Although the Eurasian country we now call Turkey has less than 1% of a Catholic population, this region has some very deep and impressive Christian roots. Many rich and wonderful events occurred in various towns and cities in ancient Asia Minor, giving the early Church a tremendous boost in growth and development. Turkey is now a predominantly Muslim country; however, 2000 years ago many of its citizens heartily embraced all that Christ represented.
TarsusThe city where the great Biblical saint, Paul, came from is still in existence; located in southeast Turkey near the coast of the Mediterranean Sea. Not too many Biblical events took place in Tarsus, however, after Paul’s dramatic conversion to Christianity, he did return to his hometown for a time, until he was called upon by Barnabas to help out with a situation arising in Antioch of Syria (Acts 9:30; 11:25).
In present-day Tarsus, there is a church named after St. Paul which was converted into a museum in 1943; however, efforts have been made to restore the building to a Catholic Church. There is a small group of Italian sisters who keep the Blessed Sacrament in a small apartment in Tarsus, striving to keep a bit of Christianity alive in the city. During the Year of St. Paul (2008/2009), kind efforts were made to welcome the scores of Catholics who went to visit the home of their beloved St. Paul.
Antioch of SyriaFollowing the persecution of St. Stephen, many Christians fled Jerusalem to safer locations, Antioch being one of the places of safety. Its remains are adjacent to present-day Antakya, Turkey and hover close to the border of Syria and the Mediterranean Sea.
Interestingly, it was in Antioch that many refugee Jewish-Christians began to share the message of Christ with large numbers of Gentiles. The Church leaders in Jerusalem heard this news and decided to send St. Barnabas to investigate. Barnabas’s heart was moved by the piety and fervor of the Gentile-Christians; he could see no problem with the new Faith welcoming these devout Antiochenes.
When he (Barnabas) arrived and saw the grace of God, he rejoiced and encouraged them all to remain faithful to the Lord in firmness of heart.–Acts 11:23
Perhaps wanting assurance that he was correct in his opinion, Barnabas went to Tarsus to bring Paul back to Antioch with him. Barnabas and Paul spent a year in Antioch, teaching the Gentiles there about Christ. And, intriguingly, it was in this ancient Turkish city, that the word “Christians” first came into use (Acts 11:26)!
Antioch of PisidiaPaul actually travelled to two different cites named Antioch. The Pisidian Antioch is about 280 miles west of the Syrian Antioch, and St. Paul went there during his first missionary journey with Barnabas. While in Antioch of Pisidia, Paul spoke at length before the Jews in the Synagogue of the city, and many of the Pisidian Antiochenes showed great interest:
“As they were leaving, they invited them to speak on these subjects the following Sabbath.”-Acts 13:42
However, on the following Sabbath, some who had not been happy with the presentation the previous week stirred up opposition, creating such a disturbance that the men were compelled to leave.
LystraPaul also journeyed to Lystra at least three times. Lystra is now an unexcavated city in south central Turkey, about 35 miles south of Konya (Iconium). During his first Missionary Journey, he healed a crippled man, astounding the citizens of Lystra.
… and called out in a loud voice, “Stand up straight on your feet.” He jumped up and began to walk about.–Acts 14:10
After this miracle, the people of Lystra began to treat Paul and Barnabas like deities, nearly offering sacrifices to the aghast missionaries. On his second apostolic journey, Paul (traveling with Silas this time) made another visit to Lystra. It was during this visit that Timothy was presented as a devout Christian and began to help Paul in his evangelizing efforts (Acts 16:1-2).
EphesusEphesus was a great ancient city - now impressive ruins a few miles inland from the Aegean Sea, near the modern city of Selcuk. Paul visited Ephesus briefly during his second missionary journey and for two years in the midst of the third.
This continued for two years with the result that all the inhabitants of the province of Asia heard the word of the Lord, Jews and Greeks alike. So extraordinary were the mighty deeds God accomplished at the hands of Paul that when face cloths or aprons that touched his skin were applied to the sick, their diseases left them and the evil spirits came out of them.–Acts 19:10-12
Paul had so much success in converting the people of Ephesus that he inadvertently created a riot! Previously, many Ephesians were devoted to a mythological goddess named Artemis, and silver statues of this goddess brought much profit to silversmiths of the city. However, after Paul influenced so many Ephesians, the silver statues of Artemis dropped in sales and the silversmiths of the city incited a riot against Paul and his traveling companions (Acts 19:23-40).
The Seven Churches of RevelationThe Book of Revelation also displays the stronghold of the Faith in ancient Asia Minor. The author of the book, traditionally believed to be John the Evangelist, addressed his letter to seven Christian communities within the boundaries of modern day Turkey: Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea.
The Second Holy LandIconium, Perga, Troas, Attalia, Miletus, and Galatia are just a handful more of the Biblical places in Asia Minor impacted by Christianity very early on in the development of the Church. Due to the many early Christian communities established in Ancient Turkey, this region of the world is sometimes referred to as the Second Holy Land – for it is a place where some of the initial Christian Churches took root, grew, and much of the foundation of the Church was formed.
Resources:Akin, Jimmy. The Fathers Know Best: Your Essential Guide to the Teachings of the Early Church. San Diego, CA: Catholic Answers, 2010.
Anadolu Katolik Kilisesi. Apostolic Vicariate of Anatolia (VicariatoAnatolia@yahoo.com). Retrieved April 15, 2012 from http://anadolukatolikkilisesi.org/en/storia.asp.
Armenio, Very Rev. Peter V. The History of the Church: A Complete Course. Woodbridge, IL: Midwest Theological Forum, 2006.
Coday, Dennis (August 24, 2010). National Catholic Reporter. Turkey May Re-Open St. Paul’s Church in Tarsus. Retrieved April 15, 2012 from http://ncronline.org/blogs/ncr-today/turkey-may-reopen-st-pauls-church-tarsus.
Cunial, Hector, Imprimatur. The New World Dictionary Concordance to the New American Bible. Charlotte, North Carolina: C.D. Stampley Enterprises, Inc., 1970.
Duffy, Patrick (July 29, 2009). Catholic Ireland News. Church of St Paul in Tarsus Again to Become a Place of Worship. Retrieved April 15, 2012 from http://www.cinews.ie/article.php?artid=6258.
Enjoy Turkey. Religion. Retrieved April 15, 2012 from http://www.enjoyturkey.com/info/facts/religion.htm.
Ephesus (2010). Where is Ephesus? Retrieved on April 21, 2012 from http://www.ephesus.us/ephesus/ephesus_location.htm.
Hurriyet Daily News. (August 23, 2010) Top Turkish Religious Official Says Saint Paul Church Should be Reopened. Retrieved on April 15, 2012 from http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/n.php?n=head-of-religious-affairs-says-museum-should-be-reopened-as-a-church-2010-08-23
New American Bible for Catholics, The. Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor Publishing, 1991.
Rasmussen, Dr. Carl (2012). Holy Land Photos. Lystra. Retrieved April 20, 2012 from http://www.holylandphotos.org/browse.asp?s=1,3,8,21,57.
Then and Now Bible Map Book. Necedah, Wisconsin: Ascension Press of Rose Publishing, Inc., 2003.
Zambak, Mavi (January 25, 2008). Asia News. In Tarsus, Where for Christians "Unity in Diversity" is a Daily Reality. Retrieved April 15, 2012 from http://www.asianews.it/news-en/In-Tarsus,-where-for-Christians-unity-in-diversity-is-a-daily-reality-11347.html