Religion in Turkey

Religion in Turkey is as old as Turkey itself - which is very old. Islam is still a massively important part of Turkish culture, even though increasing numbers of Turks (and, in particular, of younger Turks living in the western part of the country) are becoming more secular and less strict in their observance of religion. At the same time, many in the centre and east of the country are becoming more religious and conservative.

Video guide to religion in Turkey

You can get a quick overview of religion in Turkey by watching this video interview (below) with Turkish lawyer Başak Yıldız Orkun. Learn more by scrolling down and reading the written guide by John Howell (Editor & Founder of Guides Global).

The statistics of religion in Turkey

In the 2010 census, 98% of the population professed to be Muslim.

More generally, people claim to be:

  • Muslim: 98%
  • Atheists: 0.9%
  • Christian: 0.4%
  • Jewish <0.1%
  • Other: <0.1%

A (brief!) history of religion in Turkey

When mankind first arrived in Turkey, in about 10,000BC, they brought their religion with them. There are a number of early sites where there is clear evidence of religious observance. There appear to have been a number of gods, but little is known about the details of religion in Turkey at that time.

With the arrival of the Christian era, two out of the five centres of ancient Christianity were in Turkey: Constantinople (Istanbul) and Antioch (Antakya). Antioch was also the place where the followers of Jesus were first called Christians, as well as being the site of one of the earliest Christian churches, established by Saint Peter himself. For a thousand years, the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul was the largest church in the world.

Turkey was then part of the (Christian) Byzantine Empire. As the name suggests, this was based in Byzantium (later Constantinople and later still Istanbul).

The lands to the east, including the Arabian Peninsula, formed part of the Islamic Empire.

Tolerance, trade, and political relationships between the Arab and the Christian states waxed and waned. During this period, pilgrimages to sacred Christian sites such as Jerusalem were permitted, Christian residents in Muslim territories were given Dhimmi (protected person) status, with legal rights and legal protection. These Christians were allowed to maintain churches, and marriages between the faiths were not uncommon.

By 1071, Islamic armies controlled what is now eastern Turkey. By 1453, Istanbul was captured by the Ottomans and the whole of what is modern Turkey became committed to Islam. At about the same time, after centuries of conflict and dispute, the Ottomans (who were orthodox Sunni Muslims) took control from their Shia rivals. They become the de facto leaders of the Islamic world and remained in control of Turkey until the creation of the new Turkish state in 1923.

Starting in the late 1700s, the Ottoman empire started to explore secularism and, when Mustafa Kemal Atatürk established modern Turkey in 1923, secularism was eventually embedded as a cornerstone of its constitution.

Religion in Turkey today

The Constitution of Turkey states that the country is secular: religion is a private matter for its citizens. Yet 98% of all Turks are Muslim. Of those, 75% are Sunni and 25% Shia.

Turkey is, fundamentally, tolerant of all religions and just as tolerant of those who profess none.

Religious education takes place in all schools from the age of five until 15. Increasingly, it is a multi-faith religious education in that, whilst focusing on Islam, includes the study of all the world’s major religions.

In the last few years, the government – an Islamic party – appears to be steering Turkey gently towards a more religious and less secular future. Time will tell.

Main religious festivals in Turkey

The two great festivals in Turkey, as in the rest of the Islamic world, are the two Ids: the first (id al-fitr) immediately at the end of Ramadan and the second, the greater Id (id-al-adha), which takes place three months after the end of Ramadan. See our Guide to Public Holidays in Turkey.

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