Life for Catholics in Turkey: ‘a Challenge and a Grace’

A Franciscan priest in Istanbul said living the Christian faith amid Muslims ‘demands a purification of the faith.’

St. Anthony of Padua Church in Istanbul
St. Anthony of Padua Church in Istanbul (photo: CNA/Daniel Ibanez)

ISTANBUL, Turkey — Living as a Catholic in the majority-Muslim country of Turkey can be difficult, but it can also be a blessing and a call to witness, says Mexican priest Father Ruben Tierrablanca Gonzalez.

A Franciscan friar who has served for 11 years at St. Mary Draperis Parish in Istanbul, Father Tierrablanca spoke with CNA on Nov. 27.

“Living as a Christian in Turkey is a huge challenge and a grace,” he said, “a grace because we live where the Church has its roots and the presence of Christians is important, since God himself wanted his Church to expand here; and a challenge because it has become de-Christianized, in terms of population. We are very few.”

“We are a minority within a religious minority,” the priest explained. “Of the 100,000 Christians in Turkey, 65% are Armenians, and Catholics number only 25,000.”

Christians came to Turkey 2,000 years ago, centuries before the birth of Islam. The early Christian communities in Asia Minor were founded largely as the result of St. John’s preaching in Ephesus and St. Philip’s in Hierapolis. St. Andrew, who is considered the evangelizer of the region, played a major role, as well.

Today, however, Christians are the minority in Turkey, where some 98% of the country is Muslim.

A priest for 34 years, Father Tierrablanca is currently the director of fraternity of the Friars Minor in Istanbul, where they work for ecumenical and interreligious dialogue.

“The relations with Christians of the Eastern Churches are very good and continue to improve. We need to create trust and friendship between us; we need to create unity in the faith,” he said.

Since 2003, the Franciscans have been seeking to foster dialogue in the area. Each year, they celebrate a two-day-long symposium on common issues between the different religions.

“We are all seeking after God,” Father Tierrablanca said.

The Mexican priest said Christians in Turkey “are called to be authentic and credible witnesses.”

“When there is this diversity of religions, what does our own say to others and to the world? Living the Christian faith amidst Muslims demands a purification of the faith, a maturity and openness to others, to live an authentically evangelical Christian life,” he said.

“We are called to this, and we try to be creative in responding to this challenge. If we are to be in contact with Muslims, we have to show them a Christian witness, and that helps us to be better Christians and to grow in our faith.”

Regarding the question of how Christians should confront the threat of Islamic terrorism, Father Tierrablanca was clear: “With life. What can we do? Live our Christian lives. If we show signs of openness, friendship, relationships with our brothers — we should call them brothers because they are children of the same God — we encounter kindness. We offer them our friendship, they offer us theirs, and together we walk. That is a challenge but also a grace: to have good Muslim friends and to be able to say, ‘It is possible.’”

Voicing gratitude for Pope Francis’ recent visit to Turkey, Father Tierrablanca said that relations with Muslims “can change, but we should not expect an immediate result.”

The Holy Father “confirms us in our faith as pastor, and he inspires us to remain hopeful,” he added.

The priest voiced hope that “Christians in Turkey with Muslims can give an example that peaceful coexistence among religions is possible.”