Being both Turkish and Christian in a place where a different religion usually means another ethnicity

ISTANBUL – We used to see each other every year, as if by appointment, at one of the Greek parishes of Nihori (known to Turks as Yenikoy) on the Bosporus, I thought they were two of the many Turks who attend the service either out of curiosity about Greek Orthodoxy or to celebrate with Christian friends, among a multiethnic, multiconfessional congregation. An elegant, educated and well-traveled couple, Ahmet and Necla Ozgunes are among many Turks who have converted to Christianity, and among the few who don’t keep their decision secret. A few months before moving abroad, they spoke to Kathimerini about the inner quest that led them to Orthodoxy and what it means to be Turkish and Christian. Articles in the Turkish press about recent baptisms of Muslims state that most were of Greek or Armenian origin and so were returning to their roots. Is that so in your case? Ahmet: Origin played a part in some cases but certainly not with us. I was born in Cappadocia; some of my ancestors were from the Caucasus. As far as I know, there were no Christians in my family; I became Orthodox through a completely personal quest. Necla: My mother is from Kavala and my father from the Black Sea. Some of my family speak Romaika (the Greek dialect spoken by Christians who became Muslims). But leaving Islam for Orthodoxy was a personal choice that had nothing to do with my origins. Historically, Turkish identity has been so closely connected to Islam that many Turks can’t accept that one can be Turkish and not Muslim. How do you feel? N: It’s true that many people don’t see you as Turkish if you belong to another religion, especially if you are a Christian or a Jew. They think you do not simply belong to another religion, but another ethnic group. A: That is due to historical reasons. Division into ethnic groups (millet) is an Ottoman tradition. All the Orthodox made up one ethnic group, and the administration didn’t care about their ethnic origins, whether they were Bulgarians, Serbs or Greeks. In Cappadocia, what distinguished «Romioi» and Turks was religion. Orthodox Christians in my hometown of Talla spoke Turkish as a mother tongue and even held mass in Turkish. What made them part of that ethnic group was their membership of the Orthodox Church. Turkish history furnishes other examples. Throughout the Turkish diaspora, Turkish tribes embraced Christianity. There are Turkish Christians in Central Asia, Romania and thousands in Turkey. The fact that they are Christians does not mean they are not Turks. I am a Christian but 100 percent Turkish, since Turkish is my mother tongue. Besides, the division of people on the basis of religion is outdated. People still get annoyed when a Turk is Christian, but it is gradually becoming more acceptable. What do you do professionally? N: I studied to be a dietitian and I work as a volunteer. A: I was the manager of large state monopolies and lived for some years in the United States. Later I was a businessman in Belgium. Road to Orthodoxy Ahmet, does your decision to become Christian date from when you lived in Christian countries for your career? A: No, the ground was laid much earlier. Unfortunately, Christianity in Turkey is seen as something that comes from «outside.» That’s wrong, because Orthodoxy is an important part of the region’s history. From childhood we get intimations of Christianity through the prism of Islam. Many Muslims have great respect for Christians, a respect imposed by the Koran itself, which accepts Jesus as a prophet. In general, Muslims also respect the Virgin Mary. I assume you have encountered the crowds of religious Muslims who go to Orthodox churches in Istanbul to pay homage to the saints and ask them for help or favors. In Turkey, we are predisposed to accept the message of Christianity. Any problems come from education on both sides and ignorance. Many Muslims cannot understand the concept of the Holy Trinity. They think we worship three gods, that Christianity is polytheistic. Did your quest start in Turkey, Necla? N: Yes, when I was at university. My family was quite religious, without being sticklers for all the rules of Islam. They described themselves as Muslims, as did I, until I drifted away from Islam when I studied in Ankara. My parents allowed us to be fairly free in matters of religion. But upon leaving Islam, I felt a gap I had to fill. I read and searched on my own. That led me to Orthodoxy. So it was an outcome of local experiences, without influences from abroad. A: Influences from Christianity in America and Europe could only be negative. I didn’t feel comfortable with the Christians there. They put me off Christianity because they have turned it into psychotherapy. They go to church on Sunday to relax. But religion aims at filling a different gap. Christianity in Europe is being stripped of its religious meaning. At Christmas, for example, many people wish each other happy holidays instead of a happy Christmas. In Europe, people have a very superficial relationship with Christianity. They are not aware of the message and its spiritual content. How do Christians here differ from their counterparts in Europe? N: We are much closer to the substance and tradition of Christianity. A: We are more faithful. N: We obey the tenets of our religion. We go to church every Sunday and we read scripture together for a while every evening. And we pray. Do you have any connection with the Christian Orthodox community here? A: We have a close connection as we meet them every Sunday at church. There are some very likable people in the community and we have formed friendships. Mass is held in turn at certain churches. We often go to the churches in Nihori. Lakis Vigas, the community president, gets Necla to read the Lord’s Prayer in Turkish. A: We read up at home so we can follow each service. We have a bilingual copy of the Bible so we can look at the Turkish text as well. It’s important to understand, to participate. Have you had negative reactions from your social circle to your change of religion? A: None at all. N: Nor did I. My family was surprised but they respected my choice. Do you think many Turks will follow your example? A and N: Yes, many. But few have been baptized. N: More people have been baptized than admit it. They fear the reaction of their social circle. They are Christians in secret. A: There is some fear. That must change and so must the attitude of society to people who convert. The Orthodox Church here does not proselytize. On the contrary, it puts aspiring converts through many tests. You have to spend a long time learning and they check your sincerity. So it is difficult to join the Orthodox Church. It took a long time but we really wanted to do it.