Izmir. This spear is believed to have been used to stab Jesus Christ while on the cross. During the Great Fire of Smyrna in 1922, over 5,000 people took refuge in this small church. When the friars returned, they found that the silver reliquary had been pillaged, but the priceless Lance was still there.

Thumb sm
Catholics in Izmir - Turkey - 07 of 21
Alsancak Mh., 1481. Sokak 3-13, 35100 Konak/İzmir,Turkey
By Piero Castellano
27 Nov 2014

Father Stefano offers communion to worshipers at the Holy Rosay Church in Izmir. While most of the churchgoers are Levantines, others are foreigners who work at at the local NATO base. Father Stefano arrived to Izmir in 1976 during the worst political violence in Turkey, which lead to a military coup in 1980. He obtained Turkish citizenship after the coup to be able to stay in the country.

Today, he often argues with the police when he shows them his ID; Turkish identity cards report the religion and he is indicated as Catholic. Some policemen wonder how he could he be a Turkish citizen if he is not a Sunni Muslim.

Thumb sm
Catholics in Izmir - Turkey - 06 of 21
Alsancak Mh., 1481. Sokak 3-13, 35100 Konak/İzmir,Turkey
By Piero Castellano
26 Nov 2014

A stained glass window at the Holy Rosary Church in Izmir depicts Pope Pius X, later Saint Pius X, elected in 1903, just one year before the church was built. The shadow of the grate protecting the window from vandalism can be seen in this photo. Society in Izmir is known for tolerance towards minorities, but in the past few years there have been increasing fears that Christians could be the target of attacks by extremists.

Thumb sm
Catholics in Izmir - Turkey - 10 of 21
Alsancak Mh., 1464. Sokak No:20, 35100 Konak/İzmir,Turkey
By Piero Castellano
27 Nov 2014

Sister Roberta helps a student during a drawing class. Due to a law banning religious clothing in schools, the nuns cannot wear Christian outfits.

"œPeople recognize us as nuns in the streets, because even if we don'€™t dress as nuns, we behave as nuns!" Sister Roberta proudly says. She also says the nuns never received threats or faced problems; on the contrary, they are extremely respected for the way they do their job.

Thumb sm
Catholics in Izmir - Turkey - 09 of 21
Alsancak Mh., 1464. Sokak No:20, 35100 Konak/İzmir,Turkey
By Piero Castellano
27 Nov 2014

Sister Roberta, one of the nuns who teach at the Italian School in Izmir, receives flowers by alumni of her school who are paying her an unexpected visit. The Italian School is managed by the order of Sisters of Charity of the Immaculate Conception of Ivrea. Students, however, mostly Muslim Turks, receive a strictly secular education.

Thumb sm
Catholics in Izmir - Turkey - 11 of 21
Donanmacı Mh., 1728. Sokak 55-67, 35480 İzmir/İzmir,Turkey
By Piero Castellano
28 Nov 2014

The Saint Helen Church lies in the Karsiyaka neighborhood of Izmir.

A Levantine lady, who moved to Italy, but spends several months every year in her father's house in Karsiyaka, remembers that when she was a kid, the cross was carried in a public procession in the neighborhood and it was celebrated and respected by everybody, regardless of their religion. "But today it would be impossible," she laments. "Turks are angry at Europe, because they feel rejected and betrayed. And we, as Levantine citizens of European countries, do not feel supported by our governments."

Thumb sm
Catholics in Izmir - Turkey - 13 of 21
İsmet Kaptan Mh., Şehit Nevres Bulvarı No:23, 35110 Konak/İzmir,Turkey
By Piero Castellano
28 Nov 2014

Two Catholic women pray at the Virgin Mary altar in Izmir’s St. John’s Cathedral. The women have their head covered while in the Church, as per the Levantine tradition. Though the Cathedral is dedicated to the Apostle St. John the Evangelist, buried in nearby Ephesus, devotion for the Virgin Mary is very popular, even among Muslims.

