Church in the closet

It is well known what kind of row can erupt when in Holland a new mosque is proposed to be built. But what happens when Dutch people want to build a church in Turkey? This is a story from the southern Turkish town of Alanya, stronghold of Christians who flock here for the winter months. 

In southern Turkey’s Alanya at least twenty poor boys and girls are walking around with brand new shoes on their feet. The children are not aware of the fact that they got these shoes from the Dutch church in their town, nor are their parents. The Dutch church has to manoeuvre between its inner urge to give charity and Rule Number One that the municipal board of Alanya stipulated to the church: thou shalt not convert. And handing out shoes to poor people could be seen as just the first step towards evangelisation. So that’s why the gift is not publicised. And that’s also why the source of the spectacles that will soon be handed out will remain a secret too.

It’s not that the church feels any need to convert Turks to Chiristianity, let that be very clear. The Church, officially called that Dutch Ecumenical Congregation of Alanya (NIGA), was founded one and a half years ago by four Dutch Christians living in Alanya semi-permanently and who missed their weekly church attendance. They decided to take some action and founded a church of their own. Things moved ahead quickly: half a year later, the first service was held. Not just some improvised gathering, but a real service including, with the official permission of the mayor, all the necessities: an organ and an organist, an altar table and a big wooden cross, a pile of psalm books flown in from Holland and even a Dutch minister. There is some confusion about the attendance that first time, but it must have been between seven and maybe even fifteen.

“For the first few months a close watch was kept on the neighbourhood of the church. You never know how ordinary people might react to a church.”


Also present that first time: a group of ‘minders’  paid for by the municipality. During the church service they patrolled outside, and before the service began they checked the altar and under the chairs to make sure the room was free of explosives. Kees van der Have, chairman of the church board, didn’t really find all this security necessary: “But the Alanya mayor didn’t want to take any chances. For the first few months a close watch was kept on the neighbourhood of the church every Sunday morning. You never know how ordinary people might react to a church.”


It turns out that the ordinary people of Alanya don’t react to the church at all. More surprisingly, the majority of the Turkish residents don’t even know that in the basement of the municipal cultural centre every Sunday morning at ten o’clock a group of Dutch people come together to practice their faith. But to a keen observer, the Christians can easily be identified from about 9.30 in the morning: the (mostly) elderly church-goers are neatly dressed – most of the women in skirts, the men in suits – and clearly distinguish themselves from the average tourist dressed in shorts or short skirt and sleeveless shirt. Calmly they walk to the municipal cultural centre, where they can use a room that was made available by the Alanya mayor himself. They chat a bit and then go down the stairs into the basement, take the service programme and a psalm book from the table at the entrance and sit down on one of about 120 chairs.

The basement room is about one third full this Sunday morning in May. The minister is ds. Jelle Loosman, who worked as a pastoral aide in a hospital, and is now retired. Every two to three months the church sends another minister from the Netherlands and hires an apartment in an average neighbourhood in Alanya for him (and, soon to be, her).

Alanya’s mayor can simply decide to revoke his blessing and deny NIGA access to the municipal cultural centre. “Well, in that case we would find another hall.”

So, everything is all set up. Except for one thing: official recognition as a church. That is just not possible in Turkey. Turkey only acknowledges churches of people who have lived for a long time in Anatolia, like the Armenian church and the Greek Orthodox church. The NIGA exists by the grace of the mayor of Alanya, Hasan Sipahioglu. He governs his city on the Mediterranean coast as a merchant would: whatever might bring his citizens more prosperity gets his support. So when a group of elderly Europeans, part of the growing community of European winter visitors in the coastal town, tells him that supporting a Dutch church is good for tourism and can also raise the number of winter residents, he doesn’t see any problem but offers a free hall and gives his blessing. And spends a small share of the municipal budget on a handfull of ‘minders’, who still keep an eye on the neighbourhood and who are always at the ready in times of potential unrest, for example around the time of the release of Dutch politician Wilders’ film ‘Fitna’.



Last March there were local elections in Turkey, and it was an exciting time for NIGA too: if another candidate had won, the very existence of the church would have been uncertain. Sipahioglu won, for the third time in a row, but even that offers no security: if the Christian church in general or the NIGA in particular does something that the mayor doesn’t like, then Alanya’s elected leader can simply decide to revoke his blessing and deny NIGA access to the municipal cultural centre. “Well, in that case we would find another hall”, says Kees van der Have with a shrug.


“A church is of course not like a soccer or table tennis club, but an institution.”


No doubt. But however laconically Van der Have speaks about the Sunday shelter, it hurts him to know that his church can’t get any official status. They considered becoming an association or club, like the Germans who occupy the same municipal hall every Sunday morning starting at 11 for their church service. But a Turkish association must hang a portrait of Turkey’s founding father Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in its meeting place, and maintain a minute’s silence in his memory before every gathering. “That doesn’t really suit a church”, says Van der Have cautiously, for the memory of Atatürk is sacred and sensitive to any hint of irreverence. “But besides that, a church is of course not like a soccer or table tennis club, but an institution.”


Again Van der Have and his folks don’t do things half heartedly: they are busy writing a letter to Dutch foreign affairs minister Maxime Verhagen to ask him to consider this matter in the negotiations with Turkey about entering the EU. A common point of view from Verhagen and all his European colleagues, that’s what they aim at. Jelle Loosman, who has already come several times to Alanya as a minister and is also a board member of NIGA, is drafting the letter. “Of course, it’s basically a matter of freedom of religion”, he says.

