Church Plant in Turkey Seeks to Sidestep Dangers

May 21, 2015

Agape Church was established in Samsun in spite of the country's hostility toward Christians by both secular Turkish nationalists and hardline Islamists.

First century churches in what is now modern Turkey met mostly in homes, but Christians in the country today find they run more risks meeting in their living space than in public buildings.

A Turkish pastor said Christians in towns along the Black Sea coast cannot meet in their apartments without raising suspicions from Muslim neighbors. In Samsun, in what was once the Roman province of Pontus to which the Apostle Peter addressed believers in 1 Peter 1:1, Pastor Matta (full name withheld for security reasons) and a colleague planted a church 13 years ago as they were simultaneously seeking to plant churches in Ordu and other towns along the Black Sea coast.

When they began making trips to Ordu, 93 miles east of Samsun, to disciple former Muslims, Pastor Matta and a colleague initially ministered primarily in parks. Turks are highly relational, conversational and hospitable, Pastor Matta said, but the same relational bent that opens opportunities for gospel proclamation also makes it hard for those who have embraced Christ to meet for worship among their Muslim neighbors. Far from the isolated, private space of many Western nations, apartment homes in Turkey are a tightly woven neighborhood tapestry.

In a country where many see Christians as foreign spies or national traitors, that can be a problem for forming house fellowships.

"There's a great fear of small groups in homes – they are always under suspicion of nasty things developing that will damage the community," Pastor Matta said. "Anyone with a different message is considered a foreigner and doesn't easily fit in. If they have Bible studies in their homes, they lose their jobs, the families reject them, and there's the risk that the children would be dismissed from their schools."

Schools in Turkey have been known to invent technicalities as grounds for expelling students whose parents have been found to have left Islam. With a population of just under 196,000, Ordu is a small city where it is difficult to be anonymous, Pastor Matta said. Thankfully, he said, new Christians there have no qualms about attending worship meetings in a public space.

"The reason we had to rent a place to meet is that many of the believers couldn't just invite us to their homes," he said. "We noticed a lot of interest in learning about the gospel message, but lots of fear of having us tell them in their homes. We ministered mostly in the parks, away from their homes, but in the winter time, that's impossible due to the cold weather."

The fellowship has grown to 31 people, mostly Iranian refugees, along with eight Turks, one Armenian with Turkish citizenship and three Georgians. Pastor Matta visits the Ordu church once a week to preach and develop a local leader to preside over the fellowship. He also travels weekly to Amasya and Sinop to preach Christ.

In Ordu, he and his co-worker made initial contacts through responses to his church website and by offering New Testaments in newspaper ads.

"When addresses came to us, we would visit them," he said. "We would ask God to help turn the conversation to His truth. As we prayed before visiting, the answer would come as God put us with interested people."

Samsun is the ancient port city of Amisus believed to have been a major transit point for the expansion of Christianity in the first century, and there and in Ordu the remains of church buildings lost or repurposed in the Turkish takeover of Greek properties in the early 20th century testify to the presence of Christianity in the region, he said. Even so, opposition from Muslims is often based on the notion that the area has always been Muslim, Pastor Matta said, noting that a local Muslim recently told him that churches were foreign to Ordu.

Pastor Matta laughed at the suggestion, pointing out that the building across the street, now used as a theater, once housed a church. Elsewhere in the neighborhood, the pastor told the Muslim, is one of the most beautiful church buildings of Turkey, though it is now used for other functions.

"There are very many old church buildings in the city of Ordu," the pastor told him. "A hundred years ago there were tens of thousands of Christians; Christians are not foreign to this land and its culture. People used to live together in the past, please do not try to segregate us."

To that, the local Muslim replied, "You may be right, but . . . " his voice trailed off as he went away, Pastor Matta said.

Some former church buildings are used as fire stations, others as venues only for weddings, he said.

"It is rather obvious that Christians have lived on the land in the past," he said. "There are 17 cities in the Black Sea area, and at one time there was only one church."

People in the 99 percent Muslim country exert subtle pressures on Christians. When the fellowship was hanging its sign for the Ordu church building, Muslims would come and say, "We've welcomed you, but please don't hang up this sign," he said. They would tell him they didn't want a cross displayed in their neighborhood.

"They want to impress everyone that there is freedom of religion in Turkey, but they don't give us any freedom," he said.

Turkey has a secular constitution and government, but even secular Turks espouse an entrenched nationalism that involves unwavering allegiance to Islam. At the same time, members of the Islamist faction that has long vied with the secular elements for a more officially Islamic country are currently in the highest levels of government.

Searching for a venue for the Ordu church's Easter celebration, Pastor Matta sought to rent one of two old church buildings, each owned by a different organization, he said. One responded by saying, "If I rent this to you, I would be in a very hard place. Please don't force this upon me," Pastor Matta said. The other asked the church to register their request at the Ordu Central Office and wait for a reply.

Putting sign up for Agape Church plant in Ordu met with some opposition.

"The reply was that there was a theater event the night we had requested," he said. "So I asked about the next night. It too was not possible due to someone else having booked it. I asked about several other nights, but they said to me that each night was booked for more theatrical productions. I asked, 'When is it empty?'"

The response came that there were no openings, he said.

"It sounded as though 24/7 this place was booked for theatrical productions, or else they really are not sincere about letting us celebrate Easter," Pastor Matta said.

Other anti-Christian hostilities are not so subtle. In Trabzon, farther east on the Black Coast, the Rev. Andrea Santoro was shot dead in a Catholic church in February 2006. The killer, 16-year-old Oguzhan Akdin, said he shot Santoro in retaliation for cartoons in Denmark depicting the prophet of Islam. Akdin was sentenced to nearly 19 years in prison for shooting Santoro in the head as the priest knelt in prayer.

In Samsun, the Rev. Pierre Brunissen was stabbed in July 2006 in a non-fatal attack.

A public worship site, though unwelcome, seems to give Christians an air of legitimacy in the eyes of Turks. Since the church plant in Ordu began meeting in a warehouse about a year ago, "everyone comes to the church freely whenever they can," Pastor Matta said. The building needs about $5,000 in renovations, he said, and the church seeks assistance to pay the $440 monthly rental fee.

"We believe it will grow in numbers of believers worshiping our Lord in Ordu," the pastor said. "I also go each week to the cities of Amasya and Sinop, so we're hoping to see more groups worshiping our Lord together. I am encouraged by John 5:17, where Jesus says, 'My Father is working until now, and I am working,' knowing that God is at work in the lives of people here. We so long for your prayers for more Turks to find Christ, and that more fellowships will be born for His Kingdom."