Chapter 3 From Missionaries to Missionary Labour: Hypotheses on Evangelicalism in Contemporary Istanbul

In: Missions and Preaching
Armand Aupiais University Paris-Diderot/ IFEA

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This chapter addresses the issue of Christian missions in the Middle East by departing from the figure of Western ‘missionaries’, which tends to obscure religious dynamics on the ground. After positing the Istanbul Evangelical circuit as a fragmented totality and missionary labour as unevenly divided among believers, we put forward hypotheses on this labour, based on an ethnography of Evangelicalism in Istanbul. Data suggests that missionary labour is not a profession, that it is a marginal activity, oriented towards Christian majority countries, and finally a political migration institution.

1 Introduction: The Missionary Chimera

Much contemporary discourse on Christian missions in Turkey shares the image of their relations with the West as an imperialist threat and with indigenous minorities as separatist in tendency. Academic and para-academic historical narratives have addressed “cultural imperialism” or the “culture of imperialism” during the late Ottoman period,1 while some identify Western missionaries as promoters of Armenian nationalism.2 Anti-missionary critics discussed below look somewhat anachronistically at “missionary actions” (misyoner faaliyetleri)3 and inscribe the present Western Evangelical presence as a continuity in the expansion of late nineteenth-century US influence. Simultaneously, Western Evangelicals hold as a teleological teaching the understanding of their predecessors’ “mistakes” with Ottoman Christians as a condition for their better achievements with contemporary Muslims,4 and non-Muslim Evangelicals emphasise the agency of the Armenian Protestant reformists in their encounter with missionaries.5 This trialogue combines to highlight the mark left by Western powers over Middle Eastern societies and enhances the conviction, whether in the form of an accusatory designation or an anxious guilt, of missionaries’ historical responsibility in the development of national feelings. It leaves almost no room for thinking contemporary Evangelicalism in Turkey and ends up silencing today’s greater number of Evangelical believers, namely Turkish converts and Global Southern Christian immigrants.

The present research did not initially intend to address “missions” or “missionary” issues, but Evangelicalism as a religion and Evangelical Churches6 as religious organisations. These terms were absent from my initial conceptual framework but gradually emerged in the course of academic exchanges as pervasive—if not haunting—categories, used by most actors. The missionary figure seems to function as a ‘chimera’ to (re)affirm the Westernness of Christianity and avoid opening wounds of memory inherent to the quasi-eradication of Anatolian Christian populations in the early twentieth century. The head of this imaginary harmful creature is incarnated by the West in general and United States in particular; its body by recognised non-Muslim minorities (historically) or unrecognised Muslim minorities (today); and its tail by Turkish majority segments supposedly complicit in a process of Western imperialism and minority separatism.

To take a step away from the “missionary” figure and its stable imaginary, I suggest a focus rather on missionary labour, understood as the proselytising part of the activities carried out by a community of faith, with the aim of expanding it. To do so, we must adopt an integrated outlook on the Istanbul Evangelical Circuit as a whole.

2 Istanbul Evangelical Circuit

Protestantism has been established in Istanbul for four hundred years, the first communities of believers having been composed of European craftsmen and merchants.7 The nineteenth-century’s Great Euro-American Evangelical Revival initiated an era of Western missions to the Middle East that would lead, under the impetus of the American Board Commission for Foreign Mission (ABCFM)’s “Mission to the Armenians”,8 to the formation of an autonomous Protestantism in the Eastern Ottoman provinces,9 and the creation of an Armenian Protestant millet in 1846—i.e. a recognised non-Muslim community ruled by its own leader. As a result of the massacres (1895–1896), genocide (1915–1916) and mass exoduses of the Anatolian Armenians, Istanbul became the stronghold of local and international Protestantism after the founding of the Republic of Turkey (1923). Alongside the Armenian Protestant community, there was and is still today a Western Protestant population, relatively privileged economically and administratively and legatee of several historical places of worship with various administrative statuses.

From the late 1980s onwards, two new populations have emerged as relevant actors in Istanbul’s Protestant landscape: Turkish people of Muslim family who have converted to Christianity,10 and Christian international immigrants from the Global South (Armenia, Sri Lanka, Ghana, Iran, Nigeria, the Philippines, among others).11 Their Churches can be considered Evangelical, i.e. stakeholders in a scattered Protestant movement which places at the heart of its practices the discourse of a radical change in the individual, regardless of their religious socialisation. These varied peoples first joined the historical Armenian and Western Churches in their buildings, which they helped to revitalise. But some eventually gave rise to autonomisation processes: the emergence and development of a Turkish Charismatic Evangelicalism12 and a growing number of Global Southern immigrants’ Pentecostal Churches, mostly with members from Central (DRC, Uganda), Eastern (Ethiopia) and Western (Nigeria, Ghana) Africa, where Pentecostal movements have a well-documented popularity.

Turkish and Global Southern Evangelicals remained relatively discreet to the Muslim majority but have opened new places of worship in commercial or private buildings. Most Turkish Churches have also come out of hiding by forming into associations, and a grouping of them aims to represent Protestants in Turkey at the national level through the Association of Protestant Churches (Protestan Kiliseler Derneği). Simultaneously, a growing number of African Pentecostals are organising themselves into associations, whether independently or as branches of Ghanaian and Nigerian transnational Churches.

José Guilherme Cantor Magnani has developed a “family” of categories to analyse urban practices that are not immediately visible13 a perspective suitable for the analysis of preaching strategies that develop in the shadow of public spaces.14 Urban actors set up activity-based material ‘equipments’ over urban ‘patches’—i.e. spaces at the edge between street and home—and the routes they follow between these patches sprawl out into unshaped medium-scale ‘turfs’ where one finds numerous equipments dedicated to similar practices. The ‘circuit’ is defined as “a non-contiguous spatial configuration produced by the routes of social actors in the exercise of one of their practices, over a given period of time”.15 Beyond the multiple ‘networks’ bound together by believers, and below the inclusion of all Churches in an alleged ‘field’ of generalised competition for disputed resources, ‘circuit’ articulates sparse places and dispersed communities based on their anchoring and mobilities in the cityscape. It allows us to incorporate fragmented realities into a whole by “connecting discontinuous and distant points in the urban tissue without losing, however, the perspective of totalities endowed with coherence”.16


Map 3.1

Historical Protestant places of worship in Istanbul

In this perspective, the Istanbul Evangelical circuit initially developed around historical churches, understood as the initial patches which nucleated the first Evangelical turfs governed to a great extent by Western and Turkish non-Muslim Evangelicals. Today it is broadened and endowed with newer patches, turfs and sub-circuits inaugurated by Turkish converts and Global Southern Evangelicals, who may be considered as Istanbul’s main Evangelical labour force.

3 Missionary Labour

My research is based on ethnography carried out among indigenous and immigrant Evangelical believers in Istanbul (Turkey) between 2013 and 201717 in the course of a project questioning the interdependent relationships between Evangelicals from diverse populations participating in different communities of faith. I have observed Church meetings on a regular basis, noting all the activities which contribute to their functioning as organisations and insisting on the restitution of these efforts as religious labour. Religious labour involves a wide range of tasks, unevenly shared and unequally valued, which are required to take care of the faith community and carry out its activities, on the one hand (worship labour); and ensure its reproduction and/or enlargement through the recruitment of new believers on the other (missionary labour). In other words, worship labour is understood as preaching-oriented activity and missionary labour as proselytising-oriented activity. This notional pairing is not intended to restrict the concept of “mission”—a polysemous term whose historical and geographical inflections may be discussed elsewhere—but to inform the ethnographic description of religious activities in religious organisations. Furthermore, thinking of these two spheres of activity separately allows us to reveal their hierarchisation, i.e. the fact that proselytising is a non-essential and subordinated part of Evangelical religious labour, while worshipping stands as a constant and core parameter of it.