By the way, he is not so much apprehensive about the possible whims of the municipality, but more about other foreign Christians in Turkey. Especially American preachers give initiatives like NIGA a hard time. “In Antalya, about two hours drive from Alanya, an American preacher is active. He is here purely to win souls and has a lot of money supporting him. His behaviour reflects on us: if he crosses any lines, then all Christian churches cross the lines. That’s what we dread.”


Christianity became a synonym for foreign, for strange and hostile. And for imperialist.


The Turkish disdain for proselytising  and the attitude of the state towards churches are closely connected. The unity of the nation is one of the pillars of the Turkish republic, founded in 1923 as a nation state that needed to be shaped as homogeneously as possible. Any resident of the republic was from then on two things: Turkish (an identity that before that didn’t really exist) and Muslim. In the Ottoman times Christians made up about thirty percent, and very quickly this shrunk to the half a percent that is the case today: the Christian populations were either killed (Armenians) or banned (Greeks, who were exchanged for Turks who lived on Greek territory) in the years around the founding of the republic. Those who survived or stayed behind were in large part assimilated and now, a few generations later, live as Muslims with a Turkish family name. Christianity became a synonym for foreign, for strange and hostile. And for imperialist, because the countries that wanted to divide up the remnants of the Ottoman Empire after the First World War – Italy, England, Greece and France – were also Christian. And they already had a bad image, thanks to the Crusades, in which once Constantinople also fell.


The distrust of Christianity is, in short, deep-seated in Turkey. And this deep mistrust is exactly what mayors like that of Alanya have to take into account when they cooperate with clubs like the NIGA. Every attempt to convert a Muslim confirms the imperialistic tendencies of the church, and would make it impossible for the mayor to support the NIGA any longer.


An Islamic state


That Turkish law doesn’t give any freedom to found a church has mostly to do with the relation between mosque and state in Turkey. Religion and state are not separated, but closely connected: all imams work for the state, which controls religious life in every detail. In this form of secularism the state is protected against the influence of religion, rather than the other way around, as in the Netherlands, where secularism safeguards religion against interference from the state. If the state allowed Christian churches to officially exist, this would create a precedent and might give the right to exist to religions other  than the official state Islam. That would, the strict secularists fear, be a threat to secularism and in the end lead to their biggest bogey: Turkey as an Islamic state.


People who visit Fikret see the Jesus portraits on the wall, but nobody ever mentions them.


Nevertheless, a few months ago a Turk was baptized into the Dutch church. Fikret is his name, he is 36 and a fish hangs from the wooden necklace around his neck. For a short while, he wore a cross there, but that made him lose friends and would have even put his job at risk, so now he keeps his faith to himself. People who visit him see the Jesus portraits on the wall, but nobody ever mentions them. It reminds one of how in Turkey homosexuality is usually dealt with: it is tolerated, as long as you don’t come out of the closet, as long as it is not too visible. Fikret still observes the Islamic holidays: “With the Feast of Sacrifice, I slaughter a sheep and give the meat to poor families. If I don’t do that, people might think I’m poor and they would offer me meat, and I don’t want that. I live among Muslims, so I adjust myself.”


Work of God


How did Firket come to his faith? NIGA has nothing to do with that, he hurries to say – of course he knows the sensitivities of his own country very well. He already felt like a Christian for years before, got in touch with the NIGA and took his chance: finally an opportunity to get baptized. Fikret works in religious tourism. For years he has been a guide for Christians who visit biblical sites in the south of Turkey. That’s how he got to know Christians. Many of the tourists he works with come from the Netherlands, and thanks to a flair for languages he even speaks Dutch rather well. That in, of all places, his home town of Alanya a Dutch church was founded, can thus be seen as the work of God himself.


How does his family feel about his conversion to Christianity? His parents, who live in Germany, don’t know anything about it. His family-in-law doesn’t mention it at all. His spouse doesn’t give him a hard time over it. “That’s because I take good care of her and our children”, says Fikret. “If that wasn’t the case, then maybe she and her parents would not have accepted my conversion.”

In the association with other church members, Fikret seems to be the darling of the club. He is young and lively, a real happy Christian. Still, he doesn’t talk much about his faith with his fellow Christians. Also, he doesn’t always understand them very well. That Jesus took the sins of humanity upon himself by dying on the cross is too easy in Fikret’s opinion: “I’m sure more is needed to be released from your sins”. But he doesn’t really want to get into that. “I believe in my own way, and that is good. I feel no need to discuss that so much, not with my fellow Christians and not with Muslims either. You see, I’m not Saint Paul.”


The church members see the poverty that is not hard to find in the rather prosperous town of Alanya.


I’m not Saint Paul: it characterizes the NIGA quite well. The four founders of the church are not Saint Paul, and minister Loosman, himself ecumenically focussed, is even less so. He completed his theological studies with a thesis about missionary work, and he knows exactly what ”the church destroyed with that.” That’s also exactly why he was drawn to NIGA: not any urge to do mission work, but building a church from scratch in which Christians of different creeds can come together.


But at the same time, he says, a church like NIGA can not be blind to the world around it. The church members see the poverty that is not hard to find in the rather prosperous town of Alanya. By chance there were contacts with a school, where not all the children had decent shoes. By now, all the feet are shod. And there is more to come. After the church service, when Jelle Loosman shakes the hand of every church-goer, the revenues of the collection can be counted. The two traditional black bags with wooden grip – one for NIGA, one for parish work – contain about 300 to 400 lira (150 to 200 euros) at the beginning of the tourist season. There is almost enough money to buy spectacles for a group of sight-impaired Turkish boys and girls. But nobody needs to know about that.

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