Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

In Turkey, Even Dead Christians Aren’t Safe

Hatred of non-Muslims is so intense that cemeteries are being attacked—and the government is fanning the flames.

Hatred against non-Muslims is so intense in Turkey that even the dead cannot escape it.

A recent demonstration of this hostility took place in the Turkish capital of Ankara. Graves in an Armenian cemetery there were reportedly desecrated, according to the news website Bianet:

The Armenian Stanoz Cemetery in Ankara’s Sincan district has been the target of treasure hunters for years. The cemetery has been damaged many times before. A part of the Armenian cemetery with agricultural land next to it is also used as a picnic area. The barbed wires placed around the cemetery by the Sincan Municipality in order to protect the cemetery have been removed and added to the land of the vineyard houses built in the valley. The images of scattered human bones coming out of graveyards dug by treasure hunters looking for burials in the cemetery have been posted on social media many times. However, due to a lack of action [by authorities], only a few tombstones with Armenian inscriptions and cross carvings remain.

Opposition member of parliament Garo Paylan, who is of Armenian origin, asked Turkey’s culture and tourism minister Nuri Ersoy the following questions through a parliamentary motion:

  • Why have you not protected the Ankara Stanoz Armenian Cemetery?
  • Do you have a plan to protect the numerous Armenian cemeteries across the country?
  • Have you tried to catch the treasure hunters who looted the Stanoz Armenian Cemetery?

The minister has yet to answer Paylan’s questions.

Such attacks are not isolated incidents in Turkey. They’re widespread and the reason appears to be the hatred and intolerance many Turks have for non-Muslims. Even a majority of the representatives in the Turkish political opposition do not raise their voices against the abuses of non-Muslim cemeteries and graves. Meanwhile the examples keep accumulating.

In February, 20 of the 72 gravestones at the Ortaköy Christian Cemetery in Ankara were destroyed, according to news reports. Another attack was carried out on a grave in the cemetery of the Santa Maria Catholic Church in Trabzon in northeast Turkey.

In March, a 300-year-old cemetery belonging to Yazidis, a non-Muslim people, in the Nusaybin district of Mardin in southeast Turkey was destroyed by unidentified individuals. Gravestones and marbles were broken. Some religious symbols were also shattered. Among the shattered symbols were the sun and peacock, which are considered sacred by the Yazidis.

In the same month, the gravestones of Alevis, a religious minority in Turkey, were reported to have been damaged in the town of Aydin. The families of the deceased reported the incident to the police, who told them that “this was not the first [attack] and the perpetrators would be investigated.” Such attacks against Alevi graves are commonplace and even the victims of massacres are sometimes targeted. In 2013 and 2015, for instance, the mausoleums of 33 Alevi intellectuals who were burned to death in the 1993 Sivas massacre were attacked and damaged in the Karşiyaka Cemetery in Izmir by unidentified persons. The vandals removed the plates on the mausoleums with the names of the dead.

Jewish cemeteries are also not exempt from attacks. In February 2019, a Jewish cemetery in the city of Antep located in southeastern Turkey was attacked. Its graves and epitaphs were broken. Another attack took place in 2016. When Jews visited the cemetery in the southern city of Hatay on June 19 (Fathers’ Day), they saw that the wall of the cemetery was broken. The gate had been torn down and the gravestones damaged. The cemetery includes the graves of Jews and Armenians, as well as of Muslims.

Another story from 2016 is also quite telling as to the scope of the aversion to non-Muslims in Turkey. Miho Irak, an Assyrian Christian from Turkey, lost his life at the age 77 in Belgium, where he had been living for 22 years. Irak was a member of the funeral fund of Turkey’s Presidency of Religious Affairs, the Diyanet. He regularly paid membership fees. His daughter Nezahat Irak said that Diyanet officials gave up on their plans of taking her father’s dead body to Turkey after they learned he was a Christian. The family then took Irak’s body to Turkey and buried him in the city of Mardin on August 25.

