Asia Minor - ancient Christian land
Wlodzimierz Redzioch talks to Fr Egidio Picucci, OFMCap, the director of the missionary paper 'Continenti', published by the Italian Capuchins, and an expert in Turkey and its history.
On the occasion of the Feast of St Andrew the Apostle, Benedict XVI is going to Turkey; this is his first visit to Asia. Most territory of Turkey is in Asia Minor, the huge peninsula between the Black See and the Mediterranean See, separated from Europe by the straits of Bosporus and Dardanelles. Many people do not know that this Muslim country was the ancient Christian land where the Church was born and where the Apostles proclaimed the Gospel, where Christ's disciples were first called Christians, where the first ecumenical councils were held and where the Byzantine Empire existed for several ages.
WLODZIMIERZ REDZIOCH: - In his famous work 'Historia ecclesiastica' Eusebius of Caesarea, writer and historian of the Church, wrote that the Apostles carried the Good News of Christ to all parts of the earth. Which Apostle evangelised Asia Minor, i.e. the territory of present-day Turkey?
FR EGIDIO PICUCCI, OFMCap: - Three Apostles went to Asia Minor: Peter, Barnabas and John. But before them in Asia Minor there had been the Judeo-Christians who sheltered in Antioch during the persecutions, when St Stephen died (Stephen died a martyr's death in AD 35). After the Apostles had learnt about some group of believers in Antioch they sent Barnabas. Barnabas met a large and well-prepared community but he realised that the community had to be re-organised. Therefore, he went to Tarsus to ask Paul (Saul) for help. Then they returned together to Antioch and spent two years there.
- What was Paul's role in the process of christianisation of Asia Minor?
- The role of Paul in the evangelisation of those lands was fundamental. After having stayed in Antioch Paul, together with Barnabas, began their next trip: he went down to Seleucia and from there they sailed to Cyprus where they evangelised the local people, commencing with the proconsul, and afterwards he left for Asia Minor with Silas (their trip was long, ca. 1,000 km).
- So we can say that St Paul's activities had a decisive meaning for the origin of the Church in Asia Minor.
- Certainly. The catechesis of St Paul, which he preached in Antioch in Pisidia (this town still exists and is called Alvash now), has been preserved. It is an example of the catechesis for the communities that rose in Asia Minor. Paul refers to the Old Testament history, proving that the prophets' oracles were fulfilled in the person of Christ. The style and contents of the teaching would change when Paul reached Greece (Philippi, Athens, Corinth).
- John the Evangelist taught and died in Ephesus...
- John was the founder of the Church in Ephesus and he was its first bishop, and from Ephesus he was exiled to the Isle of Patmos where he wrote his Revelation. Then he returned to Ephesus and died there. We can still see the ruins of the church built by Emperor Justinian and the grave of St John is there. The recent archaeological excavations seem to confirm that this is the grave of the Apostle and the Evangelist. The ancient tradition says that some white smoke was seen emerging from the grave and it was called manna. The faithful gathered the smoke and gave it to the sick that were to recover. For many centuries the first Sunday in May was celebrated as 'a feast of manna.'
- One of the epistles of John the Apostle is directed to the faithful in Smyrna. Benedict XVI's tour includes Ephesus and Smyrna. What do we know about this ancient town?
- Smyrna was of great significance both in the Greek period and the Roman period. It was called 'beautiful Smyrna'. It was the homeland of many philosophers and poets. There was a big Christian community there and John the Evangelist addressed one of his famous epistles to the community. We must stress that this was the only community, which John did not admonish. Smyrna became a very important Christian centre in the 2nd century when John's follower Bishop Policarp led the Church.
- John mentioned 'seven churches' in his Revelation...
- 'The seven churches' are the seven towns around Smyrna, where there were Christian communities led by bishops. John sent scrolls to them. He admonished them, sometimes reproached them concerning some behaviour, which could predict heresy.
- What was the influence of Constantine's edict of toleration (AD 313), granting freedom to the Church, on the Christians' lives in Asia Minor?
- After the edict of Constantine there were big changes in the lives of Christians. Churches and huge basilicas were built; their ruins are spread all over Turkey. For example, in Ephesus there are the ruins of the basilica dedicated to the Mother of God. The ecumenical council, which proclaimed the Most Blessed Virgin the Mother of God - Theotókos, was held there. Monks travelled from Syria to Asia Minor and thanks to that, monastic life flourished. The biggest religious communities originated in Cappadocia. The outstanding representatives of monasticism like St Gregory of Nyssa, St Gregory of Nazianzus or St Basil the Great came from there.
- Many people do not know that Nicaea, Ephesus and Chalcedon, the cities of the first ecumenical councils, are in Asia Minor...
- That's right, and that's why it is worth telling that the first ecumenical councils, which defined the basis truths of our faith and in which all bishops of the Church participated, were held in the lands of present-dayTurkey.
- Can we state that the 'institutional' Church rose there?
- Of course, we can. It is enough to remember that the first apostolic see of St Peter was established in Antioch (it was moved to Rome later).
- It was in Antioch that the word 'Christians' was first applied to Jesus' disciples...
- That's right. The inhabitants of Antioch began calling Jesus' disciples Christians. But we should explain that at first the name was pejorative since the people of Antioch treated Christians as members of one of the numerous sects that were active in the tolerant city.
- Later the Christian Byzantine Empire, with Constantinople as its capital, was founded ...
- Constantine ordered to build a city at the strategic point on the Bosporus and the city was named after him. It became the capital of the Byzantine Empire. Many wonderful churches were erected in Constantinople; the most marvellous is St Sophia's Church (today a museum). The Byzantine emperors were defenders of Christianity but when in 1453 the Muslim armies conquered the city Christianity declined.
- Five centuries have passed since the drama, which for the Christian world was the fall of Constantinople. What elements of the magnificent Christian civilisation have been preserved in present-day Turkey?
- One should stress that the sultans of the Ottoman Empire were tolerant and Christians enjoyed religious freedom. What's more, the sultans also accepted the missionaries who could carry out their pastoral activities (the Capuchins arrived in Turkey in 1628). The situation got worse at the beginning of the 20th century when the secular Republic of Turkey was created. The number of Christians was decreasing and today Christians are only a small minority.
Only archaeological monuments and churches, turned into mosques, are the reminders of the great Christian civilisation.