I draw inspiration from the triptych established by Hannah Arendt who distinguished ‘labour’ from ‘work’ and ‘action’, all three fundamental human activities. Whereas work produces human artifices designed to last and populate the world, and action involves a “who” bearer of new beginnings, labour “leaves nothing behind [and] the result of its effort is almost as quickly consumed as the effort is spent”. More importantly, “life itself depends upon it”.18 It seems heuristic to turn towards what is most necessary and ephemeral, but least visible and valued, in the missionary labourers’ efforts to build and sustain communities of faith. This allows to escape from conceptions of missionary educational ‘work’ or imperialist ‘action’ and brings to the forefront the main and yet unknown actors of the missionary labour process: neither “Christian West” nor “Eastern Christianity”, but native converts and Christian immigrants.

The analysis is also based on the work of feminist materialist sociologists who emphasised the appropriation of labour as part of relations of domination, including in religious organisations.19 In a debate with Danièle Léger, Christine Delphy stated the housework did not have any ‘value’, as ‘value’ was a social relationship depending on its own exchangeability.20 Similarly, beyond the need to ethnographically highlight less visible and recognised religious labour, I do not consider it a direct value-generating activity: the latter comes from the religious labourers’ expropriation and appropriation by religious hierarchies. Moreover, I adopt a Church-centred perspective and do not distinguish between missionaries and missionary audiences, opting instead to focus on believers deeply involved in the organisations, who experience religious labour as an extension of their conversion and commitment to their Church.

The following hypotheses arose in a multi-denominational, multi-ethnic and unbalanced social configuration, from observations and interviews conducted with a wide range of actors whose backgrounds I gather in the following broad population categories: i. Western Evangelicals (Europeans, North Americans, South Koreans); ii. Turkey’s non-Muslim Evangelicals (Armenians, Syriacs); iii. Turkey’s convert Evangelicals from a Sunni or Alevi background (Turks, Kurds); and iv. Global Southern Evangelicals (from Africa, Middle East, Balkans, Caucasus, the Philippines, etc.). These broad categories are constructed upon administrative, economic, professional and residential criteria, and include persons with manifold and contradictory perceptual experiences.

This chapter focuses on the latter two populations—Turkish converts and Global Southern Evangelicals—whilst not overshadowing their relations with others in the implementation of Evangelical missionary labour in contemporary Istanbul. The aim is to highlight the implications of the focal shift from ‘missionaries’ as a figure to ‘missionary labour’ as an activity and sketch its sociological consequences drawing out the following hypotheses: (1) missionary labour in Istanbul is not a professional occupation; (2) it consists of side-activities carried out by marginalised populations; (3) it serves Evangelicalism in Christian countries; and (4) it tends to immobilise potential emigrants toward the West.

4 Not a Profession

Assuming that Evangelical missionary labour is not a profession seems counterintuitive if we recognise that the very conception of professional careers has profoundly to do, within the cultural frameworks of modern and Western capitalism, with a religious vocation lived and established by Evangelical Protestants themselves. Classical sociology’s commitment to maintain such a link in the wake of weberian-oriented studies has been evident since the choice of Talcott Parsons to translate the German beruf alternatively as ‘calling’ and ‘profession’.21 An expert on Weber pointed to the radical religious disenchantment purportedly introduced by Anabaptists as the cause of the “discovery of the ascetic-religious value of daily professional labour,”22 which is of interest given the views of two fieldwork respondents socialised in this tradition. Westerners’ mobility to the East also has been referred to as a profession in itself, as Benjamin Disraeli’s epigraph in Edward Said’s Orientalism brilliantly illustrates: “The East is a career”.23 Alongside such ideas, an ahistorical image of Protestant missionaries in Islamic lands remains on both sides of the East-West boundary. It portrays the Protestant “missionary” mostly as a distrusted American actor24/‘agent’, whose main occupation and explicit purpose is the transformation of societies while winning people to their faith. Yet ethnographic data reflect a slightly different picture.

The primary reason I refer to missionary labour rather than the profession of a missionary is because I met practically no one who formally belonged to an international missionary organisation or was paid for proselytising activities. Missionary labour didn’t appear as a profession in the sense that the bulk of it was undertaken by people whose main activity was not religious. Although born-again Christians25 may devote considerable time and energy to their Churches, they are committed to a professional and remunerative activity which overlaps with their social status. Beside the fact that Turkish converts and Global Southern immigrants carry out this unpaid labour on a larger scale it can be noted that they do not make a profession out of missionary labour.

Western foreigners all have residence permits, often coupled with work permits. They have degrees obtained in Western countries and generally gain ‘qualified’ work, integrating local economic hierarchies from above. The paths of two interviewees exemplify this integration at the top and show the historical depth of this phenomenon. Both belonged to the eldest Western Protestant generation still active on the Istanbul Evangelical circuit and had been involved in the emergence of Turkish Evangelicalism and the implantation of Global Southern Evangelicals from the 1980s.

Carey is a charismatic English Anglican woman born in the 1950s. She moved to Istanbul in 1972 and worked as a mathematics teacher for 15 years in an English-speaking high school attended by young girls from the inner-city Turkish bourgeoisie. Initially hired for two years by the British Consulate as a seconded teacher, she ended up spending 15 years in the job, as an employee of the Turkish Ministry of Education. To explain how she decided to settle long-term, she evokes her professional “strong sense of call” in parallel with a “calling” she had “felt” from God in 1971 to work in Turkey (August 2016). Carey married and raised three children in the city. Her British husband contributed to the new translation of the Bible into Turkish (2001) and later became a reverend in a Church simultaneously affiliated to Anglicanism, part of the Turkish Protestant associative network, and in constant dialogue with one of Istanbul’s two historical Armenian Protestant Churches, established as a Non-Muslim community foundation (cemaat vakfı).

Gordon is a Canadian-Scottish man of similar age, from an Anabaptist background. Initially moving to Germany as part of a Mennonite voluntary service in the mid-1970s, he worked with Turkish immigrants, started learning Turkish and ended up teaching English, a job he defines in a particularly meaningful way: “It also solved a problem for me, because I didn’t have a profession” (April 2016). Finally settling in Istanbul in the 1980s, Gordon taught English for almost 30 years at a major state university in Istanbul and alongside this remained an active labourer in the Union Church,26 a gravitational centre of Protestantism in Istanbul. The Church holds services in the oldest Protestant place of worship in Istanbul (the Dutch Chapel, built in the seventeenth century), is registered under the “new foundations” (yeni vakıflar) regime, and seems to act as a hub for most Protestants. In addition to the English-speaking and Turkish-speaking services gathering believers from a great range of denominational, national and ethnic backgrounds the Church owns another building, the Union Han, which hosted Amharic-speaking Pentecostal and Chinese Evangelical faith communities at the time of my research. During his thirty years in the Church, Gordon had witnessed the first Turkish-language religious services, the rising of Turkish Evangelicalism, and the growing participation of Evangelical immigrants from Ghana, Nigeria, and later from other African and Asian countries.

Carey and Gordon are nodal actors on the Istanbul Evangelical circuit, in the sense that their religious activities, focused on worship labour mobilise clusters of relationships relating to very diverse networks. Despite not knowing each other personally, they both contributed to create more or less tenuous links binding presumably distant Evangelical worlds. Broadly speaking, Westerners’ mastery of manifold Evangelical realities makes them outstanding informers for the ethnographer but also not negligible ‘experts’27 for their Churches. Their activities can be understood as missionary labour turned outwards insofar as it helps to maintain interdependencies between established and outsider Evangelical communities, accompanying the institutionalisation process.

Both were either receiving or about to receive a pension from the Turkish state, a sign of strong integration into the local economy. It can be assumed that Western Evangelicals derive their self-confident expertise over the Evangelical circuit from a privileged position,28 and in this case from professional experience which incrementally keeps them in close contact with the Turkish majority group. Moreover, given the troubles faced and reported by Westerners who came to Turkey within the frame of missionary organisations, it is not an exaggeration to say that this confidence comes precisely from the fact that missionary labour is not their profession. Indeed, many people identified as “missionaries” by intelligence services have recently been subject to deportations, a common practice in the 1960s–1970s that has been revived in the aftermath of the July 2016 coup attempt and the Pastor Brunson case.29

Missionary labour, even when remunerated, may not be seen as a profession. Indeed, the few Evangelical believers and leaders I met who were paid by a religious organisation oriented most of their efforts to worship, i.e. to preaching and caring for an existing community of faith—whose inception they had not impelled but assisted—rather than mission-oriented, i.e. devoted to proselytising and church-planting or enlarging communities. The respondent who comes closest to the timeless “missionary” figure was Paul, a US citizen, also from an Anabaptist denomination which he precisely defines by the “typical characteristic” of not having “a professional clergy” (March 2016). He had lived in Istanbul for more than thirty years and had helped to found one of the first Churches composed of converted Turks before becoming, in the 2000s, the head of the main Bible school in Istanbul—providing a religious training for Turkish Protestant Church leaders and labourers. This was far from being his sole religious labour, as he spent a lot of time working for his Church.

