You’re likely aware of the attempted coup carried out by a faction of the Turkish military against its government. #TurkeyCoupAttempt trended on social media as the world witnessed the event in real time; images and videos flooded the internet, broadcasting the deadly explosions, bloody skirmishes, mass arrests, and military personnel in tanks as they drove through the streets of Ankara and Istanbul. Scores of people died, and more than 1,000 were injured. But by the following morning, the government had largely reestablished control.
For people outside of Turkey, the most pressing questions are simple: How did this even happen, and what does it mean? Answering them requires a basic understanding of Turkish political and religious history, so let’s take a quick look back.
Brief Turkish History
The modern Turkish Republic was established at the end of World War I from the Turkish core of the old Ottoman Empire. Despite its overwhelmingly Muslim population, Turkey was founded as a Western-oriented secular republic by its first lead leader, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. This particular brand of secularism, however, didn’t require the separation of mosque and state, but rather state ownership and control of the mosque. To this day (and shockingly to most Americans), mosque leadership is employed by the same branch of the government that controls the country’s religious education.
The government controls religion, but religion is not meant to influence the government at all. The Turkish Army maintains that balance, having historically intervened when military leaders determined the government was moving too far in an Islamic direction. However, the current government, headed by the AK Party since 2002, is perceived as pro-Islamic.
Current Political Climate
Long-time AKP Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan (pronounced Re-jep Tay-yip Er-do-wan) was elected president in 2014, and many Turks believe the AK Party and President Erdogan have become worryingly authoritarian and are leading the country toward becoming decidedly Islamic.
How did it happen? The coup this weekend is simply the latest episode in the long-standing contest between the old secular establishment and the new political force of the AK Party. It is a clash between secularism—embodied and enforced by the military—and the Islamic and Ottoman heritage of Turkey—embodied by the AKP.
What Does It All Mean?
The question about what it all means is a bit more complicated. The coup, though unsuccessful, could be profoundly influential for Turkish politics. Since the republic was founded, military interventions have always succeeded in maintaining the secular nature of the country.
The failure of this one, however, rewrites the Turkish political equation and thus leaves President Erdogan and his party—who have been trying to change the constitution to increase their power—more powerful than ever before. Erdogan’s success in putting down this coup will only enhance his political clout, and it removes the greatest threat to his agenda. Turkish democracy will simply not look the same after this weekend.
How It Relates to the Gospel’s Advance
As for its effect on the advance of the gospel in Turkey, honestly, no one knows for sure. Freedom of religion is guaranteed in Turkey; overt missionary work, however, isn’t allowed, and the country remains 99 percent Muslim. Even though many urban Turks are fairly secular in outlook, Islam is foundational to Turkish identity. In the same way that being American has historically equated with being Christian, for most Turks, being Turkish means being Muslim. Leaving Islam is, in their view, tantamount to committing cultural treason. They believe it’s better to be a nominal, non-practicing Muslim than to identify with any other religion.
What’s more, their history demands this posture. For centuries, the Turks were the vanguard of the Islamic advance into a Christian world they regarded as religiously corrupt. In fact, for many Turks, Christianity is still considered an old and discredited enemy.
In the late Ottoman period, Christian missionaries were allowed into Turkey to work with ancient Christian churches that remained in the Middle East. Over time, the missionaries began reporting news related to the treatment of the Christian minorities there. These reports were then used as a pretext for European intervention in Ottoman affairs. Suddenly, missionaries came to be seen as spies in the service of Western imperialism. Unfortunately, that impression remains to this day.
Because the factors inhibiting the spread of the gospel in Turkey are as much cultural and historical as they are political, this coup attempt is unlikely to make much of a difference in that regard. However, given that Turkey doesn’t grant missionary visas, gospel access to the Turkish people is tied to Turkey’s openness to the outside world, which would almost certainly change with a move away from secularism and toward Islamic rule. Only time will tell if that shift will occur in the days ahead.
How to Pray
With this foundational understanding in view, how then should Christians in the rest of the world pray for Turkey? Here are several suggestions:
- Pray that peace would be restored quickly, all sides would exercise restraint in their responses, and that no one else would be killed or injured.
- Pray that President Erdogan would govern justly and wisely, especially as he leads his country through this time of crisis.
- Pray for the injured and for the families of those who have died. Pray that the gospel would reach them in their time of distress, and that God would break down the barriers that stand against his good news.
- Pray for the small but faithful Turkish Protestant church, that its witness would be vibrant and effective in these days of uncertainty.
- Pray that God would give world leaders wisdom as they interact with the Turkish government in the days ahead.
- Pray most of all that God would use this event to show the Turkish people their need for a Savior, and that he would open their hearts to embrace the gospel.