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First Hope Association workers stand on the rubble of a collapsed building.
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‘God is crying with us’

Despite being devastated by the earthquake, Turkish Christians are still working to serve the Lord.

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Days after a 7.8-magnitude earthquake devastated communities in Turkey and Syria, Christians gathered at the Antalya Bible Church for an evening of prayer. 

As they filed in, minister Metin Ozkaya observed the red-rimmed eyes of his friends and fellow believers and thought about Romans 12:15:

Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.”

Workers with First Hope Association unload aid in Gaziantep, Turkey.

Workers with First Hope Association unload aid in Gaziantep, Turkey.

Members of the Antalya church, about 500 miles from the quake’s epicenter, poured out their pain singing hymns of lamentations and praying for hours.

The official death toll in Turkey topped 35,000 and was expected to keep rising, the Turkish government reported on Feb 14. Deaths in Syria had climbed to about 3,700. 

“The emotional affliction is simply too much,” Ozkaya said. “Two earthquakes in one day — 24 hours.”


Related: Turkey earthquake: How to help


Since the Feb. 6 disaster, the church leadership has focused on spiritual support. 

Andrew Brinley, an Antalya church elder supported by the Landmark Church of Christ in Montgomery, Ala., has lived through several crises in Turkey since 2007 — but nothing to this magnitude.

On a recent Sunday, Brinley asked one of the congregation’s older members if he knew anyone displaced by the quake.

“He just staggered, basically weeping, because of how affected he was for his own country and people.” 

“He said no, but then he just staggered, basically weeping, because of how affected he was for his own country and people,” said Brinley, a 2004 graduate of Abilene Christian University in Texas. 

“The knowledge that these people really don’t have any hope of redemption or salvation, it’s just a huge blow,” he added, referring to the victims. “It’s a big burden for a lot of the Christians here.”

Sena Ishakbeyoglu, a new believer, was one of many in attendance at the prayer meeting. She felt uplifted sharing in the collective grief.

“It gave me hope, honestly, and showed me how important it is for us to stick together and pray, especially during these hard times,” Ishakbeyoglu said. “One of the pastors, Alex, reminded me of the phrase, ‘Not everyone speaks the same language, but everyone is sharing the same feeling, sharing the same pain.’”

Her father called the morning of the disaster to share the news, but she did not learn of the widespread devastation until later that day. 

When a fellow church member was unable to contact his best friend, Ishakbeyoglu spent hours with him in prayer.

“He tried to reach her, and she didn’t answer, so we waited for four days,” she recalled. “Yesterday he got the news that her body was found. From a family of four, only her mother survived.”

‘It’s our home that is demolished’ 

For Turkish Christians desperate to serve 10 devastated cities, there is a way to help through İlk Umut Derneği — Turkish for “First Hope Association” — a faith-based nongovernmental organization based in Turkey

Demokan Kileci

Demokan Kileci

“It’s been 24/7 from day one,” said Demokan Kileci, chair of First Hope Association’s board. “The earthquake happened at 4:20. The first responder team left Ankara at 6:30. We haven’t stopped since then.”

The nonprofit is working closely with the Turkish Red Crescent, the Ministry of Interior and AFAD, Turkey’s disaster and emergency management authority, to serve the affected communities. 

First Hope Association partnered with Samaritan’s Purse, a U.S.-based humanitarian aid ministry, to set up a 52-bed emergency field hospital in Antakya, which includes two emergency operating rooms and a pharmacy. 

It received dozens of patients within a few hours of being operational. 

“It is our country,” Kileci said. “It’s our home that is demolished, in ruins, so we do whatever we can to help. It’s our houses. It’s our home.”

First Hope Association also dispatched six mobile units manned by volunteers — both Christian and secular — to areas of mass devastation.

In Gaziantep, less than 20 miles from the quake’s epicenter, the nonprofit set up a mobile hygiene unit and a mobile bakery. A second hygiene unit was dispatched to Kahramanmaras, the location of a 7.5-magnitude aftershock, and the third went 200 miles east to Diyarbakir.

The fourth and fifth mobile hygiene units went to Antakya, the modern-day city of ancient Antioch, one of the earliest centers of Christianity and where the term “Christian” originated. 

‘We are going to help, not become helpless’ 

First responders with First Hope Association work among the rubble of collapsed buildings in Antakya, Turkey.

First responders with First Hope Association work among the rubble of collapsed buildings in Antakya, Turkey.

The destruction around the historical location of Antioch is significant to many of the local Christians.

The population of Protestant denominations in Turkey ranges from 7,000 to 10,000 members, the U.S. Department of State reported in 2021. 

According to the Turkish government, 99 percent of the population is Muslim. Representatives of other religious groups — like evangelical Christians — estimate their members are about 0.2 percent of the population. 

“Spiritually, what we’re trying to do is help the small number of believers here find a place to grow and expand,” Brinley explained. 

He sees the damage to the physical location of biblical Antioch as reminiscent of the spiritual challenges the modern-day church faces.

“The physical ruins of what’s left in the aftermath of this horrible, tragic event is just a picture of that feeling of building from the ground up again, finding what little remains of the church,” he said. “The church has been growing here for the last 30 or 40 years. This is just like a restart in a physical sense.”

And part of that growth comes from serving their community. 

A minister for the Antalya Bible Church unloads relief supplies at a First Hope Association site in Antayka.

A minister for the Antalya Bible Church unloads relief supplies at a First Hope Association site in Antayka, Turkey.

Brinley is just one of the Antalya church members who signed up to work shifts cleaning or cooking for the mobile units deployed by First Hope Association. Several of the Antalya ministers loaded up the church van with relief supplies and drove it to the First Hope Association site in Antakya for distribution. 

But relief work isn’t feasible for all their members. Minister Ozkaya said the Antalya church leaders had to consider the limitations of their congregation — both physically and emotionally.

“We are going to help, not become helpless,” Ozkaya said. “We try to organize with wisdom.” 

‘They didn’t build houses. They built tombs.’ 

Offering displaced families a place to stay is an alternative way for the Antalya church to serve. 

The collapsed or unstable apartment buildings following the earthquake have left many without a place to stay. 

While organizations like First Hope Association are buying winterized tents for distribution among displaced individuals, the Turkish government has allocated places all over the country to meet the shelter needs of citizens in their own cities or in other provinces. 

Over 460,000 citizens are staying in schools, dormitories, hotels and guest houses affiliated with the Ministry of National Education, AFAD reported. 

Leaders of the Antalya church are compiling their own list of available spaces among their congregation. The church guest rooms, which hold up to 22 people, are already being used.

Ozkaya has been on the phone every day, emotionally counseling and making arrangements for people who contact the church for help. 

“These are completely human mistakes. … I blame the people. They didn’t build houses. They built tombs.” 

Yet despite the destruction, his faith remains unshaken. The widespread disaster is the result of poor Turkish infrastructure, he believes — not an act of God. 

“God didn’t cause this,” Ozkaya said. “These are completely human mistakes. … I blame the people. They didn’t build houses. They built tombs. 

“And where is God?” he added. “God is crying with us.”

Filed under: 7.8-magnitude earthquake disaster relief First Hope Association International News Samaritan's Purse Top Stories Turkey earthquake Turkish Christians

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