Even though religious training can be understood as part of missionary labour—carried out outside the place of worship with the aim of ensuring the reproduction of religious leaderships—it is clear that my Westerner informants were reluctant to define it this way. Moreover, indigenous informants (whether non-Muslim minorities or Turkish converts) did not conceive the education of religious labourers as a proselytising action. They even gave it as the primary reason for foreign Protestants to stay in Turkey, as the leader of an Armenian Protestant church explains: “There is a need for missionaries because there is a problem in Turkey: there is no school to study Christian theology, so where can it be learned? Who is going to teach us?” (September 2016). Feeling compelled to account for this is in itself a sign of the stigma and insecurity experienced by Evangelicals in the midst of a serious authoritarian turn.30 But aside from being a marginal part of religious labour as a whole, missionary labour is mostly carried out by Turkish converts and international immigrants from the Global South.

5 An Outsider Activity

When considering contemporary Evangelical missionary labour as subordinate to worship labour—on which lies the perennial existence and projection capacity of the faith communities—it is meaningful to get an idea of the comparative demographic data of the religious labourers, who keep Churches alive and undertake proselytising activities. Based on fieldwork estimations, there appeared to be around 1,000 Turkish converts and 1,500 Global Southern immigrants actively involved on the Istanbul Evangelical circuit, with fewer than 750 Westerners and under 300 non-Muslim minority Evangelicals. In other words, ‘outsiders’ are almost two and a half times more numerous than the ‘established’.

Turkish and Global Southern Evangelicals are ‘outsider’ missionary labourers primarily because they experience a lack of visibility and recognition in terms of local institutional categories. For Turkish Evangelicals, this is partly due to a hegemonic tripartite conception of ‘non-Muslim’ communities including Armenians, Greeks (Rum) and Jews (Musevi), inherited from the Ottoman millet system31 and reformulated through the interpretation of the Lausanne treaty (1923). Turkish people adopting Christian practices and faith, and even more so their commitment to missionary labour, remain little studied. Yet the tenaciously ethno-confessional conception of religious identities can be read in the formulation of the issue itself by Turkish essayists who have taken an interest in (and against) Christian missionaries in Turkey.32 One describes these subjects as “Christian Muslims in Turkey”,33 while another mentions “Turk missionaries” alternately referring to a “religious turn” triggered by foreign missionaries and using ‘mission’ as a synonym for religious conversion (of society itself).34

As for Evangelical believers from Africa, Asia and the Middle East, invisibilisation can be explained by referring to the religious understanding of international migration to and from Turkey, dominated by the historical figures of the Muslim immigrant to Turkey (muhacir) and the Turkish emigrant to Western Europe (gurbetçi).35 This picture should be considered with caution, taking into account non-Muslim immigrants and emigrants—the latter played a part in the development of Turkish Evangelicalism—but it is noteworthy that international migrations to and from Turkey are accompanied by an Islamic imagination that more or less explicitly shapes the local consciousness of migratory phenomena. This perhaps strengthens the lack of a legislative and administrative framework supportive of Christian immigrants’ public recognition and may give special importance to their “religious niches.”36

The marginality of Turkish converts and Global Southern Christian missionary labourers is mainly due to their late integration into a Protestant urban circuit historically formed of established Westerners and non-Muslim minorities. One can draw on the model set out by John L. Scotson and Norbert Elias to address residential relationships leading to logics of closure and exclusion.37 Every segment among the Turkish converts and Global Southern immigrants shares common national, linguistic, or denominational grounds with segments of the Western and/or non-Muslim minority populations, at least as much as the latter between themselves, i.e. cultural differences cannot solely explain their opposition. Instead, the purported ‘oldness’ of settlement as a group is a major criterion for differentiating between them, and the monopolisation of associative resources can be emphasised as a mechanism of marginalisation, since outsider Evangelicals are almost deprived of foundations (vakıf38), an establishment institution par excellence.

Turkish converts’ marginalisation has much to do with the ‘outsider’ status defined by Howard Becker to qualify those who regularly engage in activities that deviate from norms prevailing in their reference groups, are given an unacceptable identity and vulnerable to exclusion.39 An interviewee from the Central Anatolian city of Konya, heavily involved in the worship labour of his Church in Istanbul, had broken all ties with his overly “conservative” (muhafazakar) family (August 2017), while a pastor from Gaziantep described having been beaten to a pulp and his family threatened by neighbours (July 2016). Whether or not these accounts may be deemed expressions of “neighbourhood pressure”—a term coined by Şerif Mardin to point to the Ottoman historical heritage and spatial dimension of social control in Turkey40—they are relevant to understanding missionary labour in Istanbul. The fact that Turkish Evangelicals attend churches without their families and far from their homes or workplaces is conducive to a tendency to disperse into small groups spread out over vast urban areas. As Gordon stated: “Many people don’t want to go to church in their own neighbourhood. Because if people find out they could have big problems. That is why there are so many Protestant churches right now” (August 2016). As purported betrayers of the Muslim majority, Turkish Evangelicals’ missionary labourers are both stigmatised in the public space and given a crucial role in their Churches.

Global Southern Christians’ marginalisation can be better interpreted as a ‘margin’ as defined by African-American feminist literature of the 1980s, i.e. indicating a situation of minorisation coupled with invisibility in relation to the outsider groups with which marginalised people share their activities. The now-classic concept of intersectionality forged by Kimberlé Crenshaw in order to engage with subjects at the crossroads between several systems of oppression is often cited without mentioning the term ‘margin’, yet it is central to a theory anchored in a powerful spatial metaphor.41 References to ‘outsider’ and ‘marginal’ positionalities arising from urban segregation are fundamental to this intellectual tradition, and the political stake expressed through the phrase “All the women are White, all the Blacks are men, but some of us are brave”42 is more widely heuristic to address unequal recognition within marginalised groups. According to a conception emulated on the Istanbul Evangelical circuit itself and exemplified below, everything happens precisely as if all Christians were Westerners and all Global Southerners were Muslims, so Global Southern Christian immigrants must redouble their efforts to be seen as Christians. Being both a missionary labourer and an Ethiopian, Nigerian, or Filipina means not only being on the fringes of the surrounding social body but also being made invisible within Evangelical circles themselves. Global Southern Evangelicals have the same tendency to multiply and spread small places of worship but for different reasons: a single organisation may open several places of worship to get as close as possible to believers’ homes, most likely because of economic difficulties (price and time of transport) attached to their proletarian situation, as well as a conflicted experience of the public space linked to their racialisation.43

Outsider Evangelicals contributed to revitalising historical Protestant places of worship in the centre of the “European” side of Istanbul—integrating the established faith communities or carrying their own services within it. Finally, they contribute to changing the scale and topography of Christian settlements in the city. While the twelve oldest Protestant places of worship in Istanbul are concentrated within an area barely 10 km across, and are based in the 0.5 % of buildings constructed before 1946,44 more than half of the approximately forty churches opened by Turks and Nigerians over the last twenty years carried Evangelicalism beyond the first ring road, and some follow the urban sprawl further West and East, beyond the second ring road. Admittedly, no church has yet ventured to the extent of contemporary Istanbul, on the urban fronts of the third ring road. The most distant churches are rarely frequented, but their influence deserves to be underlined, since some churches of the city centre are actually branches born in peripheral areas.


