Turkey's unique position between the Muslim Middle East and the Christian West carries far-reaching implications for the future!
IT IS TIME to awake to the importance of modern Turkey in world affairs! This largely ignored nation is rapidly becoming a force to be reckoned with in the international arena. Yet few today understand the tremendous significance of this ancient and strategically situated country. A quick glance at a map tells much of the story. Turkey is where East meets West! Geographically, Texas — sized Turkey stands as a literal bridge between Europe and the Middle East — the two major focal points of Bible prophecy. By virtue of its crucial location, Turkey is destined to play a major role in coming world events. Lying precariously close to the flash points of the volatile Middle East on the one hand, and the evolving superpower of Europe on the other, Turkey will be drawn unavoidably into the vortex of impending upheaval prophesied for those regions. It is time to focus attention on this intriguing country, to understand something of its past, its present — and its momentous future!
Crossroads of East and West
To comprehend the future role of Turkey in world affairs, we must first look briefly at its past. Turkey's destiny was determined from the beginning by its geographical position. Since the dawn of history, the peninsula of Asia Minor or Anatolia (on which lies Turkey today) has been a major route for the migration of peoples. Its location between two continents made it a major crossroads for travel and trade between Europe and Asia — the ancient intersection of Eastern and Western civilizations. The focal point of this activity was the fabled city known today as Istanbul. Straddling the strategic Bosporus waterway, sprawling Istanbul is a truly cosmopolitan city, the only one in the world built on two continents. It is a unique combination of East and West, old and new. Its breathtaking skyline yet today lends credence to the age-old saying: "If one had but a single glance to give the world, one should gaze at Istanbul." The story of Istanbul spans 27 centuries. Actually, it is the history of three cities on the same site — Byzantium, Constantinople and Istanbul. Ancient Byzantium was founded on the favored location at the mouth of the Black Sea by the Greek navigator Byzas in the seventh century B.C. The city bore his name for the next thousand years. In A.D. 327, the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great transferred his seat of empire to the shores of the Bosporus. There he enlarged Greek Byzantium and erected his new city, which was built, like Rome, on seven hills. In fact, Constantine called his new capital Nova Roma — "New Rome." It would later be called Constantinople in his honor.
The Empire of New Rome
Few today realize the overwhelming importance of proud Constantinople in the ancient and medieval worlds. This "Rome of the East" was one of the greatest and most powerful cities of all history! Notice what occurred: The end of the fourth century saw an official division of the ancient Roman Empire into two halves. Constantinople became the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, which eventually took the city's ancient name to become known as the Byzantine Empire. The Roman Empire thus stood on two "legs" — the Eastern Empire centered in Constantinople and the Empire of the West in Rome. In A.D. 476, Germanic invaders struck a fatal blow to Rome, leaving the City of Constantine sole ruler of the Roman Empire. Old Rome had fallen, but New Rome yet lived! Protected by its virtually impregnable walls, Constantinople became the center of a rich culture, carrying on the traditions and preserving the heritage of Roman civilization. The Empire of New Rome reached its zenith under Emperor Justinian (527-565). Gilded Constantinople became the hub of the medieval world! Later, after medieval Rome regained some of its former prominence, Rome and Constantinople stood as the two capitals of Christendom during the Middle Ages. Their influence was immense. Dry history? By no means! Few cities have ever attained the great power and prestige that Constantinople once enjoyed. For 16 centuries this city was a major factor in world politics. As we approach the last days of this age, many ancient powers are prophesied to be resurrected and restored to former greatness. Might not this once-great city be among them?
As we move forward in history, we come next to a great falling out between the two sister cities of medieval Christendom. From Constantine's time, Christianity was established throughout the Empire. But the form of Christianity was not the same everywhere. Quarrels over disputed articles of faith tore at the unity of the Christian — professing world. These unhealed wounds of religious strife led, in 1054, to the final schism between the Western (Roman) and Eastern (Orthodox) churches. In that year the Eastern Church broke completely with Rome. Pope Leo IX responded by excommunicating Michael Cerularius, Patriarch of Constantinople, and the entire Church in the East! Constantine's dream of a universal church was shattered. The Schism of 1054 divided the Eastern Orthodox Church — in Greece, Russia, the Balkans and the Middle East — from Rome. The split remains to this day. Eastern Orthodoxy today comprises 15 independent national churches, all of which acknowledge the Patriarch of Constantinople as their spiritual leader. He is primus inter pares — "first among equals" — in view of Constantinople's role as mother church of Eastern Christianity since the fourth century. Orthodoxy rejects papal infallibility and papal supremacy.