Thumb sm
Catholics in Izmir - Turkey - 12 of 21
İsmet Kaptan Mh., Şehit Nevres Bulvarı No:23, 35110 Konak/İzmir,Turkey
By Piero Castellano
28 Nov 2014

A flight of starlings over the St. John’s Cathedral in Izmir. The Church was built in 1863, thanks to a donation of 11,000 gold Turkish lira by then Sultan Abdulaziz. However, nowadays’s Turkish politicians have sent contradictory signals: while the government has promised that Christian students would have their own religion classes, a Minister claimed that “Christianity is no longer a religion, but a culture.”

Thumb sm
Catholics in Izmir - Turkey - 16 of 21
Efes Harabeleri, 35920 İzmir,Turkey
By Piero Castellano
29 Nov 2014

Religious tourists among the ruins of the Saint Mary Church, in the archaeological site of Ephesus. This church was the place where the Third Ecumenical Council proclaimed the Virgin Mary “Mother of God”, in AD 431. The Virgin Mary is said to have moved to Ephesus with John the Evangelist, after her son’s crucifixion.

Thumb sm
Catholics in Izmir - Turkey - 15 of 21
İsmet Kaptan Mh., Şehit Nevres Bulvarı No:23, 35110 Konak/İzmir,Turkey
By Piero Castellano
28 Nov 2014

Dedication of a stained glass window in Izmir Cathedral, offered by a French parishioner. Izmir Catholic community is the largest in Turkey, and the Cathedral is the seat of the only archdiocese of Turkey, covering all the south western Anatolian provinces. The current Archbishop, Ruggero Franceschini, was previously Vicar in Antakya. His successor, Msgr. Luigi Padovese, was slain and beheaded by his Turkish driver, apparently a deranged man, who some said was a religious fanatic.

Thumb sm
Catholics in Izmir - Turkey - 14 of 21
İsmet Kaptan Mh., Şehit Nevres Bulvarı No:23, 35110 Konak/İzmir,Turkey
By Piero Castellano
28 Nov 2014

The words “God loved the World so much to give his only son so that none who believes in him would come to any harm” are inscribed, in Turkish, on the left side in the interior of the Izmir Cathedral.

Thumb sm
Catholics in Izmir - Turkey - 18 of 21
Meryem Ana Yolu, İzmir,Turkey
By Piero Castellano
29 Nov 2014

A silver statuette of the Virgin near the “Meryem Ana Evi”, the “House of Mother Mary”, with the prayer to the Virgin by Saint Francis of Assisi. Respected in all theIslamic world for being the mother of Prophet Isa (known as Jesus to Christians), “Mother Mary” is especially revered in Turkey, where motherhood is highly respected.

Thumb sm
Catholics in Izmir - Turkey - 17 of 21
Meryem Ana Yolu, İzmir,Turkey
By Piero Castellano
29 Nov 2014

The “Meryem Ana Evi”, “House of Mother Mary”, on a hill near the ancient city of Ephesus. The place was visited by Pope Paul VI in 1967, by Pope John Paul II in 1979 and by Pope Benedict XVI, but security concerns forced Pope Francis to break the tradition, for the Izmir Catholics’ dismay.

Thumb sm
Catholics in Izmir - Turkey - 20 of 21
İsa Bey Mh., 2013. Sokak No:1, 35920 Selçuk/İzmir,Turkey
By Piero Castellano
29 Nov 2014

A pilgrim prays on the tomb of the Apostle John, the Evangelist who wrote the Book of Revelation, also known as Apocalypse. The tomb was at the center of the enormous basilica dedicated to St. John. The Church of Ephesus was one of the “Seven Churches of Asia” mentioned in the Apocalypse. However, after the city was destroyed by an earthquake, it declined in favor of the Church of Izmir, the last survivor of the Seven.

Thumb sm
Catholics in Izmir - Turkey - 19 of 21
Meryem Ana Yolu, İzmir,Turkey
By Piero Castellano
29 Nov 2014

A Turkish Muslim family lights candles outside of the “Meryem Ana Evi”, the “House of the Virgin Mary” in Ephesus. Like many others, they had come to the holy site hoping to see the Pope, despite the fact he had cancelled his trip to Izmir. Pope Francis is known to randomly change plans and this family was hoping for a surprise change of program.