Map 3.2

Turkish Protestant places of worship in Istanbul around 2017

Some Turkish Evangelical places of worship spread across the city function as ‘patches’ and often agglomerate into ‘turfs’45 of less than two kilometres in size, easily walkable, where there are at least three or four places of worship between which believers follow commonly travelled routes, as in Kadıköy and Şişli district centres. The phenomenon is striking in Kadıköy, where I surveyed middle-aged male Turkish Evangelicals, who attend church without their families, engaging in typical male bonding discussions (muhabbet)46 around the churches, involving non-Christian male neighbours. In this case worship labourers, although not proselytising, become missionary labourers as they maintain trusting interpersonal relations with the community’s immediate surroundings. Publicising the existence of an otherwise invisible Evangelical patch then appears as a show-and-tell game that these Turkish men master better than their Western brothers in faith.

Evangelical sub-circuits formed by Turkish converts also offer support for Western missionary labourers who find them a dropping-off point in the city. This is typically true of international youth mobilities, like a Canadian Bible university student being received in an Evangelical Church in Kadıköy, where British people were already working, for an 8-month internship as a graduation requirement (October 2017). Young Westerners’ practises in Turkish Churches—whether students or labourers, singles or couples—illustrate better than anything else how missionary labour, including in the public space of the street, is always subordinated to worship labour. These people are particularly active in their churches where they learn to speak, sing and preach in Turkish, and are eventually found doing sung performances (worship) or even prayers in the public space, as is the case twice a year during the St. George’s pilgrimage in Büyükada.47 Turkish converts’ first communities of faith were already united around the organisation familiarly known as ‘TeK’ for “Council of Representatives” (Temsilciler Kurulu),48 which became the Association of Protestant Churches in 2008, and have for the most part constituted themselves as associations with a religious purpose (sometimes place of worship) since the amendments made to the zoning law and law on associations.49 Associations founded by Turkish citizens even helped to formalise the activity of historical western church buildings that had no known legal status, especially Anglican buildings located in Moda (All Saints Church, Anatolian side) and Tophane (Crimean Memorial Church, European side), the latter used by Turks and maintained by Sri Lankans. Christian immigrant churches are not to be outdone when it comes to welcoming Western Evangelicals, as I witnessed in a Ugandan church hosting an American pastoral couple who were using the space to provide English and Bible classes for Iraqi refugees of the same neighbourhood (2015).

Istanbul’s geography is best understood in three dimensions: major Turkish churches are on the main axes of the ridges and plateaus, while immigrant churches are nestled in the folds of the city and its recesses—in residential basements on parallel streets laid out on the hillside, very often in the acute angle between two sides. African church entrances often give onto a wasteland, a railway line or a lane frequented by trash collectors. Some of these invisible churches are by far the most frequented of my sample, but members of the immediately neighbouring established churches seemed to ignore them. When I spoke to Paul about a Nigerian Pentecostal Church located less than 300 metres from the Bible Institute he worked for, and gathering between 150 and 200 believers on Sundays at the time, he claimed not to know it (March 2016).

Most immigrant Churches are primarily oriented towards national or linguistic communities but it isn’t uncommon for their pastors to seek visibility and to create links with established Evangelicals, especially when they did not rely on any transnational organisation based in their country of origin. For instance, Congolese and Ugandan independent Pentecostal Churches I visited,50 despite significant differences in their status, were implanted in former non-Muslim neighbourhoods, sometimes in the premises of Armenian landlords. Yet most attempts remain unsuccessful, as Carey’s statement about a massive presence of Nigerian Pentecostals also illustrate: “I am not sure that they affect Turkey” (May 2016). This echoes quite faithfully the opinion of Turkish anti-missionary essayists: “If missionary actions were done by Kenyans, our young people wouldn’t even turn and look to it.”51—a short-sighted view contradicted by facts: I surveyed missionary labourers from Kenya, South Sudan, and the Philippines who were particularly active (more than their Western comrades) in networking with and public evangelism towards Turkish people.

More critically, the main representative of the Armenian Protestant community accuses the Congolese of “not developing an official community” (February 2016), and a Syriac Protestant leader very involved in Turkish Evangelicalism boldly suggests that Nigerians should “go to their own countries” because they are not making enough efforts towards the ‘locals’ (September 2016). We see a striking example of established groups’ devaluation discourses around outsiders on the grounds of the latter’s supposed disorganisation and lack of initiative—which is of course perceived from a position of associative quasi-monopoly and social comparative advantage. However, dichotomising disorganised, passive Global Southern believers and organised, active Western and indigenous missionaries is all the more artificial since missionary labour is largely oriented towards Christian-majority countries.

6 A Christian Countries-Oriented Activity

In the face of the lack of impact of Evangelical proselytising in Turkey—converts are probably just over 5,000 and do not significantly increase in number—and not to merely assume the inefficacy and meaninglessness of Evangelical missionary labour, one could address it in specific relation to Western and Global Southern Evangelicalism. Edward Said has shown how modern orientalist discourse served essentially “to reassert the Orientalness of the subject and the Westernness of the observer”52—an observer who has often taken on the role of a missionary—and it is clear that these cultural areas and ‘continental’ distinction53 were defined very precisely by this relationship. Discourses on the East bore the imprint of Western missionaries and Euro-American Protestants played a major part in asserting a Western prerogative over Christianity, through the more or less subtle negation and derision of Eastern “nominal” Christianity.54

Although Christianity has never been exclusively European and even less so today,55 the association of Christianity with Western Europe remains a tenacious commonplace in Turkey. Besides, contemporary scholars have evidenced the relative deterritorialisation of the East in ‘Neo-Orientalist’ discourses, despite notable continuities.56 But the role played by Evangelicals in contemporary East-West relationship dynamics is not so much a matter of an ideological discourse emitted from the West and effects of power on the East: examples as different as charity programs and ritual narratives are illustrative of Christian Countries oriented missionary labour.

Christian NGO activities in the Middle East are well documented in countries such as Egypt57 or Lebanon58 but have not received similar attention in Turkey, where the humanitarian sector is dominated by non-denominational and Islamic actors. In addition, contemporary criticism in Turkey concerning “missionaries” usually does not consider non-religious charity actors as having a “missionary position”59 or carrying Western influence into the Middle East. But several NGO s are engaged in ‘awareness-raising’ or related activities and reproduce the same hierarchy between local and international labourers as seen in nineteenth-century Protestant missions.60 As for religious groups, from the perspective of an integrated Istanbul Evangelical circuit, initiatives focusing primarily on vulnerable international immigrants appear as both a form of worship (preaching-centred) and missionary (proselytism-centred) labour, insofar they directly relate to the caring for and growing of communities of faith. They provide aid mostly to Christian populations and serve the reputation and respectability of the Churches involved to a wealthy public eye, making them potential interlocutors for local authorities, consular representations and international institutions which it is no exaggeration to dub deterritorialised ‘Western observers’.61

The history of charity programs recounts the settlement process of Global Southern Evangelicals, as is the case for the Istanbul Interparish Migrant Program (IIMP). The latter was set up in an emergency during the winter of 1990–1991 to meet the needs for blankets, food and clothing for Nigerians and Ghanaians locked up by the police, many of whom were members of the Union Church, and then more broadly for people displaced as a result of the Gulf War, many of whom were members of the Crimean Memorial Church. In the mid 2010s IIMP aimed in particular to serve female Ethiopian asylum seekers, while the Church hosted an Amharic-speaking Pentecostal community of over 40 Ethiopian women believers, further illustrating the close ties between missionary labour and worship labour in established Evangelicalism.

A significant number of Churches are linked to denominations registered in countries where there exist mechanisms for rating and ranking missionary organisations, although there is regrettably no significant academic work on this subject. It is likely that missionary involvement in Turkey—a country regarded as highly resistant to Christianity by all Western interviewees—is positively perceived and rated, particularly in view of the diversity of places and people involved in missionary labour. Missionary labourers would then appear as mere nodes in a wider international network and their labour would generate value only in relation to the extent of the whole network and its reach.

Turkish Churches defined as ‘international’ by their leaders—an informant ironically suggested these could be labelled ‘American’ given US citizens’ influence in them (August 2016)—also undertake substantial missionary labour explicitly aimed at supporting exiled people, which again seems to be primarily concerned with faith community projection. This sometimes happens in a performative sense, as the mere settlement of a pair of Church members in a city includes it in the community’s own understanding of its reach. Their actions show the weight of Turkish and Global Southerner Evangelicals’ efforts in missionary labour, as is the case with activities by a Kadıköy Church for Syrian Yezidi refugees near Şırnak (Iraq-Turkish border). This was carried out by and around a couple formed by Betül, a Turkish Armenian woman, and Peter, her Sri Lankan husband, who I visited during fieldwork in Eastern Turkey (summer 2016).

