The Religious Importance of IstanbulJust the fact of Istanbul’s establishment by Roman Emperor Constantine as the Eastern capital of its Christian empire would make the city a site of religious significance. Yet, one of Istanbul’s most defining and remarkable characteristics is the diversity of religion and the relative tolerance for differences that the city exhibits – all the while having served as a center for several of the world’s major religions throughout its millennia of existence.

The Historical Precedent of Secularism in Turkey

While Istanbul served as the final seat of the Islamic Caliphate from 1517 to 1924, and Turkey is known as an overwhelmingly Muslim country in terms of population, the country exhibits a high degree of religious tolerance and state-supported secularism.  Indeed, during the founding of the modern Turkish republic in 1924, the Caliphate was dissolved and its powers were handed over to the Turkish Parliament as a move towards modernity and unity. That constitutional principle of secularism removed the previous provision that had stated the “Religion of the State is Islam”, and was part of a broad series of modernizing and democratizing reforms enacted by Turkey’s national statesman and first president, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.

Minority Religions Free to Peacefully Coexist

Even today, while more than 99 per cent of its citizens identify as Muslim, the country retains its secular nature due to the 1982 Constitution, which neither recognizes an official religion nor promotes any. Due to the seat of the Patriarch of Constantinople – the spiritual leader of the Eastern Orthodox Church since the 4th century CE, is located in the Fener neighborhood in the central Fatih neighborhood – very close to the landmark Sultanahmet (Blue) Mosque and the Süleymaniye Mosque. In addition, the archbishop of the Turkish Orthodox Church, the Armenian Patriarchate, and the Turkish Chief Rabbi (Hahambasi) are all located in Istanbul. The city also formerly acted as the seat of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church (Bulgarian Exarchate).

The individual practice of religion is certainly an important part of life for a large majority of Turks. According to the 2000 Turkish National Census, there were 2691 active mosques, 123 active churches and 20 active synagogues in Istanbul. Yet, in several areas, such as Ortaköy on the European side or Kuzguncuk on the Asian side, one notices remarkable sites such as an Armenian church sitting just next to a synagogue, while on the other side of the road, a Greek Orthodox church is found beside a mosque.

Istanbul: A Place of Peace and Religious Tolerance

In recent history, the Sultanahmet Blue Mosque was the stage for an important symbol of interfaith cooperation and religious tolerance. Pope Benedict XVI visited the Blue Mosque on his visit to Turkey in 2006. The Catholic Pontiff held a silent meditation and prayer within the mosque’s central rotunda, side-by-side with the head imam of the mosque and one of the city’s top Muslim religious leaders, the Mufti of Istanbul.

There is so much to discover in this remarkable and unique city – come visit today and find out why there’s no place like Istanbul!