Early Christianity in modern Muslim Turkey

Drinking from the fountain at the Virgin Mary’s house in Ephesus (Pic A)

The citadels where the early Christians built their churches (Pic B).

That’s me emerging from one of the narrow corridors in an underground shelter that the early Christians used to hide from marauding raiders.

Today is Good Friday. It’s the day when Christians all over the world remember the death of Jesus Christ on the cross. It was his final act of humanity while on planet Earth. It means that he lived the human existence to its natural end. When we remember his crucifixion we are reminded that he suffered mortality like all of us do and that we can now relate to him as a human being.

Easter, which we Christians celebrate on the Sunday following Good Friday is when we celebrate His entire existence because He rose from the dead. A man can’t do that but God can and He did.  His resurrection is the hope on which all of Christianity is built. It’s the hope that in the man and God, Jesus Christ, we can live out our mortality by faith in Him who can help us every day and raise us up to Him after death. That’s what Christians mean by “having eternal life”.

It’s a faith that has survived for more than 2000 years. Going on the Turkey tour two weeks ago we visited a couple of places where the early Christians lived. The country was then known as Asia Minor and covers most of present-day Turkey.

Two places particularly caught my attention. The first was in Selcuk, the Turkish name for Ephesus. It is a poor area of Turkish peasants who make a living selling souvenirs to tourists who come to see a well-preserved underground shelter that the early Christians took refuge in from marauding raiders.

It amazes me that faith could drive people to tolerate such extreme deprivations. The early Christians hid in these small underground caves linked by low narrow corridors. I would have died of claustrophobia! But they survived! And faith kept going!

The other place was in the Goreme National Park in Cappodacia. It’s a huge beautiful area of volcanic formations (no volcanic activity in Turkey now) known as citadels. They are mounds of volcanic rock in which the early Christians built their churches. There are many such mounds in the park. The citadels have holes for windows (see Pic B).

Many of the citadels are empty of relics except for one which preserved some of the relics that the early Christians used. I don’t have any pic of that because its entrance was a bit too high for me.

The early Christians also buried their dead in these churches for fear that their enemies and raiders would destroy the bodies which would mean that they won’t have their bodies when they rose again.

This was a fear they had. The Biblical truth is that our bodies when we rise after death will take on different forms.

Another stop on the tour that shows Turkey’s Christian past is the Virgin Mary’s house, also in Ephesus. It’s a small cottage surrounded by towering trees through which the wind blows rustling the leaves. It’s a beautiful place, quiet and serene. We can’t take pictures in the cottage but outside there’s a fountain with water that has been running since the time Mary lived there. That’s me drinking from the fountain (Pic A).

Turkey is full of history and there are many excavated sites where ancient structures have been unearthed and preserved. It’s a beautiful country with snow-capped mountains and resource-rich agricultural lowlands. It enjoys a Mediterranean climate and Turkish oranges are one of the best I’ve tasted! It’s sweet with just a slight tinge of tanginess.

Turkey’s modern history is also very interesting. It’s the only Muslim nation in the world which is secular. It was established as a republic after its founder Mustafar Kemal Ataturk fought against the sultanate of the Ottoman empire and won. He proceeded to introduce legislation to ensure separation of state from religion. As a result, he made it a law that Turkish women would not be forced to wear the hijab. The majority of modern-day Turkish women don’t wear the hijab.

He also made it law that Turks could only have one spouse. When it comes to fasting and other religious practices, no one is forced. Turks can marry anyone from any religion and that person is not forced to convert. Religion is regarded as a personal matter and left to the individual to choose.

The current government is backed by religious factions and they want to bring back some of the religious practices that Ataturk set aside to make the government secular. That tension between secular and religious Muslims continues.

But, when you walk the streets of Istanbul (formerly known as Constantinople, the capital of the Roman/Byzantine empire and later the Ottoman empire) and the current capital, Ankara, you see modern cities and modern people in modern attire. Less than 10% wear Islamic-type clothes.

