In Time for Orthodox Easter, A Turkish Declaration of Christian Unity
(Photo: Bishop Thomas Schirrmacher addressing Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew and the heads of the major Turkish churches © BQ/Warnecke)
In the waning years of the Ottoman Empire, a delegation of imams approached the sultan in complaint. Western pressure forced the state to allow Christian churches to ring their bells.
“Do they all ring at the same time?” the sultan asked. No, he was told. “Then don’t worry,” he replied, “until they can agree.”
Perhaps apocryphal, the story illustrates the long history of division plaguing Christianity around the world.
The Ottoman empire is gone, and Turkey is now a secular state with official freedom of religion. Bells are hardly heard these days at all, though in smaller numbers the ancient Christian communities remain.
But from Istanbul – once Constantinople – where the “Great Schism” sundered Catholicism and Orthodoxy in 1054, a new book heralds a new beginning.
Christianity: Fundamental Teachings is a simple, 95-page presentation of the common beliefs of all Turkish churches. Its 12 chapters include descriptions of the nature of God, the salvation through Jesus, the work of the Holy Spirit, the inspiration of the Bible, and the role of the church.
But its most explosive page is the preface of endorsements.
The Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch, The Armenian Patriarchate, the Syrian Orthodox Patriarchate, the Catholic Bishops Conference of Turkey, and the Associate of Protestant Churches all approve it, and recommend that it be widely read.
“You can’t find a page like this in all of church history,” said Armenian Bishop Sahak Mashalian, the principle scribe. “It is akin to a miracle.”
Even so, participants acknowledge the points of difference that bar full communion.
“We cannot set up the same table and drink from the same chalice,” Mashalian added. “But we still have things we can do for the Lord.”
The vision emerged gradually, and Mashalian credited the Turkish government. Back in 2002, state officials sought to correct misinformation about the Christian minority in school textbooks, and Armenian teachers brought the issue to their priest.
Fr. Drtad Uzunyan realized the issue is wider than Armenians, however, and approached his patriarch, Mesrob II. He took it to Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, regarded as first among equals for all Eastern Orthodox churches.
The two patriarchs consulted with the other denominations, who worked together to solve the problem. But the warm spirit created between members of the Joint Commission of Churches in Turkey kept them from dissolution.
By 2004, they decided to collaborate further, to emphasize joint belief. After several years of hiatus, the project was revived in 2011. Four years of discussion were finalized in 2015, when Temel İlkeleriyle Hristiyanlik was published in Turkish.
“This book is the fruit of sisterly collaboration between the churches,” said Uzunyan. “For the first time we have come together, declaring we have the same faith and accept each other as brothers and sisters in Christ.”
Both editions were published through the Bible Society in Turkey, whose advisory board represents the same five denominations. The book is available for sale in its branches, but most copies were distributed freely through the churches.
Of the 12,500 copies printed, only 190 remain, with a second edition pending. There are only 100,000 Christians in Turkey. One in eight are discovering their common faith.
This success led the joint commission to publish an English translation, to announce their assertion of fellowship to the world.
Launched in February before the beginning of Lent, promotion began in advance of both Western and Orthodox Easter celebrations. A more-modest 3,000 copies were printed, and only 349 remain. An e-book is being prepared.
Uzunyan hopes their efforts will help the unity of the church, and the World Evangelical Alliance endorses the effort.
“Together with neighbor countries like Syria, Armenia and Greece, [Turkey] represents the part of the world where the church grew from infancy to adulthood,” Thomas Schirrmacher, Associate Secretary General of the WEA, said at the English launch.
“With this new book, Christians in Turkey are once again taking the lead.”
But drawing in Protestants wasn’t always easy. Ten years ago, Schirrmacher went with then-Turkish Evangelical Alliance leader Rev. Behnan Konutgan to Patriarch Bartholomew, seeking reconciliation after a Protestant Turk had slandered him.
Uzunyan was an early partner in the reparation of relationships, and acknowledged the difficulties.
“There is no misunderstanding with Protestants in Turkey,” he said. “We understand each other very well, and this is the problem.”
Konutgan described a “wall of enmity” between evangelicals and Orthodox, but that the joint collaboration has destroyed 90 percent of it. In the book, he was impressed how Orthodox and Catholics honored his community’s views on baptism and other theological issues, publishing only what was in the Bible.
Uzunyan can anticipate a new future, as he found humbleness, forgiveness, reconciliation, and a spirit of true love with his colleagues.
“The collaboration of this committee has done much to correct the problems,” he said. “I hope this book will help.”
Confident it will, Konutgan looks abroad.
“Most of the Christians in the West don’t know anything about the church in Turkey, and many evangelicals are short-sighted, not realizing the Orthodox and Catholics have been here for hundreds of years,” he said.
“If they read this book, they will see we believe in 90 to 95 percent of the same things.”
But in Turkey, more than 99 percent of an 80 million population believe different things. And with an Islamic identity rising among many, Elpidophoros Lambriniadis, Metropolitan of Bursa in the Ecumenical Patriarchate, believes this helped.
“Usually in dialogue we explore the differences we have with each other,” he said of Christian ecumenism. “But wherever Christians are in minority status they feel close to each other, their unity is stronger.”
Lambriniadis stressed the book is meant for a Christian audience. But it also indirectly addresses common Muslim misunderstandings of the Trinity, icons, and the sacred nature of marriage.
“We wanted to speak our faith in a language they can understand,” he said.
So whether read in the Muslim East or the secular West, Christianity: Fundamental Teachings is a call that echoes the prayer of Jesus, that his disciples be one.
Currently it is just a seed, reflecting another of Jesus’ parables. But Turkish churches have a larger vision.
“Our common wish is that this book may be like a stone thrown into a lake,” said Mashalian, “and its waves reach out to the most remote parts of Christendom.”