Turkey: The forgotten Holy Land

ACN is assisting the Archdiocese of Izmir to maintain the Christian presence in Turkey.

Archbishop Martin Kmetec of Izmir believes that Turkey is the “forgotten Holy Land”. “The Church of Izmir is the only one of the Seven Churches of Revelation to survive to this day”, explains the Slovenian-born Franciscan during a visit to the international headquarters of the papal foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN). The ancient city of Ephesus, including the House of the Virgin Mary and St. John’s tomb, is also located within the archdiocese. Despite this rich heritage, there are only “150,000 Christians out of the approximately 85 million people living in Turkey” according to the archbishop, a land where St. Paul and St. John first preached the Gospel.

Archbishop Martin Kmetec of the diocese Izmir-LAT in Turkey
Archbishop Martin Kmetec of the diocese Izmir in Turkey.

The land of martyrs

Having spent the last 22 years in Turkey, Archbishop Kmetec feels strongly that the Church has a duty to maintain a presence in the country. “We are indebted to Christ to do so. We are indebted to history to do so. And we are indebted to the martyrs to do so”, said the archbishop during his visit to ACN. The city of Izmir itself is where St. Polycarp was martyred in the mid-second century. It was also the birthplace of Polycarp’s pupil, St. Irenaeus, who later became the Bishop of Lyons.

To maintain the Christian presence in this land of martyrs, ACN has been assisting the Archdiocese of Izmir with this special mission. For example, the charity is supporting the renovation of the Church of St. Polycarp, damaged by an earthquake on 30 October 2020, in the Aegean Sea, which devastated Izmir, killing over one hundred people. Part of the convent constructed by French Capuchins in 1625, St. Polycarp’s is at the heart of the Christian community in Izmir. Similarly, the international charity is supporting the renovation of the Dominican church in Konak, a district of Izmir, which was also damaged by the 2020 earthquake.

Visit to St. Polycarp Church in Izmir, which is still being renovated after the 2020 earthquake
Visit to St. Polycarp Church in Izmir, which is still being renovated after the 2020 earthquake

Keeping the light of Christianity alive

Despite covering approximately 100,000 square kilometres, the Archdiocese of Izmir in western Anatolia is home to only 5,000 Catholics. For a long time, a sizable bulk of the Catholic faithful was made up of the Levantines, explains Archbishop Kmetec, who has led the archdiocese for the last three years. The decedents of Italian, French and other European Catholics who settled in the region during the days of the Ottoman Empire, the number of Levantines is in continuous decline, primarily due to emigration. The archbishop said that this shortfall of Levantine Catholics in the archdiocese has been offset in recent years by “the migration of Catholics from Africa and Asia to Turkey”.

Given the small number of Catholics in his archdiocese, the archbishop stated that one of his main priorities is to “keep the light of Christianity alive”. With such a small number of faithful, the archdiocese does not have the sufficient funds to maintain all of its churches and buildings on its own, making the aid provided by ACN a vital lifeline for the Christian community in the region and for maintaining a Christian presence in Turkey, a land so important to the history of the Early Church and where the followers of Jesus were first given the name Christians.

Theotokos Holy Mass with Archbishop of Izmir Martin Kmetec
Theotokos Holy Mass with Archbishop of Izmir Martin Kmetec

Over the last five years, ACN has supported twelve projects with the Archdiocese of Izmir to a tune of €485,000. These projects include the renovation of churches damaged by earthquakes, emergency aid for Christian refugees from the Middle East and Africa, the provision of catechetical material and the support of seminarian formation.

 

By Conn McNally.

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