Who would believe that the region now known as Turkey has more Catholic saints than most other countries of the world? While Turkey is not a Christian nation now, its past is rich with holy Catholic men and women.
Although the Republic of Türkiye—Turkey’s official name—does not have an official state religion, the overwhelming majority of the Turkish population are counted as followers of Islam.1 Islam has been the dominant religion in this region since at least the eleventh century, and today only a small percentage of the population are Jewish or Christian.
Despite the dearth of Catholics in Turkey today, the minority of Catholics who live there can boast of 770 Catholic saints and blesseds from their past.2 Of that number, 660 died as martyrs.
Those martyrs include recent ones, such as Blessed Ignazio Maloyan (celebrated by the Church on June 11) and other victims of the Armenian genocide of 1915. During the Roman persecution of the Church more than a thousand years earlier, many other Christians died as martyrs for their faith; both groups are described here.
Martyrdom among Turkish Christians has occurred in other centuries too. For example, many faithful Catholics were executed during the eighth and ninth centuries when Byzantine emperors forcibly imposed the heresy of iconoclasm on their citizens.
But not all Turkish martyrs died in large groups. The Saint Christopher, the one who, according to the famous legend, gave up serving the devil to serve the King of Kings, died in ancient Lycia (the modern provinces of Antalya and Muğla in Turkey). The legendary Saint George (who killed a dragon), Saint Margaret (who also killed a dragon), Saint Blaise (who saved a choking boy through his prayers), Saint Barbara (who was locked up in a tower), and Saint Pantaleon (who was a doctor) are all said to have died in Turkey.3 Even the famous Saint Nicholas of Santa Claus fame was the bishop of the Turkish city of Myra, now known as Demre.
The New Testament lists many Turkish saints. The Apostle Philip is said to have been martyred in Turkey (although other sources say he died in Greece), and some traditions say Saint Luke the Evangelist was born there. Saint Timothy, to whom the Apostle Paul wrote two letters, was the bishop of Ephesus, near modern Selçuk. Saint Paul also refers to Saint Epaphras, who was one of his traveling companions, in his letters;4 Paul identifies Epaphras as being from Colossae, an ancient city near modern Honaz. Saints Agabus5 and Manaen6 were prophets and leaders of the Church in Antioch (now Antakya).
The early Catholic Church in Turkey boasts many holy bishops, such as Saint Acacius of Amida (modern Diyarbakır), who organized the faithful to care for several thousand Persians who had been captured by the Roman army and who were starving. Saint Gregory Thaumaturgus (whose latter name means “wonderworker”) was the third century bishop of Neocaesarea (modern Niksar) and was well known during his lifetime for the miracles that resulted from his prayers.
The early Church can boast of many holy Turkish monks and hermits. Saint John the Silent was a sixth century monk who was famous for, you guessed it, remaining silent. John had been named a bishop, but he felt called to the seclusion of monastic life instead and snuck away to live as a humble monk. He told no one his secret for years. Saint Simeon the Stylite was a fifth century hermit who lived for decades on top of a column (stylite) in the wilderness as a penance; many people sought him out to listen to him preach.
The great city of Constantinople may be known as Istanbul now, but an impressive number of patriarchs of that city have been named saints. Saint John Chrysostom, who was a preacher, martyr, and Doctor of the Church, is certainly the most famous patriarch of this city. Other patriarchs of Constantinople who are considered saints include: Alexander, Anatolius, Antony Kauleas, Cyrus, Eutychius, Flavian, Ignatius, Germanus I, Menas, Methodius I, Metrophanes, Nicephorus, Paul I, Peter Thomas, Proclus, and Tarasius.
Saints Gregory of Nazianzus and Basil the Great were close friends and bishops of Turkey, and both have been named Doctors of the Church because of their brilliant and influential writings. Two other Turkish Doctors of the Church include Saint Gregory of Narek, a tenth century priest, monk, and poet, and Saint Ephraem, a fourth century deacon, poet, and mystic who died in Edessa (modern Urfa).
Saints Basil and Gregory grew up in devout families, so devout that many of their family members were also recognized as saints after their deaths. For example, Saint Basil’s parents and four of his siblings are considered saints. Saint Gregory’s mother, sister, and brother are all recognized as saints.
Other inspirational Turkish female saints include Saint Olympiada. After she was left a widow in fourth century Nicomedia (modern İzmit), Olympiada founded an orphanage, a hospital, and a religious order of nuns. Saint Pulcheria was a Byzantine princess in the fifth century, served as regent for her brother for a time, and later entered into a chaste marriage for the sake of political stability. Her personal devotion and her protection of the Church had long-lasting effects throughout the empire. Saint Anthusa was a Byzantine princess who lived in the eighth century, and she used her influence to support monasteries and those who were poor.
Perhaps the most unusual Turkish saints are those commonly known as the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus. These seven men died as martyrs during the early days of the Church and were buried in a cave. When their bodies were rediscovered many years later, Christians honored them as martyrs and began calling them the “Seven Sleepers of Ephesus”, drawing on the New Testament expression of referring to the dead as those who had “fallen asleep”.7 A more colorful legend claims that the seven men survived for two centuries in their cave, like the fictional Rip Van Winkle, before they were discovered. And then they died.
As Christians, we know that the holy example of so many great saints from Turkey—along with the blood that so many of them shed for Christ—must bear fruit eventually. Even though the tiny minority of Christians in Turkey are often hidden today, the power of the Gospel can quietly transform lives, one soul at a time. Today we Christians can hope that the Catholic faith is simply sleeping in the hearts of the Turkish people, waiting for their holy ancestors to lead them back to Jesus Christ.
1 Some official figures, such as these at Wikipedia, state that 99.8% of the Turkish population are Muslim, but this total includes people who state that they are irreligious, as well as those who were born to Muslim parents and have changed their religion but have not made that change official.
2 This total is based on the saints and blesseds listed in the 2004 Martyrologium Romanum, along with those who have been beatified and canonized since 2004, as designated by the Discastery for the Causes of the Saints.
3 Saints Christopher, George, Margaret, Blaise, Barbara, and Pantaleon are also members of the Fourteen Holy Helpers, saints who were particularly called upon by Catholics during times of plague in the Middle Ages.
4 See Col 1:7, Col 4:12, and Phil 1:23.
5 See Acts 11:28.
6 See Acts 13:1.
7 See Acts 7:30, Acts 13:36, 2 Pet 3:4.
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