Sadly, the desecration of cemeteries of non-Muslims has a long history in Turkey. The Turkish government has targeted them for decades in an attempt to erase the history of the land’s indigenous peoples. The author Hüsnü Gürbey writes that the Turkish state has destroyed many cemeteries of Armenians, Assyrians, Yazidis, Greeks, and others and constructed public buildings on them. During the 1955 anti-Greek pogroms in Istanbul, for instance, the main Greek Orthodox cemeteries were vandalized and, in some cases, destroyed.

Today, Christians in Turkey are a tiny, oppressed minority. But the land that comprises Turkey was once inhabited and ruled by indigenous Christians. In the mid-19th century, there were between three and four million Christians (Greeks, Armenians, and Assyrians), around 20 percent of the total population. By 1924, through three successive waves of genocidal violence, Christians had been reduced to 2 percent of Turkey’s population. Historians Benny Morris and Dror Ze’evi document these realities in their 2019 book The Thirty-Year Genocide: Turkey’s Destruction of Its Christian Minorities, 1894–1924.

Violence and discrimination against non-Muslims did not end with the establishment of modern Turkey in 1923. According to scholar Amy Mills:

Since the beginning of the republic, Turkey’s leaders wanted to increase the participation of Muslims in the economy and reduce minority influence in the economy, especially in Istanbul… During the teens and early 1920s, boycotts against non-Muslim businesses and the expulsion of minorities from hundreds of jobs where they had dominated resulted in thousands of non-Muslims leaving Istanbul. By 1929, 70,000 non-Muslim people had left Turkey.

In 1922, the National Turkish Trade Association was founded to determine which businesses were Turkish. The association discovered that 97% of the import-export trade in Istanbul, and all shops, stores, restaurants, and entertainment centers in Beyoğlu were owned by minorities. This survey was a precursor to actions taken with the aim of Turkifying the city’s economy. In 1923, non-Muslims were expelled from trading jobs and insurance companies. In 1924, minorities were barred from service jobs, bars, restaurants, coffeehouses, as well as trades such as boat captain, fisherman, and streetcar driver, jobs previously dominated by non-Muslims. In 1934, a law identified further minority-dominated professions to be prohibited to foreigners.

Also, in 1934, Jews in eastern Thrace were exposed to a pogrom. From 1941 to 1942, Turkey enlisted all Christian and Jewish males in the military, including the elderly and mentally ill. They were forced to work under horrendous conditions in labor battalions. In 1942, a wealth tax was imposed to eliminate Christians and Jews from the economy. In 1955, Greeks, Armenians, and Jews were targeted by a pogrom in Istanbul. And in 1964, the remaining Greeks were forcefully expelled from Turkey. All of the above contributed to the ethnic cleansing of Christians and Jews in Turkey.

Today, only around 0.2 percent of Turkey’s population are Christians or Jews. Yet Turkey is still referred to by many as “the second Holy Land.” During much of the first century, it was the central land of the early church. Many Christians are unaware of this fact because the Bible refers to the region as “Asia Minor” or “Anatolia,” but back when the population mostly consisted of Greeks, Armenians, Assyrians, and Jews, Asia Minor was home to the seven churches of the Book of Revelation and seven ecumenical councils. Much of the New Testament was written either to or from churches in Asia Minor. Many saints were born there and the three major apostles—St. Peter, St. Paul, and St. John—either ministered or lived there. The Turkish-Islamic presence in the region began only in the 11th century. The Turks from Central Asia arrived in Asia Minor in 1071.

Jews too have a long history in Asia Minor. Professor Franklin Hugh Adler writes that Jews have lived

continuously in Asia Minor from Biblical times, mentioned by Aristotle and several Roman sources, including Josephus. Jews, in fact, had inhabited this land long before the birth of Mohammed and the Islamic conquests of the seventh and eighth centuries, or for that matter, the arrival and conquests of the Turks, beginning in the eleventh century. On the eve of the birth of Islam, most of world Jewry lived under Byzantine or Persian rule in the lands of the Mediterranean basin.

Fast forward to the 21st century, and Turkey’s non-Muslims can’t even rest in peace.

Uzay Bulut is a Turkish journalist and political analyst formerly based in Ankara. Her writings have appeared in The Washington Times, The American Spectator, The Christian Post, and The Jerusalem Post. Her work focuses mainly on human rights, Turkish politics and history, religious minorities in the Middle East, and antisemitism.