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Turkey is a secular democratic state — two-thirds of which occupies the Anatolian peninsula — and is overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim. Yet, 1,700 years ago it was where Christianity evolved from an obscure sect to the dominant world religion it is today. Constantine the Great, the first Roman emperor to embrace the Gospel, moved his capital from Rome to a more central location in Anatolia, choosing the Greek town of Byzantium to build his Christian Rome, later called Constantinople in his honor. Located on the trade routes between Asia and Europe, Constantinople quickly developed into the Mediterranean’s unrivaled cultural, economic, political and religious hub.

Led by its emperors and ecumenical patriarchs, the church of Byzantium dominated Christian thought, art, culture and ethos for a thousand years. Long envied by other Christians and Muslims, Constantinople finally fell to Ottoman Turkish tribes in 1453. The Ottoman victors found an empty and impoverished capital and quickly saw to its restoration.

Islam supplanted Christianity as the majority religion among the sultan’s subjects, but Christians continued to thrive for the next five centuries. The sultan enhanced the ecumenical patriarch’s authority, appointing him civil leader of the Ottoman empire’s multiethnic Orthodox community. The sultan also created an 
Armenian Apostolic patriarchate centered in Constantinople, endowing him with similar powers over the Armenian community.

The fortunes of Turkey’s Christian minorities took a tragic turn early in the 20th century. For centuries, Ottoman Turkey’s Christians, particularly Armenians and Assyrians, nurtured cultural and economic ties to Great Britain, France and Russia. These ties were viewed with suspicion, particularly during World War I, for the Ottomans had aligned themselves with Austria-Hungary and Germany. Turkish forces began displacing, incarcerating and, in some instances, massacring whole communities. Between 1915 and 1918, an estimated 1.75 million Armenian, Assyro-Chaldean and Syriac Christians perished, though Turkey disputes the events and the number of dead.

The Ottoman Empire collapsed after the war and, after an independence campaign waged by Kemal Atatürk and settled by the Treaty of Lausanne, the modern and staunchly secular Republic of Turkey was born. The treaty also called for a massive exchange of populations between Turkey and Greece. Almost overnight, entire Greek communities — numbering 1.25 million people — were deported. Many of these communities existed before the birth of Christ. Greece deported a half million Turks. A large Greek community remained in Constantinople, now called Istanbul, which was exempt from the terms of the treaty. In 1955, anti-Greek riots broke out in the city, prompting another mass exodus, leaving a few hundred Greek families under the care of the ecumenical patriarch.

Demographics. Historically ethnically diverse, Turkey is today comparatively homogenous. Three-quarters of Turkey’s 77.8 million people are ethnic Turks and 18 percent, Kurds. Other ethnic groups include Abkhazians, Albanians, Armenians, Bosniaks, Circassians, Jews, Greeks, Pomaks and Roma.

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