The Westphalians

Ken and Betty Frank - Turkey We were pleased the other day to host a study tour of German pastors from the Evangelical [sc: Protestant] Church of Westphalia. They had come to Istanbul because they are seeking better interfaith relations with their Turkish neighbors, who are mostly Muslim. About 1.5 million Turks live in their part of Germany. The idea was that a visit to Istanbul would help the pastors learn more about the Turkish cultural and religious background.

We were pleased the other day to host a study tour of German pastors from the Evangelical [sc: Protestant] Church of Westphalia. They had come to Istanbul because they are seeking better interfaith relations with their Turkish neighbors, who are mostly Muslim. About 1.5 million Turks live in their part of Germany. The idea was that a visit to Istanbul would help the pastors learn more about the Turkish cultural and religious background.

ImageThe Evangelical Church of Westphalia is an autonomous regional church of the Union of Evangelical Churches of Germany, with which the United Church of Christ has shared full communion for the past 25 years. ("Full communion" means that each church's sacraments are recognized as valid by the other, and pastors can serve in either church.) This relationship has resulted in some significant sharing between the Evangelical Church of Westphalia, and the Ohio and the Indiana-Kentucky conferences of the UCC. When we met the Westphalian pastors on their arrival in Istanbul, we reminded them of these ties and were greeted with many smiles and nods of recognition. Those US-Germany church contacts were being renewed in a Germany-Turkey visit.

The Westphalian pastors--a mixed group of men and women--wanted to visit an Islamic theological faculty and speak with professors and students. Their group leader, Rev. Gerhard Duncker, communicated with us in advance about this request, so we used our contacts to set up a visit to one of Istanbul's two Faculties of Divinity. We were pleased that our knowledge of Turkish language and culture could open this door for the German visitors. During several meetings with the faculty and administration the program took shape.

On the day of the visit, our group of about 20 people was welcomed with typically gracious Turkish hospitality. We were hosted in the faculty's special conference room where we had a remarkably open dialogue. Turkish, German, and English were flying around the room as people tried to follow along.

The Germans wanted to know what type of theological education is provided, and what sorts of attitudes are taught. One of the hardest points for many visitors to grasp is that Turkey's theological faculties, which now number almost two dozen, belong exclusively to Turkish Government universities. There are no private or other recognized faculties of divinity in Turkey. Thus when our visitors entered the main administration building at the Faculty of Divinity, they were greeted with a large display of the symbols of Turkish secular nationalism: a Turkish flag, a bust of Ataturk (Turkey's founding father), and appropriate and prominent quotations from Ataturk engraved on the wall. The students at Turkey's divinity schools are training to be academics in religious studies, or religious functionaries within the government's Department of Religious Affairs, or teachers of the compulsory religion classes in Turkey's schools. In other words, the students hope for government jobs.

Our German visitors said that a major challenge facing Turks in Germany is that religious functionaries sent by Turkey to serve in Germany don't know the German language or culture, and they return to Turkey at the end of their contract. We learned that the Turkish Government's Department of Religious Affairs has recently taken steps to recruit Turkish Muslims born in Germany to come to Turkey for religious training before returning to Germany to serve the people there. This seems to be a welcome development.

Our visiting pastors then had the chance to meet some of the students, both men and women. They even found a student who spoke good German. Student admission is by central examination only. Those who take the exam are ranked by their score. Those who choose to attend the faculty of theology are admitted on the ranking basis until an advertised quota is filled. There is no other requirement for acceptance, and no further questioning of the applicants. This procedure is true for universities throughout Turkey in accord with the country's principle of secularism in education.

Later that day we hosted our visitors at our historic American Board office in the old section of Istanbul. There we explained and discussed our history of mission in this country since 1820, and how it has changed through the years.

We appreciated seeing how the Evangelical Church of Westphalia approaches interfaith relations in this trip to Turkey. It seems to be a kind of model that other churches might like to know about.

In the 21st century Christians cannot worry only about what's happening to their own church members, or to other Christians. Events are globalized, so that religious people of all stripes are affected by them simultaneously and in parallel. Christians must learn how to cross religious boundaries in gentle and caring ways, both to give and receive help and advice.

Ken & Betty Frank
Istanbul, Turkey

Ken & Betty Frank serve as missionaries with the American Board in Istanbul, Turkey.  They share the job of General Secretary of the American Board.  They also serve on the board of the Istanbul Interparish Migrant Program (IIMP).