It tells you that Islam can be a modern-day religion, if its adherents choose it to be so.

Modest belly dancing at a Turkish restaurant

There’s Sufi Islam in Turkey. Here’s a dance as they pray.

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Hello, from Turkey!

Yes, I arrived in Istanbul, Turkey last Friday, for an eight-day vacation! I took a quick tour of this great city on the European continent before heading for the Asian side of Turkey across the Sea of Marwara.

Turkey straddles both the European and Asian continents. Istanbul is on the European side. So far I have visited Canakkale and Pamukkale on the Asian side. Really interesting!

Visiting Cappadocia and then on to Ankara and back to Istanbul and leave on Friday.

So much of history in Turkey! Will write more with pix when I get back!

Finally got WiFi! So can communicate!


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Let’s make women’s rights personal

Yesterday was International Women’s Day. After all these decades, we still have a special day to celebrate womanhood. Men don’t have a special day for themselves, so, why do women have a day designated for them?

It may be a sign that women are still not equals as a person. I don’t want to say we should be equal as men, then, I would be measuring our equality to the standard men have set for themselves. No, women should be equals as all human beings, whatever their race, religion, culture, social, economic or educational status, income category, particular background or lifestyle choices, are equals and should be treated as such.

We should all be equally treated as people deserving recognition of our human or citizenship rights. No one should be discriminated against for whatever reason.

This does not mean that we can justify immoral choices in the guise of human rights. For example, if a person chooses to enjoy sex with as many partners as he or she can get without having to settle down with any, it is still immoral to us. But, that doesn’t mean we should treat him or her any less.

We may not agree with his or her lifestyle choices but we should support every effort to ensure that that person is not deprived of his or her human rights. That person should be allowed to vote, to receive all the benefits due to him or her as a citizen, to be protected by law and allowed to live as he or she wants to. If it’s a moral issue, family members, relatives and friends can advise him on the best course of action to take. But, that’s a personal matter.

As a matter public interest that person has the right to choose the way to live as long as it is legal. If illegal, the law will take its course.

It is encouraging to note that governments, including Malaysia, are taking steps to ensure gender equality. They are introducing laws to prevent discrimination against women.

The recent revelations of sexual harassment by Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein highlight the price women have to pay to get a break in filmdom. I believe such news have more impact in raising awareness of the obstacles women face in pursuing their interests than laws and women rights groups.

More such news will keep men alert on good behaviour and encourage women not to submit to the generally accepted practice of playing ball with men to get ahead.

Essentially, a woman’s liberation is in her hands — not in some non-government organisation fighting for women’s causes even if it’s legitimate, and, certainly, not with the government. The latter two can help in creating an environment for women to progress, but women ourselves must assume responsibilities for our actions and make the fight personal to realise our potential and break the barriers limiting us.

We need to find it within us to defy the odds. That would require some sacrifices and thick-skinned behaviour! It involves digging in our heels and facing the music! If we fail to get what we want, we have the dignity of losing with our head held high. There are other opportunities we can follow, another time.

We need to weigh our options and choose the course of action where we can best live with ourselves with self-respect.

So, women, wherever you are, whatever you are doing, hurrah for taking control of your lives, and making choices that will be an example for more women to follow!

Let’s all be comfortable in our skin!

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Move on to live and heal

As I grow older, I realise that there are even more things I don’t know anything about! When I was younger I was pretty clear about the issues I confronted. Growing older, however, and, perhaps, knowing more I seem to know even less!

There are so many things I don’t know: why things happened they way they did; why some suffer more than others; why there’s so much of pain and suffering; why some  of that pain and anguish is needless; why it couldn’t have been avoided; why the shame is so unbearable; why there’s no escape, etc, etc, etc…. .

I don’t know the answers. But, one thing I do know. No matter what the pain, suffering, struggle or shame and no matter how deep it is, we need to move on.