"The Turban in Constantinople"
The next major chapter in the history of Constantinople opened on May 29, 1453. On that fateful day, the Ottoman Turks under Sultan Mehmed II seized the fortress city after a seven-month siege. The Eastern Roman Empire collapsed, signaling the end of the European Middle Ages. With the invading Turks came the religion of Islam. Christian for II centuries, Constantinople now became the seat of the caliph of Islam, and was renamed Istanbul. Justinian's Church of St. Sophia — once the symbol of triumphant Christianity — was converted overnight into a Muslim mosque. Orthodox churchmen in Istanbul accepted Muslim rule, declaring, "Rather the turban in Constantinople than the red hat of a Roman Cardinal!" At their height, the feared Turks would rule from Baghdad to Morocco, from the steppes of Russia to the Persian Gulf. The Ottoman Empire would endure for more than four and a half centuries, until its disintegration in World War I. In 1922 Kemal Ataturk proclaimed the Republic of Turkey. Abandoning centuries of Ottoman imperialism and traditional oriental habits, the visionary statesman rapidly transformed Turkey into a Western-style society — literally dragging the country into Europe and the 20th century by the scruff of its neck! There is no parallel in history of so total a movement from one tradition to another in so short a time. As a result of Ataturk's secularization of Turkey's Islamic society, church and state are totally separate in Turkey today. Though 98 percent of its citizens are Muslims, Turkey's constitution does not recognize Islam as the state religion.
Healing the Breach
With this background in mind, we can now view current regional developments in clearer perspective. Two significant trends are under way that bear enormous implications for the future of Turkey. The first concerns relations between the Vatican and the Eastern Orthodox Church. The second pertains to Turkey's ties with Europe and the Middle East. Can the nearly 1,000-year-old breach between Orthodox Christians and Roman Catholics be repaired? This question is attracting increasing attention in Rome and throughout the eastern Mediterranean. Even the predominantly non-Christian population of Turkey — especially the more educated segment — is not blind to the immense implications of this issue. Pope John Paul II has spoken frequently of the urgent necessity for a "rapprochement between the spiritual heritage of the Christian Eastern and Western culture" — meaning the Orthodox communities in the East and the Roman Catholic and Protestant worlds in the West. In November 1979, the Pope traveled to Istanbul for a visit with Ecumenical Orthodox Patriarch Demetrios I, the spiritual leader of the Orthodox faithful throughout the world. Demetrios is considered by Orthodox Christians to be the 269th successor to St. Andrew, one of the disciples of Jesus. The purpose of the Pope's ecumenical visit was the launching of a full-fledged effort to achieve reconciliation between the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches, divided since 1054. The Pope said he hoped that full reconciliation could come about by the end of the century. Demetrios is said to share the Pope's desire to strengthen ties between Orthodoxy and the Roman Church. It had been John Paul II's predecessor, Pope Paul VI, who had taken the first big step in the search for unity with the Orthodox churches. In 1964 Pope Paul met Patriarch Athenagoras I (Demetrios' predecessor) on Jerusalem's Mount of Olives, where the two men exchanged a kiss of peace and prayed together. The next year, in a significant symbolic gesture, the Patriarch and Pope officially revoked the mutual anathemas exchanged in 1054. In 1967 the two exchanged visits at Istanbul and Rome. It was the first papal visit to Turkey since A.D. 711. A reconciliation between the Vatican and the government of Turkey was also begun during Paul VI's pontificate. In 1965 the Vatican returned to the Turks a standard captured by Christian forces during the Battle of Lepanto in 1571. This naval engagement had pitted an allied Christian fleet against the Turkish navy in a battle over Cyprus. Will full reunification between Catholic and Orthodox be achieved in this century? Some observers believe that these ancient and competing churches may soon find that, in fact, they desperately need each other — that competition is too costly in a world where the spread of secularism and atheism continues unabated, and where traditional Christianity stands increasingly at risk. Pope John Paul II has spoken often of his vision of a "united spiritual front" in a world rapidly falling apart. This may be an especially important consideration for the Patriarchate of Constantinople. Modern Turkey has scant use for a Christian leader in Muslim Istanbul. The Turks consider the Patriarchate a remnant of the Byzantine Empire they conquered in 1453. The Turkish government keeps a tight rein on the temporal affairs of the Orthodox faith. This has led some to speculate that the Church of Constantinople might one day find that it needs — for its very survival — the strength and prestige that would come from unity with Rome. Constantinople was once the powerful center of half the Christian world. Optimistic theologians believe that Rome and Constantinople might yet reassume their old relationship as the sister capitals of a unified Christendom — a unified Christendom that could play a major role in influencing the course of world affairs! The implications of such a development for the country of Turkey — Islamic though it is — would be enormous.
