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360° in 180 – Lost in Turkey: Seeking Christian Students in a 99.8% Islamic Nation (Part 18)

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This can’t be right, I thought, ascending the worn stairs, 17, 18, 19 . . . how can there only be 19 apartments?!

Holding my breath like the trespasser I feared I may have just become, I retraced my steps downstairs.

Now what?

The airport taxi driver had seemed satisfied when, after reading my Turkish contacts’ address, he dropped me off at this apartment building. Sure, I didn’t know which buzzer to press to get inside, but the door opened anyway. Yet from the numbers on the address, I gathered there MUST be more than 19 rooms!

I didn’t want to accept that I might be wandering around a random apartment building in Turkey, the next stop on my mission to backpack 360° around the world in 180 days documenting Christian students’ university experiences. Yet reality refused to get itself right. If the airport had offered Wi-Fi, or if SIM cards had been cheaper, or if the ATMs had let me withdraw cash, maybe reality would have been different. But now, I had to face the facts:

I have no map, no Wi-Fi, no phone plan, and no cash; I’m in a new city, in an Islamic country where I’ve never been before, where almost nobody speaks English, and a taxi just dropped me off at the wrong apartment.

Breathing a prayer, I stepped outside to ask for directions. Upon two men scrutinizing the address, they began to (apparently) offer directions in Turkish while gesticulating wildly. I joined in the arm-waving, co-choreographing a futile bilingual ballet until finally heading in the gesticulated direction. That’s when an English-speaking pedestrian met me.

“You’re Patricia?”

“You found me!”

“Let me take your bag.”

“Thanks!”

And THANK YOU, God! Evidently, my contacts had looked outside just in time to see my taxi pass, stop, and deposit a confused backpacker/trespasser a block away. Thus, with more than one weight lifted, I followed the pedestrian into the right building.

Evolution and Islam in Turkey: A little cultural background

Those evolutionary ideas helped trigger many Western cultures’ avalanche away from the bedrock of Christianity, making countless people doubt the Bible’s reliability from its foundational chapters, Genesis 1-11.

Originally, I’d hoped to visit Turkey because its national science education foundation (like those of 60+ other nations) has signed a statement declaring that “scientific evidence has never contradicted” human evolution or millions of years.1 Those evolutionary ideas helped trigger many Western cultures’ avalanche away from the bedrock of Christianity, making countless people doubt the Bible’s reliability from its foundational chapters, Genesis 1-11. So, I’d been traveling to as many nations as possible, which teach evolution, to learn how local Christian university students keep their biblical beliefs during nonbiblical education.

Even though Turkey signed the evolutionary education statement in 2006, evolution disappeared from Turkish primary and secondary science curricula in 2017.2 Shortly after, Turkey’s Ministry of Education received at least 10,000 petitions demanding evolution’s return to the classroom3, showing that the public’s attitudes about evolution remain ambivalent. In 2018, researchers also reported that fewer than half of biological science staff at Turkish universities completely accept evolution, with more devoutly Islamic staff being less likely to embrace evolutionary ideas.4

This link between accepting conservative Islam and rejecting human evolution is apparently playing out on a national scale in Turkey, which is 99.8% Islamic.5 In fact, the reason why evolutionary education is losing traction in Turkey is thought to be Turkey’s recent movement away from secularization in favour of more conservative Islam6. And as I pointed out in my post, Desert Touchdown: Introduction to Islamic Nations, conservative Islam is much less able to accommodate biological evolution than long geological ages. Still, Islam is even less reconcilable with key Biblical doctrines, including the trinity, Christ’s divinity, and salvation through Christ’s death on the cross rather than through human effort. So, whether or not Turkish Christian students encounter much evolutionary teaching in university, they’re bound to experience other pressures of espousing a different worldview from their culture’s.

Seeking Campus Christians in Turkey

Curiously, during the entire week, I spent in Turkey, I was only able to find one Christian student—a guy studying nursing who I met at a bilingual church.

“We don’t have any Bible studies at my university,” he told me. “I don’t know a lot of people who are Christian, except for exchange students who come for just one semester. We don’t speak about Christianity a lot. Many people don’t like Christians, but at the university, I don’t have a problem with that. If I talk with my neighbours outside campus, though, that’s a little bit challenging.”

“But you don’t hear negative comments about Christianity from professors or classmates?” I asked, recalling accounts of such experiences from Christian students—including myself—in other cultures.

“I haven’t heard any of those bad things,” he replied, “The teachers are high-quality people. Most of them are open, and I don’t think they would force me to believe another religion.”