Moving on is the way out. We need to leave the negativity behind and every day take a step or more to move forwards. While watching an episode of the TV show Designated Survivor today, I heard a phrase which expresses my point clearly. The lead star — the US president — is in counselling to deal with the grief of the loss of his wife in an accident. The counsellor observes that staying with his grief is like treading water.

In a moment of realisation, the president says, “You know what happens when you tread water for long? (Heavy pause) You drown.” (I often get pearls of wisdom from TV scripts!)

Taking those first few steps to swim is moving forwards and on. After a while, we realise we have been swimming in the place where we used to get stuck in and the memory of it fades away. We heal.

That’s what moving on does: We live and life is a powerful medicine to heal.


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Fake news is the price for good news

I really don’t know what’s all this hooha about introducing a law to check this so-called fake news. Fake news isn’t anything new. It’s just a new term for blatant online lying.

Human beings have been lying since time immemorial and it’s nothing new. What, perhaps, is new is not creating a story out of nothing but posting it online as news. Previously, creating a story out of nothing — lying — was simply transmitted through the grapevine. Also known as gossiping!

Women were — still are — experts at it! Now, men have joined in and made it more masculine and glamorous by writing it in the form of news and posting it online!

The point is lying is a human condition. And no amount of regulation is going to stop people from doing what we do quite naturally! That is not to say that lying is all right. It isn’t and we shouldn’t be doing it.

As it is human to lie, it is also human to learn not to lie. And we should make an effort in that direction. But, rules won’t stop people from lying. As history has shown, we just find another way to do it!

Those in authority who favour rules to control human behavior don’t seem to realize that that is not their job. Oftentimes when they want to control other people’s behavior it is always to protect themselves from arrows shot at them. They use their powers to control the shooters, which is using their powers for self-serving purposes.

But, will a law to criminalize fake news protect them? I doubt it. People will just find another way to shoot the arrows!

Those in authority also need to understand that with every human liberty comes the potential for abuse. Whether it is political, social, economic or religious freedom, someone somewhere will abuse it. Just because there’ll be abuse does not mean the the liberty should be constrained.

We already have laws to manage such abuse. But, freedom of information is one human right that should not be curtailed just because some people abuse it.

In the Malaysian context, where information is colored by the perspective of media owners, the digital media offers a much-needed alternative to access other perspectives to understand what’s really going on. A law to stop fake news may inadvertently shut down alternative news and that is bad news because news will become restrictive and the people will always be left in the dark.

To keep people in the know some fake news need to be accepted as the price for freedom of information.

Instead of restricting information flow, people should be taught to recognize fake news. When the news has no source, and is quite preposterous in nature, it’s better to take it with a pinch of salt.

If we access news from a variety of sources, we’ll be able to tell when one piece of news is not quite right.  If we can’t recognize it, a dissident version will come up somewhere and that should alert us to be cautious about believing the fake news.

Happy online reading!


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Gong Xi Fa Cai! Drive safe on British coffee and Swizz pastries!

There was a sputtering of crackling firecrackers at midnight to usher in the Year of the Dog and then everything went quiet! It seems like Malaysians have lost the festive sense of setting off loud firecrackers! Everything is just like another day! Maybe, Malaysians now like to spend their festive season out of the country or out of town.

The later tradition of “balik kampung” — of driving back home and the next day driving to the spouse’s home — is still carrying on. The porches on my street are without the cars usually parked there and there are many car-empty spaces on the grass verges in front of houses.

People are out driving back to the family homes! It really is a Malaysian tradition we should cherish. But, drive safe.

If you are a Shell driver, do try out its in-station Deli2go. Shell has the local franchise for Britain’s Costa coffee, which, I must say, is quite good. You get a good size tumbler of coffee for under RM10 without milk and it is strong enough to keep you alert at the wheels for close to four hours — well, that’s how long it kept me awake!