Overtures to Islam
Consider: an Islamic country the site of a major focus of a powerful new united Christendom! Turkey's historic role as a bridge between two worlds — the Christian West and Islamic East — would automatically be enhanced. Growing overtures toward the Islamic world by the Vatican and by European governments lend additional significance to these possibilities. The Roman Catholic Church has declared that it wants to sweep away centuries of suspicion and mistrust between Christianity and Islam and move into a new era of cooperation. During his visit to Turkey, Pope John Paul II stated that it is "urgent... to recognize and develop the spiritual bonds that unite us [Christians and Muslims] in order to protect and promote together, for all men... social justice, moral values, peace and liberty." These sentiments have been echoed by Muslim leaders. It was the late King Faisal of Saudi Arabia who helped open the way to an understanding between Catholics and Muslims with a message he sent to Pope Paul VI in 1966: "We both believe in one God, we both venerate the Blessed Mary. Islam and the Church must pool their strength to thwart evil and atheism." Were such an alliance of Christianity and Islam — of Europe and the Arab world — ever to arise in the years ahead, Turkey could well play an instrumental — even indispensable — role in its formation. By virtue of its unique position between two worlds, Turkey could find itself thrust into a middleman role in the piecing together of that new and precedent — shattering political — religious configuration.
Anchored in Europe
Now, in this light, look at the current state of Turkey's relations with Europe and with the Middle East. Even though most of its landmass is in Asia, Turkey considers itself essentially European. Pro-Western Turkey has been a member of the NATO alliance since 1952. As NATO's southeastern keystone, Turkey stands between Russia and the Middle East, and lies within striking range of vital Persian Gulf oil fields — a fact of great potential significance in an oil-hungry world. Turkey's ties to Europe were further strengthened when the country became an associate member of the European Community (EC) or Common Market in 1963. By the mid-1960s, however, the nettlesome Cyprus issue began to drive a wedge between Ankara and its Western allies in both NATO and the EC. The Turkish military intervention in northern Cyprus in '1974 further widened the split. With the suspension of democracy in Turkey in September 1980, Turkey became Europe's odd man out. In 1980 Turkey stood at a dangerous crossroad in its history, caught in the grip of growing economic and political chaos and torn by terrorism of the left and right. The military stepped in, temporarily suspending democracy. Since then, dramatic progress has been achieved within the country. Law and order have been restored. The Turkish economy has returned from near bankruptcy to become one of the fastest-developing economies in the world. In November 1983, parliamentary elections were held. Civilian candidate Turgut Ozal — chief architect of the economic recovery — was elected Prime Minister despite the fact that he was not particularly favored by the military. European Community officials say, however, that so far only a partial return to full democracy has been achieved in Turkey. Much still needs to be accomplished, they assert, before the close ties of Turkey's EC associate status can be fully resumed. But the dialogue between Turkey and the EC has recommenced, and the troubled relationship appears to be slowly on the mend. Though Turks speak of what they perceive as a lack of reciprocity of friendship, they realize that their country has little option but to continue their economic and defense ties with the West. "We are Europeans in spite of Europe," declares one Turkish senator. The general alignment of Turkey with the family of European nations is likely to endure. Many Turks hope for eventual full EC membership. Europeans, for their part, are very aware of Turkey's present — and future — usefulness geopolitically. Developments in both the religious and political arenas are driving home that realization with increasing force. Veteran European observers see Turkey fully anchored in the EC by the 1990s.
Tilt to the East
An important side effect of the past decade of strained relations between Turkey and Europe has been a mending of fences by Turkey with its eastern neighbors. For more than a half century after World War I, Turkey neglected its ties with the Arab Middle East, turning strongly, as we have seen, to Europe and the West. In the wake of its disputes with European allies, Turkey has been recultivating its relations with Arab countries at an increasingly swift pace in recent years. Ankara has turned to the" Arab world for money, oil and jobs. Trade with Islamic countries is developing rapidly. Turkey is actively reestablishing its place in the Middle East! Turks do not see their growing cultural and economic ties with the Middle East as occurring at the expense of Turkey's relations with the West. Their "overture to the East" grows naturally out of their common Muslim heritage and the demands of the Turkish economy. Turkey has long suffered a crisis of identity. Most Turks want to be part of the West, yet Turkey has never felt completely sure of its place in the Western world. Events of the past decade have also rekindled feelings about Western discrimination against Turkey because of its Muslim heritage. Turkey continues to struggle with its "split personality." It is both West and East, European and Muslim. Today, more than ever before, Turkey finds itself in a unique position to serve as a bridge between the Muslim East and the Christian West. The responsibility that Turkey's geopolitical position and its historic experience imposes upon it is only now beginning to be comprehended by many of its people. As a nation with historic and religious ties to both Europe and the Middle East — and now with growing political and economic ties as well — Turkey may once again be on the path to political power and influence on the world scene — and, as a consequence, the target of its traditional foes, the Soviets. Watch Turkey! The Plain Truth will continue to keep its readers abreast of critically important trends and events taking shape in this strategically vital country — the crossroads of East and West.