The showroom was filled from floor to ceiling with hand-thrown and hand-painted ceramic works of art. Every piece approached perfection in form, in intricate detail, and in color combination. Some of the ceramics were imitations of ancient Hittite vases, platters, and pitchers; others were painted in the traditional Turkish blue, white, and contrasting orange and green. The effect of so many marvelous creations clamoring for the complete attention of my eyes was more than a little overwhelming.
The salesman followed me closely as I perused the shelves, ever ready to point out the wonderful properties of each piece or to justify the ridiculously high price tag. I was glad, however, to have him next to me to explain the significance of the writing on some of the dishes. In one corner I found, to my delight, a collection of bowls, plates, and plaques with Arabic script. I instantly started translating those aloud, and engaged the salesman in a discussion of the merits of Islamic blessings. One piece in particular caught my eye as it was an inscription written in such a way as to look like a fish—what was so arresting was the similarity it bore to the Christian fish that populates so many car trunks, Bible covers, and shoulder blades or ankles among America’s Christian subculture. The salesman, let’s call him Khazem, told me that the inscription was an invocation for blessing from God on the food that would be served, as well as an expression of gratitude for His provision.
When I remarked that the platter, and inscription, would do just as well on a Christian table as a Muslim one, Khazem looked around the room, drew me aside with his eyes, and then whispered that he was a Christian himself.
Imagine my surprise! Turkey is a country that has long prided itself on being very explicitly secular and thus, supposedly, tolerant of all religions. However, this secularism is contradicted even in the very name of its citizenry, as “Turk” was originally a word that denoted a non-Arab Muslim from the Asian steppes. The government is not oblivious to this fact and has allowed a great deal of persecution of Christians to take place and, while the government may not officially condone the murders and vandalism done in the night, it prefers to cover up such atrocities rather than prosecute the perpetrators of religious crimes. The rather furtive behavior of Khazem was more than understandable given the general attitude of his countrymen towards Christianity.
As the room slowly cleared out, Khazem began to talk more freely. He first mentioned that none of his co-workers knew that he was a Christian; if they did, it would most likely cost him his job, and maybe even his life. An immigrant from Iran, he first heard of Jesus from an Iranian co-worker who would drop some words and phrases in conversation about the Bible and the Christ in such a way that his interest was piqued. Eventually he was given a Bible and, after much study, was finally converted along with his wife. His conversion was not without great material loss, even if simultaneously being of great spiritual gain, as he has been beaten and harassed more than once, both in Iran and Turkey.
Khazem has a quiet smile and an unassuming manner that makes him easy to converse with. As we chatted about his conversion story, his love for God was made manifest by the urgency and seriousness with which he related the events of his life since the time he had first met Jesus. His one request from me was that I would pray for him, and even more, that I would pray for his co-workers and friends—those who persecute him and would persecute him if they knew that he had found eternal life—that God would keep him safe and would open the eyes and minds of others that they too might know and experience the saving power and love of God.
The Church in Turkey can be found in two places. One place lies along the tourist road and consists of monuments and churches of an older time and place when Paul and the apostles first, and the Asian and Orthodox Christians later, preached and taught throughout the region. These churches are markers along the historical road of evangelism, reminders that God can change even the hardest hearts and that His people have flourished in places that were strongholds of pagan religions. The Church can also be found today underground, existing beneath the surface of a society that is uncomfortably both Muslim and secular. Here and there small green shoots of life rise to the surface and give evidence of the work that the Holy Spirit continues to do.
Khazem is one of a number of Christians in Turkey who bear witness to the power of the Gospel to change lives. May God continue to bless Turkey with Christians like Khazem, Christians who are evidence of the life that is growing, even if for now it must remain underground.