Terrorist Attack Heightens Fears for the Future of Turkish Christians

By Ambassador Callista L. Gingrich

On Jan. 28, two terrorists wearing black balaclavas attacked Santa Maria Catholic Church in Istanbul, Turkey.  The assailants entered the church as approximately 40 people were attending Mass. During the Liturgy of the Eucharist, the gunmen began firing.  Tragically,  Tuncer Cihan was killed. He was about to become a Christian, attended church regularly, and was described as “a good person.”

Thankfully, no one else was injured, as the terrorists fled due to one of the guns miraculously jamming.   

“When the first gun went off, everyone threw themselves on the ground. After the second explosion, the gun jammed and they [the attackers] came out. It is unknown what would happen next, whether the attack would continue,” Sukru Genc, mayor of the Sariyer district, said in an interview.

The Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack and said it was “in response to calls by Islamic State leaders to attack Jews and Christians everywhere.” Two suspects from Tajikistan and Russia were arrested and, according to Turkish officials, were both “evaluated … to be with the Islamic State.”

In response to the tragic assault on Turkey’s Catholics, Pope Francis said in his Angelus on Jan. 28, “I would like to express my closeness to the community of the church of Santa Maria in Istanbul, which suffered an armed attack during Mass that caused one death.”

The recent terrorist attack against Santa Maria Catholic Church has stoked fears among Turkey’s small but growing Christian population. Before Russia invaded Ukraine, the number of Christians had declined to approximately 150,000. Now, the country is seeing an uptick in the number of Christians living in Turkey, particularly in the Orthodox community, due to the arrival of tens of thousands of Russian and Ukrainian refugees who have fled the ongoing war. 

According to the 2023 U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom Report, which recommended Turkey’s placement on the Special Watch List, “Alleged ISIS members reportedly planned to carry out attacks on Alevis and an Ankara cemevi, and after the reporting period, additional plots to attack churches and synagogues also came to light.”

One such thwarted terrorist plot occurred on Jan. 3, when 25 suspected members of the Islamic State were arrested in Turkey for allegedly plotting to attack churches and synagogues.

Further, Open Doors ranked Turkey as number 50 on its 2024 World Watch List and said, “Christians are viewed as a negative Western influence” and “the combination of rising religious nationalism and a growing emphasis on Islamic values by the government is intensifying the pressure on believers in Turkey.”

The terrorist attack last weekend harkens back to painful memories of the past for Turkish Christians, as John L. Allen Jr. pointed out on Crux’s “Last Week in the Church.” 

In 2006, Father Andrea Santoro, a Catholic priest, was shot and killed by a Muslim teenager while he was shouting “Allahu Akbar.” In 2010 Bishop Luigi Padovese, an Italian Capuchin who served as the Vicar of Anatolia and president of the bishops’ conference in Turkey, was stabbed and beheaded by his driver. 

Though Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan pledged to take “all necessary measures” to hold the terrorists accountable for their crimes, the nation’s Christians remain concerned for the future.

In the wake of the latest attack, Bishop Massimiliano Palinuro, the apostolic vicar of Istanbul, said to EWTN News, “We are worried about the future because if this is a sign of the religious intolerance for our community, it could be a bad sign. Let us pray.”

Government leaders and Christians around the world must call upon the Turkish government to bring the terrorists who attacked Santa Maria Catholic Church to justice and ensure that the country’s Christian minority can worship freely.