Given that Islam is a monotheistic worldview, worshiping a single God, it makes sense that Christians may face fewer hostile remarks about “religion,” fewer references to Genesis 1‒11, and other Biblical accounts being mythical, and possibly less peer pressure of the types that Western Christian students often face. In Turkey, for instance, you’d likely never find posters promoting drinking parties, secular sexuality, or New Age spirituality, as I spotted on Western campuses. Naturally, Christians in different cultures will encounter different challenges.

In Turkey, one of those challenges is the comparative lack of a Christian community on campus.

In Turkey, one of those challenges is the comparative lack of a Christian community on campus. In fact, a Turkish campus ministry leader I interviewed said that across six universities in Turkey, a nation of over 82 million people7, he only knew of about 100 Christian students. Still, active campus ministry groups do exist in several Turkish cities, where this leader quietly operates.

“People don’t expect that you will be a Christian as a Turkish person,” he said. “When people learn that I’m a Christian from the most conservative place in Turkey, they’re just shocked.”

“How can churches in Turkey support local Christian students?” I asked.

“The young people have really good potential,” replied the leader. “The church needs to give them opportunities to grow. That could be the best way to support students. We need to give students the resources, vision, and opportunity to serve. My church does discipleship this way, helping students learn their spiritual gifts. But most of the time, people don’t give young students opportunities to lead, because they don’t trust them.”

Indeed, equipping students to serve, giving them the go-ahead to do so, and then serving alongside them is an excellent way to help students develop not only their God-given gifts but also their interpersonal foundations. Interpersonal foundations, or a strong Christian support network, including church, family, friends, and mentors, had been one of the most important themes from my cross-cultural research so far. In fact, students I’d met in the United Arab Emirates, Thailand, and Australia had also emphasized not only interpersonal foundations, but specifically the benefits of churches giving youth service opportunities. After all, serving together builds relationships between believers, helps youth translate their faith into action, and presents unparalleled opportunities for on-field mentorship. So, especially considering Christian students’ limited access to like-minded peers in Turkey, it’s no wonder that the Turkish campus minister suggested supporting students through service opportunities!

The moral of the story:

Despite being less entrenched with evolutionary ideas than many nations I’d visited, Turkey nonetheless presents other intense pressures—like loneliness—to local Christian students.

Despite being less entrenched with evolutionary ideas than many nations I’d visited, Turkey nonetheless presents other intense pressures—like loneliness—to local Christian students. But while Turkish culture, becoming ever-more conservatively Islamic, brings different challenges than Christian students often face in other countries, the Turkish campus minister suggested a solution that can apply to Christian students worldwide: building interpersonal foundations by serving others. For churches and families, that doesn’t necessarily mean assigning young people service projects arbitrarily; it means helping them discover, cultivate, and exercise the passions, ideas, and giftings God has already given them.

Channeling youths’ God-given skills to serve the church this way can bless the body of Christ, build youth’s spiritual foundations by stretching them to depend more on God, and strengthen the bond between youth and their surrounding Christian community. And especially in places like Turkey, where other Christian students are so hard to find, a strong community is more vital than ever. Without it, students may all too easily begin to feel like I did while standing in the wrong apartment building: lost, stuck, burdened, tired, unable to communicate, and alone. Maybe, like me, all students need is for someone who speaks the same language to come alongside them, lighten their load, and lead them to a safe home base where family awaits.

What other life lessons would Christian students (and backpacking mishaps) teach me as I traveled West, into Europe?

Stay tuned for Part 19!

Footnotes

  1. Inter-Academy Panel, “Inter-Academy Panel (IAP) Statement on the Teaching of Evolution,” 2006, http://www.interacademies.org/13901/IAP-Statement-on-the-Teaching-of-Evolution.
  2. Selin Girit, Passions flare as Turkey excludes evolution from textbooks, BBC News, Istanbul, June 24, 2017, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-40384471.
  3. Ebru Z. Muğaloğlu, “An Insight into Evolution Education in Turkey,” in Evolution Education Around the Globe, (Springer, Cham, Summer, 2018): 263‒279, cited in references (Kolcu, 2017), https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-90939-4_14.
  4. B. Keskin, and E. Ö. Köse, “Future of Evolutiom Education in Turkey: Does Academic Staff in Biologigal Sciences Accept Evolution?” European Journal of Education Studies, 2018, https://www.oapub.org/edu/index.php/ejes/article/viewFile/2177/4814.
  5. Central Intelligence Agency,“Religious population estimates,” The World Factbook 2020. Washington, DC: Central Intelligence Agency, 2020, accessed February 24, 2020, https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/tu.html.
  6. Ebru Z. Muğaloğlu, 2018.
  7. Religious population estimates from Central Intelligence Agency World Factbook, accessed February 24, 2020, https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/tu.html.

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