When you are travelling, you shouldn’t have a full meal (or, so, I’m told). Eat a small solid meal before you start on your drive and, for a snack, take a pick from Deli2go’s assortment of pastries. Swizz gourmet bakery Hiestand supplies the pre-cooked pastries which are baked in Hiestand ovens at the Shell petrol stations. So, you’ll be getting good, fresh stuff to go with your coffee!

I tried both the coffee and the pastries and was quite taken up by the fact that you can get cafe-style good coffee and pastries at your nearest Shell station!

It seems Shell stations are renovating to include a small section for its Deli2go. It has begun with the petrol stations in the Klang Valley, with some giving it considerable space for an al fresco cafe! The attendant at the Shell station where I fuel up said that Deli2go is expected to be available at Shell stations nationwide in time.

Drivers now have no reason to fall asleep at the wheels!

So, folks, if you are going on a long drive home this Chinese New Year season, get a good night’s sleep before you leave and take a break at a Shell station for some coffee and a snack, both of which I’m sure will perk you up and keep you alert for the rest of the drive home or to any other destination!

Enjoy your drive!

Gong Xi Fa Cai, all! Have an enjoyable festive weekend!

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We need checks to be human

It’s really scary what we human beings are capable of — even the very best among us. Look at the things we do. Parents imprison their children with some even raping them; adults ravaging babies; we kill when people don’t return our affections; we bully, sometimes, to the point of death; we torture, we steal, inflict pain on others … and the list goes on and on.

We tend to console ourselves that we don’t do these things. Others with criminal tendencies do, but we don’t. I think we need to take a good look at ourselves. All of us — without exception — are capable of the worst in humanity. If we are honest, each of us will be able to recall one or two unthinkable acts we carried out which we, perhaps, regret now.

Thankfully, that is our saving grace, remorse. Remorsefully, we vow never to do those acts again. And, many of us don’t. But the fact remains that we did those things. It is testament to the reality that we are capable of terrible things.

It’s not just the strong and powerful who are capable of inflicting pain and damage on others; the weak are capable of the same. Certain circumstances and the frame of mind we are in, sometimes, lead us to acts that have terrible consequences.

We need to be aware of what we are capable of and put checks and balances in our lives so that we are able to pull back from the brink of terrible acts of inhumanity. This is especially so if we are in positions of power and authority. We need constraints so that we don’t run ahead on our strengths without realising what damage it may be causing.

Leaders need checks and balances. That’s a premise of democracy and democratic institutions provide for it (that’s the reason why I am all for reforms to control corruption and abuse of power).

We also need checks and balances at the personal level. We always need to make ourselves “smaller” for the sake of the weaker so that we are sensitive to the latter and we don’t overwhelm them. When we hold back on our strengths to the vulnerable, we make it easier for them to learn and grow.

One good way of “holding back” is to build good relationships. In healthy relationships, we are always thinking of the other person and that acts as a constraint to doing what we like. Because it is a healthy relationship, we are sensitive, and our sensitivity acts to stop us from overwhelming others or imposing ourselves on them or insisting our will on them.

There is no better example on Earth that I can think of than the example of Jesus Christ. He is God. But when he walked this Earth for 33 years, he walked as a mortal man. He limited himself to become human so that he can relate with us.

If he came to us as he really is, God, it would destroy us. He is of a different realm and all-powerful. Meeting with us as He really is cannot but be a clash of the powerful with the weak. Death, surely, is certain.

That’s why He came as a man, entering our reality, powerless, devoid of His superior lineage, humble until death. He became “small” so that we can learn from Him and take part in His creative work to be better people, through whom His purposes are accomplished.

In whatever service we engage for others, we need to understand that though it puts us in an advantageous position over them, we need to to make ourselves “lesser” so that they can become bigger.

That’s the example of Jesus Christ, and, His followers, Christians, especially, need to follow in that example.

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