ISTANBUL, Turkey – A walk through the churches of Istanbul is a kaleidoscope of the different branches of Christianity since its birth: seven different congregations have been based here for many centuries.
The city is now preparing for the visit on Saturday of Pope Francis, who will meet with some of the heads of these Churches.
The oldest is the Orthodox Church, whose Ecumenical Patriarchate is the direct continuation of the beginnings of Christianity in Anatolia, the region where the first communities were formed.
Although there are only 3,000 Christian Orthodox left in Istanbul after their massive emigration in the middle of last century, 50 churches remain open in the ancient Ottoman capital.
On January 6 each year, thousands of Greeks come to the city on the Bosphorus for the Epiphany ceremony, in which the Patriarch throws a crucifix into the waters of the Golden Horn.
Dozens of youths swim in a competition to reach the sacred cross and return it to the Patriarch.
The Armenian Apostolic Church, also known as the Gregorian Church, has many more faithful, with some 60,000 followers.
Some neighborhoods of Istanbul still have a definite Armenian flavor, but in downtown Istanbul the great Church of the Trinity is completely hidden by surrounding buildings.
And even at mass time it is rare to see more than five or six people, its guardian says.
The Armenian Church, one of the most ancient Christian communities, broke away from other churches in the Council of Chalcedon (451 AD) over dogmatic differences, adopting “Monophysitism,” which maintains that Jesus Christ had a single nature, either divine or a synthesis of divine and human.
The Syriac Church also belongs to this branch, sometimes called Jacobite, widespread in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, but with some followers also in southeastern Anatolia and Istanbul.
Members of this community still use Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke more than 2,000 years ago, in their liturgy and even in daily life.
Aramaic is also the mother tongue of many followers of the Chaldean Church, made up mostly of refugees from Iraq.
The Chaldeans, who have no temple in the center of Istanbul, sometimes use the crypt of Saint Anthony’s Catholic Church because they share the same doctrine, as one of the three eastern confessions that recognize the pope in Rome.
The other two confessions found in Istanbul are the Armenian Catholic Church, which separated from the Armenian Apostolic Church in the 18th century, and the Catholic Syriacs, who split from the Syriac Orthodox Church in 1782.
All of them maintain their own rituals, liturgy and canon laws but recognize Catholic dogmas, and their priests can administer communion to members of the three congregations and even to Roman Catholics.
Most Turkish Syriac Catholics live in the southeastern province of Mardin, while in Istanbul there are only 200 families, sources from the community told Efe.
All of them are excited by the pope’s visit to Istanbul.
Syriac Catholic Patriarch Ignatius Yusuf Yunan will come from Beirut to meet with the pontiff, and both dignitaries will participate in the ordination of a priest of the Syriac community in Istanbul.
Meanwhile, a placard with the images of Francis and the Ecumenical Patriarch of the Orthodox Church, Bartholomew I, decorates the entrance to Saint Anthony Church with the inscription “Welcome” in Turkish and English on it.
Even many Muslims, over 99 percent of the 70 million Turks, frequently go to Catholic or Orthodox churches in Istanbul to find a moment of spirituality or light a candle.
This practice reaches its peak on St. George’s Day, as thousands of residents, many of them Muslims, make a pilgrimage to a nearby island to honor the saint of the local Orthodox Church.
There they line up for hours to get into the church and place a candle, although they are not Christians.
One of them told Efe: “Who cares? A church is God’s house, right?”