The couple had settled in Mardin with their four children for three years, with the missionary purpose of organising house prayer meetings and establishing links with other Protestant groups, while providing financial assistance to refugees in need. An American pastor and his Korean wife also lived in Gaziantep, founders of the Church where Betül and Peter got married. The latter was mainly frequented by Turkish Kurd Evangelicals but hosted a Syrian refugee faith community and at that time lent the church apartment to a non-denominational school teaching the Syrian national curriculum to refugee children. The personal links and institutional nodes connecting the network within and beyond Turkish territory often, therefore appear to be personified by mixed conjugal unions formed in Istanbul—where believers come from a wide range of backgrounds—and working in inland cities.

Attention must finally be drawn to narrative performances staged across East-West boundaries, often digitalised, that promote Evangelical organisations and strengthen their position in particularly competitive religious fields in the West. I have observed in Turkish and immigrant Churches a missionary labour which directly unfolds in the ritual dynamic and is oriented towards the development of religious networks.

Conversion narratives (or testimonies) are a central ritual device in Pentecostal organisations such as the Waterfall, a “mixed” Church born from a Turkish-Nigerian initiative,62 from which I collected almost half of my ethnographic data. The Waterfall is recognisable by strong Middle Eastern and African recruitment and benefits from financial subsidies from the Florida-based organisation it is a part of, which inspire criticism by other actors. The Turkish-American founder of the Turkish branch has built up over the years a stable and strong conversion narrative focusing on his pious childhood in Ankara, in a Turkish and Sunni milieu. His story is tinged with the boredom almost invariably expressed by Turkish converts from conservative families, inspired by compulsory learning of Qurʾanic language, always presented as arbitrary and meaningless. As a counterpoint, his personal encounter with Jesus is said to be experienced in an immediately meaningful and understandable way and followed by a voluntary commitment based on his personal decision.

In view of such a testimony, narrating his socialisation to Islam and his conversion to Christianity, staged on the altar during a worship service at the Waterfall in Tampa (Florida), and in light of the enthusiastic reactions to this testimony, it can be argued that its efficacy relies less on missionary efforts to convert Middle Eastern people to Christianity than in the publicity given to the Waterfall Church in the US and, through digital networks, to a group of people already massively won over to Evangelicalism. In other words, to spin an entrepreneurial metaphor to evoke Pentecostal economies of symbolic exchange, the missionary ‘return on investment’ does not come from the establishment of a new market (the Middle East) but rather from the competitiveness of a specific organisation in the already saturated market of American Evangelicalism. I also hold this hypothesis from the fact that the Waterfall at Istanbul Church is not only a receiving but also a sending branch of its transnational organisation, training and sending out missionaries who circulate between Africa, Asia and Europe, at least one of whom has founded a partner Church in Cameroon.

This is further reinforced from ethnographic observation in São Paulo (Brazil, March 2017) on the fringes of my PhD fieldwork, within a Brazilian Armenian Baptist Church transnationally bound to the Istanbul Evangelical circuit insofar it has for decades funded a major Istanbul Armenian Evangelical leader. During the final phase of a worship service I attended, in the sequence immediately following the preaching and preceding the last songs and prayers, a guest pastor from Southern Brazil introduced his Church’s ministry to Christian refugees from the Arab world. He then showed a short film telling the story of the care and reception of an Armenian family from northern Syria who had suffered ISIS military occupation before fleeing to Lebanon, where their asylum application would lead to resettlement in Brazil.

By the terrifying story it told and the way it was edited and directed, the film provoked very strong emotions in the audience and the ethnographer could not hold back sobs. The pastor pointed out that this family had not yet “renounced” Orthodox Christianity but had agreed to “testify” to their rebirth, marking a conversion process well under way. The effect of such a story, which literally depicts the rescue of Eastern subjects from the hands of the jihadists, is in my opinion considerable for the members of the community themselves, and undoubtedly has added ritual value for the visitors. Such contemporary ethnographic material makes it possible to understand the importance for missionary labourers not only to convert ‘Oriental’ subjects in Islamic lands but also, and perhaps more importantly, to strengthen or advance their denomination in Western and Global Southern, Christian majority countries. It must be added that the essential displacement in the missionary labour process is not human migration from West to East but rather narrative transfer from East to Christian countries, which explains why missionary labour tends to mobilise believers’ voices while immobilising their bodies.

7 A Political Migration Institution

I wish to suggest as a fourth and conclusive hypothesis that contemporary Evangelical missionary labour in the Middle East can be fruitfully analysed as a political migration institution for both Turkish converts and Global Southern Evangelicals. ‘Migration’ is not defined here specifically in relation to mobility, but perhaps above all to immobility, or rather immobilisation. The ‘political’ is for its part understood as “the field for the encounter between emancipation [or politics] and policy [police in French] in the handling of a wrong.”63 The wrong we are addressing is that done to exiles, pertinently described by Shoshana Fine as treated as undesirable and rightless through biopolitical governance.64 Such governance, which I prefer to call migration policy—or better, a migration police—not only deploys a wide range of coercive forces but also assumes the guise of humanitarian benevolence, engaging in (once again) ‘awareness-raising’ programmes aimed at discouraging and disciplining undesirable candidates for migration to the West.65 Roughly speaking, communities of faith whose religious labour force is mainly made up of Turkish internal migrants and Global Southern international immigrants are dealing with policing that hinders their members’ international mobility, while believers often imagine themselves in the West with various intentions and hopes.

The conversion of Turkish Muslims to Evangelicalism is often correlated with mobility towards the West. I was able to observe the centrality and prominence of many Turkish Evangelicals who had previously emigrated or were descendants of emigrants in Western Europe, North America or South Korea. Several Turkish pastors and pastors’ wives had lived in Florida, Iowa, studied in Toronto, Seoul, or grown up in Germany before, at the same time as, or as a result of the moment when they had literally “believed” (iman etmek) or became believers (imanlı olmak). I also witnessed the departure of active Turkish religious labourers, and above all heard their desire to leave, a sensitive phenomenon that obviously shades migration theories categorising Turkey no longer as a country of emigration but of immigration and transit.66 Yet when I met them, their attention and projections seemed to be entirely focused on Turkey and their Churches’ believers, most of whom had never left the country and did not explicitly plan to do so on a long-term basis. More striking was the general optimism with which religious leaders projected themselves as Christians in Turkey, exemplified in the long sermon of a Turkish assistant pastor who, just as Turkish Protestants were shaken by the imprisonment of Pastor Brunson and the expulsion of dozens of foreign members, deplored the burning of churches and persecution of Christians around the world, in contrast to Turkey where, he said: “we are quiet, and we live quietly” (August 2017).

Lots of Turkish converts I met are internal migrants from peripheral and depreciated regions, born to pious Muslim families, descendants of emigrants to Germany, or from ethnic, linguistic (Kurds, Arabs) or religious (Alevis) Muslim minorities. They already live in an external position relative to the ‘White Turk’ idealisation,67 and their discourses challenge the association between Sunnism and Turkishness, promoting a Turkish Christianity that is not only emergent, but rooted in ancient history. This might be called a rhetoric of Turkification and hence a claim for an alternate indigenisation or nationalisation of Christianity—its appropriation by ethnic majority subjects. It is reflected in the speech of Adem, a member of a Church founded by a Turkish Evangelical pioneer in Istanbul. Adem was born to a “quite pious” Sunni family but insists on the Hebrew Biblical origin of his first name and refers to the Huns, Gagauz, Karamanlı, and Pecheneg peoples as Christian representatives of the “Turkish race” (August 2016). Conversion is often accompanied—at least for Turkish believers adhering to a generic nationalist culture—by a claim to be Turkish and Christian, i.e. to become Christian without being associated with non-Muslim minorities: Adem also takes up a recurrent criticism of Armenian and Syriac Protestants as too “traditional” and extols the inter-ethnic alliance of those who “truly seek God”. Working for an evangelical publishing house for almost twenty years—in the midst of a resurgence of anti-Christian violence marked by the 2007 murder of three evangelical editors in Malatya—he is undoubtedly a missionary labourer.

