Church-planters probably never even consider factoring this in when they start. That was certainly the case for some friends of mine in Turkey. For who would have guessed that setting up a cemetery might have to become a key feature of their growth strategy?

Orthodox Hearse in Istanbul

For centuries, if you were Turkish, you were Muslim. In fact, there has never been a point at which Turks were Christian. Until now. We easily forget that, not least because the region was the epicentre of global Christianity from biblical times onwards. But the Turks swept in from the east, bringing Islam with them, eventually conquering Constantinople in 1453. Ever since, the only sizeable Christian groups in the area were Greek or Armenian.

So what’s this got to do with anything? Well, there are now around 3000 Turks who have become Christian in the last 30-40 years or so. Many have come from a fairly secular background, which perhaps makes it a little more understandable. But now that the Turkish church has been around for a bit, there’s a new problem. Where to bury them when they die. It perhaps sounds rather macabre but it is, believe it or not, a real headache.

Muslims have their own cemeteries throughout Turkey, of course; the few Greeks that are left get buried in orthodox land, and the Armenians have their own solutions. But Christian Turks don’t ‘belong’ anywhere after death. The sectarianism of life gets perpetuated in the grave.

So it’s a quite challenge for these friends to find land.

But it’s simply yet another example of ministry’s unpredictability and the risk we all run of being so wedded to our strategic planning that we fail to see the pressing needs.

Inside the mighty Hagia Sofia: Cathedral then Mosque, now Museum

This Post Has 5 Comments

  1. This is the same for anyone working in a Muslim context. We experienced this when church planting in Kosova. A major barrier to coming to faith in Christ is what happens when I die, not from an eternal perspective but from a practical one. Death, funerals and mourning are a huge event in Muslim culture, far bigger than in Western culture. These are the questions people struggled with. Where do my family come to grieve, who ceremonially prepares my body, where am I buried? I cannot be buried in the Muslim cemetery because the Imam won’t allow it, I can’t be buried in the Orthodox cemeteries because those are all where my enemies the Serbs are buried. Any association with either of these options would: 1. compromise my witness because if I was no long a Muslim but being buried in a Muslim cemetery would suggest I recanted and; 2. the Serb priest would not allow me to buried in his cemetery either and even if he did, it would suggest to my family that I had become a traitor to my people.

    1. I’ve no doubt that’s right – merely using this as a reminder to sit a bit looser to our highly prized strategies and be ready for the surprises!

  2. Mark, thank you for sharing this. In a Middle Eastern context the burial issue is a very significant one. I am delighted to see the slow but courageous growth of the church in Turkey. I also do hope that the Turkish authorities will grant real religious freedom.

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