Ninety-nine percent of Turkey’s 80 million citizens are Muslim, while a mere 7,000 are thought to be evangelical Christians. Among that tiny minority is a man named Baris Ozturk, who lost both his family and source of income when he left Islam and dedicated his life to sharing Jesus with the people of Turkey.
It was an ordinary workday when Baris found the Bible a woman had placed in his electronics store.
As a devout Muslim, he prayed five times a day and met with other Muslims every Friday night for discussions about the Koran. He had come to the United States from Turkey to pursue a master’s degree, and after completing his degree he had stayed in the US to work. Baris managed several successful electronics stores and led a comfortable life with his wife and two sons.
However, when Baris found the Bible in his store, he felt compelled to pick it up and take a look at its teachings. He was immediately and deeply touched by Jesus’ words in the Gospel of John, particularly chapters 13 to 18. “Here is the Last Supper speech,” he said. “[Jesus] lays out everything: where he comes from, miracles, what the disciples need to expect, the Holy Spirit, why His blood was shed, everything.”
Like many other Muslims who are drawn to Christ, Baris began to have visions as he explored Christianity. In one, Jesus was revealed as the Creator God, and in another Baris sensed His inexplicable love. After several weeks of prayer and study, Baris knelt down to profess his faith in Jesus.
When he told his wife he had become a Christian, her response was immediate and unyielding; she demanded a divorce, took their sons and left for Turkey.
Christians are Crazy
Though devastated by his wife’s rejection and loss of his sons, Baris was still determined to tell his brother about his newfound faith during a visit to Turkey. But his brother’s only response was to escort him to a doctor the next day. Expecting a half-hour visit in which he would have an opportunity to share his faith, he was instead admitted to a psychiatric hospital and medicated with psychotropic drugs.
After two weeks and several meetings with hospital leadership, Baris finally persuaded them that leaving Islam for Christianity didn’t mean he was crazy. Still, in the divorce proceedings, his wife used his stay in the psychiatric hospital as evidence that he wasn’t a fit parent.
While Baris knew that his parents would view leaving Islam as a betrayal of the family, he still wanted to meet with them in person to tell them about his vision and faith in Jesus. They reacted much as he had expected. When his dad threatened to disown him, Baris told him, “You can even kill me and I won’t change my mind.” His mother fainted.
In 2015, Baris moved back to Turkey and filed for part-time custody of his sons. At one of his court appearances, his former brother-in-law confronted him in the street, cursing and beating him. “How dare you come here,” he yelled. “This guy is a missionary, and he cursed Mohammad!” he exclaimed to the many Muslims walking to and from Friday prayers. Such accusations can have serious consequences in Turkey, where missionaries are sometimes wrongfully assumed to have political agendas.
During another court appearance, Baris’s former father-in-law punched him in the face inside the courtroom. At first Baris considered pressing charges to help his custody case, but he didn’t feel at peace about it. “Jesus said, ‘If they hit your right cheek, give them your left cheek’,” he said.
The court eventually awarded Baris the right to visit his sons, but his ex-wife often makes excuses, changes plans or skips the visits altogether. Baris tries to see them as often as he can, but he thinks their mother has turned them away from him.
Working for the Lord
When he returned to Turkey, Baris began helping an organisation that distributes Christian materials and connects interested Turks with local Christians. After many years focused on growing a business for personal gain, his priorities have changed. “I want to work for the Lord,” he said. Each week, he and his team distribute Bibles to people throughout Turkey who have requested them. They also visit new believers and those who have asked questions about Christianity.
There are 80 cities in Turkey with populations larger than 100,000. Forty of those cities do not have an evangelical church and some do not have even one known believer. Baris sees a critical need for a church in every city, explaining that when Turks come to Christ they are often alone. “When they are alone, it is really hard to remain in the faith,” he said.
He nurtures some of the believers over the Internet so they don’t feel so alone. “They need to come to a level where they can stand alone,” he said. “The ministry requires constant work and prayers.”
The Internet provides Turks with a venue for asking questions they might not feel comfortable asking someone they know. Many have general questions about why there is evil in the world and why God doesn’t intervene in painful situations. Baris is able to empathise by sharing his own story of family rejection and separation from his sons.
Live chats are especially effective; people can ask questions and get an immediate response from Baris or a co-worker, followed by a deeper discussion about faith. In one six-month period, 40 people placed their faith in Christ. “We have people coming to Christ on the phone and on the live chats,” he said.
Turkey’s cultural allegiance to Islamic values has made it a historically challenging place for Christians and recent political changes have made it even more difficult. Following a 2016 coup attempt, the government placed the country under a state of emergency that lasted two years. And its current leadership appears to be more influenced by Islamic ideology than the previous government. “We have to be careful,” Baris said.
Despite the increased risk, Baris remains committed to his work for the Lord. He continues to train new believers, respond to questions online and stay involved at his local church, many of whose members are former Muslims. His church has also planted three house churches.
Baris lost the love of his family and gave up his businesses but in return he has gained purpose on earth and eternal life in heaven by placing his trust in the truth of Jesus. Now, he wants everyone in Turkey to have the opportunity to hear that life-giving truth and come to faith in Christ.
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