Literature on Christian religiosity among Global Southerners in the Middle East, meanwhile, usually focuses on the accumulation and circulation of social capital within communities of faith and demonstrates how religious networks are involved in transit or asylum and resettlement processes. Following this perspective, Church membership would help transit migrants to continue on to western countries, allow asylum seekers to obtain refugee status and resettlement, or facilitate the local integration of those who remain on the spot for an uncertain period of time. But the ‘transit’ perspective tends to overly retain mobility as a mark of Global Southern populations and transitionality as the function of Middle East spaces in the international migration system. It does not allow for a clear understanding of long-term settlement of Global Southerners in the Middle East, and even less of why some people leave while others stay. More broadly speaking, theorisations focused on the distribution and exchange of social capital and networks fail to explain immigrant Evangelicals’ commitment to religious labour within communities where they do not obviously accumulate capital or establish networks, especially if one defines capital and networks as resources for gaining structural advantages or achieving a particular goal.

Some Churches offer limited space and time for developing reticular solidarity, circulating social resources, and acquiring cultural skills that may be useful either to achieve further international mobility or to settle permanently in Turkey. Other Turkish and/or immigrant Churches, although more favourable to these solidarities, still treat these migrations quite independently from the practical help they could provide to their ‘brothers and sisters in Christ’. Taking into account the efficacy of religious activities might seem a better way to understand the intensive participation in religious labour of Global Southern Evangelicals in these configurations.

Ritual performances enacted in churches reveal this incidence, such as the individual testimony of a Moldovan international student, Ana, at a meeting of the youth group of the Waterfall Church, of which she is among the most active members. Having been called by the youth group pastor to the altar to preach about dreams (understood as personal aspirations), Ana said she no longer had any dreams and declared: “My dream was to come to Turkey and to stay here. And it came true (…) I passed my exam in Turkey. It was my dream and it came true” (March 2015). She then called it a “poverty mentality” subordinating one’s dreams to money and her testimony took the form of preaching for donations to the Church, ‘giving’ being “the highest type of worship”. This preaching, welcomed by the pastor, could be interpreted as a narrative device that strengthens the organisation by reaffirming its centrality in the economy of the gift/counter-gift between believers and God, an essential parameter of neo-Pentecostalism and prosperity gospel. But I also found this argumentation to be the central narrative spring in the testimony of many Waterfall respondents. It was brilliantly taken up a few months later by Ana’s friend Jamie—whose migration plans have alternated between transit, asylum seeking, and return home—who in an interview declared Istanbul to be her “promised land” (June 2015).

Hence testimony, a central performance to Pentecostalism, should not be taken as a mere narrative device, but rather as a “ritually-enacted decision-making,”68 or better still it is a ritual relationship and a “lived-through experience sustained by intentionally and emotionally laden events”.69 This is even truer of other ritual manifestations and discourses, as Ana’s words take their place in the wider universe of discourse of the Church’s hierarchy, where Western Europe is systematically decried and Istanbul praised for its wealth, and pastors promote migration to the West for some members while proscribing it for others, showing that the organisation is based both on the circulation and the local anchoring of immigrants. The private appropriation70 of the Waterfall Church’s Nigerian assistant pastor’s wife was coupled with her collective appropriation and immobilisation—notwithstanding her personal migration projects—in the Church, a ritual relationship neatly expressed by the hierarchy. This is how I would interpret the founding pastor recalling, after she had been ritually ‘touched’ by the Holy Spirit, that she had been called by God to save “especially Muslim women souls” in Turkey (June 2015). In other words, from the institutional perception of the gifts of the Spirit, the Nigerian pastoral couple was assigned to the role of missionaries in Turkey and their mobility towards West prohibited.

The choice of commenting on situations related to preaching in the context of ritualised worship labour, rather than proselytising actions in daily missionary labour, allows us to highlight this less visible sphere, characterised by the establishment of institutional networks of inter-knowledge which may not be taken as a prior or side-effect, but as the core and outcome of religious activity itself. Narrative re-elaborations and biographical projections ultimately modify the very nature of the links between believers and can lead by means of religious communion and preaching—not only through encounters on the fringes of religious activities—to ritual relationships extending to solidarities and dependencies, and durably transform life trajectories.

Churches offer a privileged observation point of subtle forms of immobilisation and mobilisation of native and immigrant Evangelicals in Istanbul, transmuted into a management of migration that includes arrival, staying, and/or departure. Ritualised worship labour tends to define Istanbul as the end of the road or as the place for new beginnings, its territory supports the re-elaboration and biographical projections of the actors in ritual situations, putting religious organisations at the heart of individual migration projects.


I suggested that missionary labour in Istanbul is not a professional vocation, is carried out mainly by native converts and Global Southern immigrants, and that its proselytising efforts are oriented towards attracting born-again believers in Christian majority countries rather than converting Middle Eastern Muslims to Christianity. Outsider Evangelicals appear as central components for missionary labour and the anchoring of Evangelical practices in the city. Turkish converts strengthen the Evangelical circuit through their mediating role, thanks to the dispositions attached to their indigenousness and privileges derived from their citizenship. Global Southerners are an essential human resource, above all as they actively work within Churches, but as subjects for international assistance and solidarity programmes. Charity addresses worship labour issues (i.e. turned towards the community of faith constituted around preaching) more than it mobilises missionary labour (which would imply conversion and therefore proselytising). Furthermore, the main purpose of missionary labour would not be to convert Muslims or Eastern Christians, but to strengthen faith communities and eventually attract new Evangelical fellows in Christian majority countries.

Finally, political optimism and the claim to Christian Turkishness reinforcing missionary projects on this geography are, I argue, powerful incentives to stay in Turkey and tools for immobilising potential Turkish candidates for emigration to the West. By extension, the communicability of an optimistic idea of settling in Turkey also influences international immigrants and/or asylum seekers involved in religious labour. The point is not that religion determines migration, but rather that religious organisations develop both locally and transnationally as a function of the limitations imposed by migration policing. Churches also need people arriving and leaving, and tend to establish natives and immigrants as local religious labourers while circulating narratives and some emigrant religious labourers towards Christian countries.

Reassessing missionary labour as the secondary and subordinate part of religious worship labour focused on preaching within church buildings offers an alternative way to escape narratives criticising imperialist missionary ‘actions’ or celebrating missionary educational ‘work’. Interpreting missionary labour as a political migration institution implies adopting an institutional approach of ‘migration projects’71—not allowing our full attention to be captured by international organisations, states and dominant economic actors—and adding a political dimension to it. Estelle Miramond’s recent work represents a landmark here, showing how policies implemented by NGO s and states directed at Laotian women immobilise female candidates for migration and direct them towards forms of labour which rely on the appropriation of women by heterosexual and familial institutions.72 Religious labour similarly reinforces the immobilisation of Turkish and Southern Evangelicals in Istanbul (women, singles, Africans for instance).

Taken together, these hypotheses constitute a plea for the renewal of a political and institutional approach to Evangelicalism in the Middle East, that sheds light on Churches as supporting a dynamic and constantly repeated labour focused on preaching prior to proselytising. Once we consider Evangelical practice not as a Sunday activity but rather as a labour absorbing the daily time and energy of the believers, we may think of religion as a determinant of migration trajectories rather than a mere consequence of a purported migration ‘context’.73 Functional interrogations then shifts from the classical problem of ritual efficacy to the broader impact of conversion and religious labour, whether ritualised or daily, on social and geographical trajectories. Conversion narratives illustrate the interweaving of religious conversion as transformation from the old life, and migration as a way of organising the new one, while ritual relations cast uncertainty over the future and the past. Ultimately, Evangelical labour as a whole continuously blurs the distinction between preaching and proselytism, and the implications of its output (Evangelical communion) for the reshaping of Istanbul Christianity and rewriting of Christian memory in Turkey are still to be explored.


