Remembering Turkey

Today, I leave Turkey, one of my favorite countries in the world. I love this country because of the friendliness of its people, its rich cultural heritage, its gorgeous (and healthy food), and because it is the land where so much of Paul and of John’s ministry took place. I visited Turkey for the first time in 1974, for the last time in the year 2000. Its transformation has been dramatic. Back then, it was still steeped in tradition, poor, largely rural, with little industry. In 1974, I traveled by train from Istanbul to Antioch near the Syrian border pulled by a steam engine that huffed and puffed its way through the country at 20 miles per hour, on average. Infrastructure was limited and the tourism industry was in its infancy (there were only about 30,000 hotel beds in the whole country—today there are more than 900,000).  Few people spoke any other language beside Turkish.

YUMMY: The voyagers feast on Turkish cuisine. [PHOTO: Udo Kiener] I came back to find a country with highly developed infrastructure, where industrial agriculture replaced the small plots of land tended by traditional farmers, where many of its people speak English or German, where small villages have grown to sizeable cities, and cities into great megalopolises (Istanbul went from 2.5 million inhabitants in 1974 to 14 million today). It leaves me amazed.

But what amazes me more still is that Turkey seems to have changed its religion. It used to be a traditional Muslim country. Today, its religion seems to be Western secularism and materialism, the pursuit of the good life. Stores selling prestigious labels (fake or genuine) are everywhere: Louis Vuitton luggage and Lacoste polo shirts, Tag Heuer watches and Renault cars, and everything in between.

Before we left, my wife asked me if it was OK to walk around with bare arms and shoulders. I wasn’t sure. I needed not have worried. Young Turkish women walk around in mini-skirts and revealing outfits. Women who wear the traditional scarf are the minority, at least in this part of the country. Even if the imam still calls 5 times a day from the minaret to “leave your business and come for prayer,” it seems that most Turks pray at a different altar now.

It leaves me with mixed feelings. On one hand, it makes conversation on biblical topics much easier; the state has relaxed its laws against Christianity. Christian worship is now allowed. On the other hand, I wonder if we are not too late with the Gospel. Another religion has already captivated hearts. And where were we during this time of profound transformation? Precious little has been accomplished for the Christ whose name was proclaimed with such power, precisely here. Where are those today, who will bring the news of peace in Jesus? I pray that the Lord of the harvest send workers before it is too late.