Cemal Yetkiner, “İstanbul’da bir cemaatin doğuşu: William Goodell (1792–1867) ve Amerikan Protestan misyonu (1820–1850),” in XV. Türk Tarih Kongresi: Kongreye sunulan bildiriler: Ankara, 11–15 Eylül, 2006, ed. Yusuf Halaçoğlu (Ankara: Türk Tarih Kurumu, 2010), 1550.


See Jeremy Salt, Imperialism, Evangelism and the Ottoman Armenians, 1878–1896 (London: Frank Cass, 1993), translated into Turkish in 2015.


The phrase “missionary activity” (misyoner faaliyeti) is recorded in Ottoman Turkish as early as 1924, in an Islamist journal where it replaced in all likelihood “missionary movement” (misyoner hareketi). This original substitutability of hareket (gesture, movement) and faaliyet (activity), together with the very conception of the “missionary” figure, shows that we would benefit from translating this as ‘missionary actions’, rather than activities. See Fuat Aydın, “Osmanlı ve Cumhuriyet Dönemindeki Misyonerlik Faaliyetleri ve Bu Faaliyetleriyle Ilgili Çalışmalara Yönelik Bir Bibliyografya Denemesi,” Sakarya Üniversitesi İlahiyat Fakültesi Dergisi, 7 (2003), 123.


Pieter Pikkert, Protestant Missionaries to the Middle East: Ambassadors of Christ or Culture? (Ancaster, ON: Alev Books, 2015).


Behnan Konutgan, Anadolu’da Hristiyanlık (İstanbul: Yeni Anadolu Yayıncılık, 2017), 148–149.


In the following ‘church’ refers to places of worship and ‘Church’ to communities of faith or religious organisations.


Jean-Michel Hornus, “The Lutheran and Reformed Churches,” in Religion in the Middle East: Three Religions in Concord and Conflict, ed. A.J. Arberry (London: Cambridge University Press, 1969), 536–537.


Founded in Boston in 1810, the ABCFM was the oldest and largest US American missionary organisation. It is its educational activities on the territory of present-day Turkey that have received the most attention from historians. Uygur Kocabaşoğlu, Anadolu’daki Amerika: 19. yülyılda Osmanlı İmparatoruluğu’ndaki Amerikan misyoner okulları: kendi belgeleriyle (İstanbul: Arba, 1989).


Hans-Lukas Kieser, Nearest East: American Millennialism and Mission to the Middle East (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2010).


The relative growth of conversions to Christianity must be understood within a broader framework of religious developments. They can be related to the arrival of a new Western Evangelical generation, the development of Armenian and Syriac Evangelical missionary labour, the ‘return’ of Turkish international emigrants and above all the increase and diversification of internal migration and mobility to Istanbul.


Each of these migrations has its own history. West African exiles of the Union Church (Nigerians impoverished by structural adjustment programmes and Ghanaian skilled workers sent back from Libya) trapped in Istanbul in their attempt to transit to Western Europe in the mid-1980s, as well as Sri Lankan refugees of the Christ Church/Crimean Memorial Church (Kırım Kilisesi) who fled Kuwait after the 1990 Iraqi invasion, are pioneers.


Interviewees point to 1986 with the founding of the now defunct Turkish Protestant Church (TPK), and 1987 with the conversion of three Turkish founding pastors of important Churches, as milestones for the ‘Turkish revival’. The charismatic turn dates to the 2000s and has much to do with the influence of the Vineyard Movement.


José Guilherme Cantor Magnani, “From Close up and within: Notes for an Urban Ethnography,” Revista Brasileira de Ciências Sociais, 1 se (2005).


For a complementary use of the term circuit see Camille Schmoll and Giovanni Semi, “Shadow Circuits: Urban Spaces and Mobilities across the Mediterranean,” in Ethnography, Diversity and Urban Space, ed. Mette Louise Berg, Ben Gidley, and Nando Sigona (London: Routledge, 2014).


José Guilherme Cantor Magnani, “O Circuito: proposta de delimitação da categoria,” Ponto Urbe. Revista do núcleo de antropologia urbana da USP, 15 (December 2014), 9.


Magnani, “O Circuito,” 3.


The ethnographic sample includes 127 visits and 26 interviews in about 30 Evangelical communities of faith in Istanbul. The names of the respondents have been changed. Most Churches’ names are original.


Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018), 87.


Armand Aupiais, “ ‘Have You Ever Been Told That God Loves You?’: Conjugality, Celibacy, and the Heterosexual Division of Religious Labour in an Istanbul Mixed Pentecostal Church,” Social Sciences and Missions, 34, no. 1–2 (May 2021), 97–98.


Christine Delphy and Danièle Léger, “Debate on Capitalism, Patriarchy, and the Women’s Struggle,” Feminist Issues 1, no. 1 (March 1980 [1976]), 47–48.


Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, and Other Writings (New York: Routledge, 2006 [1930]), 141. For a further discussion, J.M. Barbalet, “Beruf, Rationality and Emotion in Max Weber’s Sociology,” European Journal of Sociology, 41, no. 2 (November 2000).


Antônio Flávio Pierucci, O desencantamento do mundo: todos os passos do conceito em Max Weber (São Paulo: Editora 34, 2008), 203.


Edward W. Said. Orientalism (New York: Penguin Books, 2003 [1978]), xxvi.


The portrait of a Turkish official painted by an American diplomat in 1932 clearly expresses this association: “He had never known Americans in Turkey—for Americans meant missionaries,” in Rıfat Bali, The First Ten Years of the Turkish Republic Thru the Reports of American Diplomats (Istanbul: Isis Press, 2009), 56.


Being ‘born again in Christ’ is an expression central to Evangelical Christianity, referring to the radical change of individuals who have ‘met’ Jesus and decided to follow ‘His plans’.


The Union Church, established under the impulse of the American “missions to the Armenians” and Scottish “mission to the Jews” in the 1850s, is the oldest, best known and most diverse Protestant Church in Istanbul. The community holds services in English and Turkish in the Dutch Chapel, which was first assigned to the “Geneva congregation” in Constantinople in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.


‘Expertise’ is understood as the articulation of a field knowledge and a decision-making process, autonomous from foreign political powers but influential for the livelihood and development strategies of the Churches. For a complementary perspective see Karène Sanchez Summerer, “Missionnaires Britanniques: Experts/Contre-Experts du Mandat en Palestine?” in Experts et Expertise Dans Les Mandats de La Société Des Nations: Figures, Champs, Outils, ed. Philippe Bourmaud, Norig Neveu, and Chantal Verdeil (Paris: Presses de l’Inalco, 2020).


On Western privilege in the Middle East see Amélie Le Renard, Western Privilege: Work, Intimacy, and Postcolonial Hierarchies in Dubai (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2021).


US pastor Andrew Brunson, a founding member of a prominent Evangelical Church in Izmir, was accused of terrorism and imprisoned between October 2016 and October 2018 in Turkey, part of a diplomatic crisis between the two countries. In the following years, at least 21 Protestant non-citizens who have lived in Turkey for long periods were deported or banned from re-entry, including two people I have met. See Orhan Kemal Cengiz, “Religious Minorities of Turkey: An Evaluation from the Perspective of Human Rights,” Ankara, 2020, 80–81.


Kerem Öktem, Karabekir Akkoyunlu (ed.), Exit from Democracy. Illiberal Governance in Turkey and Beyond (London: Routledge, 2018).


The millet system formalised in the nineteenth century grouped non-Muslim minorities under relatively autonomous jurisdictions.


On Arabic antimissionary treatises by which many Turkish writers were also inspired, see Heather Sharkey, “Arabic Antimissionary Treatises: A Select Annotated Bibliography,” International Bulletin of Missionary Research, 28, no. 3 (July 2004), 98–104.


Y. Sinan Zavalsız, Türkiye’de Hıristiyan olan Müslümanlar: psiko-sosyolojik bir araştırma (1990–2010) (Ankara: Berikan, 2014).


Bayram Sevinç, Hıristiyan olan Türkler ve Türk misyonerler (İstanbul: İz Yayıncılık, 2006).


Benoît Fliche, “Ghurba/gurbet: variations autour de l’exil, Institut d’études de l’islam et des sociétés du monde musulman (IISMM) et le Centre d’histoire du domaine turc (EHESS), 17 novembre 2003,” Labyrinthe, 17 (April 2004), 127–129.


Didem Danış, “A Faith That Binds: Iraqi Christian Women on the Domestic Service Ladder of Istanbul,” Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 33, no. 4 (May 2007), 601–615.


Norbert Elias and John L. Scotson, The Established and the Outsiders: A Sociological Enquiry into Community Problems (London; Thousand Oaks; New Delhi: Sage Publications, 1995).


It would be impossible to define vakıf (Turkish for waqf) univocally. Churches with a foundation usually benefit from financial (free energy) and fiscal (no property tax) advantages, are officially recognised as places of worship, and are systematically protected in case of a suspected anti-Christian terrorist threat. One Turkish Protestant foundation exists: the İstanbul Protestan Kilisesi Vakfı, founded in 1999 in Maltepe district.


Howard Becker, Outsiders: Studies in Sociology of Deviance (New York: Free, 1997).


Mehmet Anık, “Türkiye’de Sekülerizm Tartışmalarında İki Eksen: Şerif Mardin ve İsmail Kara,” Umran Dergisi (May 2013), 21–27.


Kimberle Crenshaw, “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color,” Stanford Law Review, 43, no. 6 (1991): 1241–1299.


Gloria T. Hull, Patricia Bell Scott and Barbara Smith, ed., But Some of Us Are Brave: Black Women’s Studies (New York: The Feminist Press, 1982).


Aupiais Armand, “Les évangéliques des Suds à Istanbul,” Anatoli, 9 (October 2018), 84.


Yoann Morvan and Sinan Logie, Méga Istanbul: Traversées en lisières urbaines (Paris: Le Cavalier Bleu éditions, 2019 [2014]), 20.


Magnani, “From Close up and within.”


See Nicolas Élias, La république des danseurs: enquête sur le partage de la musique dans les montagnes de Turquie (Paris: Karthala, 2019), 155–181.


On this pilgrimage and Turkish Muslim attendees see Dionigi Albera and Benoît Fliche, “Muslim Devotional Practices in Christian Shrines: The Case of Istanbul,” in Sharing Sacred Spaces in the Mediterranean, ed. Dionigi Albera and Maria Couroucli (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2012 [2009]), 94–117.


TeK, which means ‘single’ or ‘only’ in Turkish, continues as the vernacular label of the association.


As part of the harmonisation measures for Turkey’s admission to the European Union, ‘mosque’ has been replaced by ‘place of worship’ and ‘Islamic’ by ‘civil authority’ in the Zoning Law (2003). The renewed Law on Associations (2005) removed the restrictions that prohibited the participation of associations in any “activity on the basis of or in the name of a region, race, social class, religion or sect”. However, the process of forming associations really began around 2009.


At least two French-speaking African Pentecostal Churches led by Congolese were founded between 2010 and 2015 with a total of 100 believers, and three Ugandan Pentecostal Churches between 2015 and 2017 with a total of 200 believers, independent from external human and financial resources.


Ali Köse, “Din Değiştirmenin Psiko-Sosyolojik Nedenleri,” in Türkiye’de Misyonerlik Faaliyetleri: Tartışmalı İlmi Toplantı, ed. Ömer Faruk Harman (İstanbul: Ensar Neşriyat, 2004), 407.


Said, Orientalism (2003), 247.


Martha Lewis and Kären Wigen, The Myth of Continents: A Critique of Metageography (Berkeley; Los Angeles; London: University of California Press, 1997), 47–104.


Kieser, Nearest East (2012).


Conrad Hackett, Brian Grim, Vegard Skirbekk, Marcin Stonawski and Anne Goujon, “Global Christianity: A Report on the Size and Distribution of the World’s Christian Population,” PEW Research Center (December 2011), 68.


Although in continuity with the same othering process expressed by classic Orientalist discourse, post-9/11 neo-Orientalist discourse tends to conceive the East in a globalised way rather than on particular lands. See Aslı Telseren, “Representing and Othering Oriental Women After 9/11: An Analysis of Body of Lies,” in Handbook of Research on Contemporary Approaches to Orientalism in Media and Beyond (2 Volumes), ed. Işıl Tombul and Gülşah Sarı (Hershey: IGI Global, 2021), 481–482.


Agathe Étienne and Julie Picard, “Réfugiés et migrants subsahariens ‘en transit’ au Caire: le monopole chrétien de l’assistance?,” A contrario, 18, no. 2 (December 2012).


Fatiha Kaouès, “Une offre morale plastique,” Multitudes, 72, no. 3 (October 2018).


Firoze Manji and Carl Coill, “The Missionary Position: NGO s and Development in Africa,” International Affairs 78 (July 2002).


See Michael Marten in this volume.


Western Protestants’ role in international migration management in Istanbul is not official, unlike that of the International Catholic Migration Commission (ICMC), which is responsible for pre-selecting asylum seekers for resettlement in the US. Fine, Borders and Mobility (2018), 93–101. But the IIMP remains a visible actor among Westerners. Brigitte Suter, Tales of Transit. Sub-Saharan African Migrants’ Experiences in Istanbul (PhD diss. Linköping University & Malmö University, 2012).


Aupiais, “Conjugality, Celibacy”, 2021.


Jacques Rancière, “Politics, Identification, and Subjectivization,” in The Identity in Question, ed. John Rajchman (London: Routledge, 1995), 64.


Shoshana Fine, “The Christianisation of Afghan and Iranian Transit Migrants in Istanbul: Encounters at the Biopolitical Border”, Centre on Migration, Policy and Society, Working Paper, no. 104 (2013).


Rodriguez’s description of such devices fully highlights the political scene played out in countries of departure, as the externalisation of an immobilisation policy inevitably meets its implementers’ desire for emancipation through migration. Anne-Line Rodriguez, “European Attempts to Govern African Youths by Raising Awareness of the Risks of Migration: Ethnography of an Encounter,” Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 45, no. 5 (April 2019).


Kemal Kirişci, “Turkey: A Country of Transition from Emigration to Immigration,” Mediterranean Politics, 12, no. 1 (March 2007).


The term was first used critically to designate the identity promoted by the Kemalist elite and delimiting the perimeter of full citizenship—i.e. that of ethnically Turkish subjects, of Muslim confession and secularist conviction. See Mücahit Bilici, “Black Turks, White Turks: On the Three Requirements of Turkish Citizenship,” Insight Turkey, 11, no. 3 (2009), on its significance; and Tanıl Bora, “Notes on the White Turks Debate,” in Turkey between Nationalism and Globalization (London: Routledge, 2013), 87–103, on its course and extension to the segments that benefited from the 1990s’ liberal turn.


Marilyn Strathern, The Gender of the Gift: Problems with Women and Problems with Society in Melanesia (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), 118.


Michael Houseman, “Relationality,” in Theorizing Rituals. Classical Topics, Theoretical Approaches, Analytical Concepts, Annotated Bibliography, ed. James Kreinath, Jan Snoek, and Michael Stausberg (Leiden: Brill, 2006), 416.


I have characterised this private appropriation by the fact that her religious labour, professional network, and son from a previous relationship benefited to her husband and made possible his access to the formal hierarchy of the Church. Aupiais, “Conjugality, Celibacy”, 112.


A term coined by Paul-André Rosental to shed light on institutions such as family mediating between macroscopic causalities and individual trajectories in migration systems. Paul-André Rosental, Les sentiers invisibles: espace, familles et migrations dans la France du 19e siècle (Paris: Éditions de L’École des hautes études en sciences sociales, 1999).


Estelle Miramond, “Le confinement des femmes dans l’espace. Les apports de Colette Guillaumin à l’étude des politiques de lutte contre la traite des femmes,” Cahiers du Genre, 68, no. 1 (October 2020).


For this reason, I prefer to speak of migrations in Evangelicalism rather than Evangelicalism in migration, a formulation that happens to be more faithful to the primacy given by born-again believers to their encounter with God over their mobility in the world.


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Missions and Preaching

Connected and decompartmentalised perspectives from the Middle East and North Africa (19th-21st century)



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