Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu announced in a January 2nd meeting with representatives from Turkey’s non-Muslim communities that the government would provide land for a church for the Syrian Orthodox community. This promise is a renewal of one first made six years ago in the run-up to local elections.
While other existing churches have been restored and re-opened to the public, this church, if completed, will be the first officially-sanctioned new church building in Turkey since the nation was founded in 1923. Most new places of Christian worship, particularly Protestant ones, do not have official recognition to be zoned as religious buildings.
But according to a source in the Turkish press, this announcement by the government is only posturing to appease the international community. “This comes onto the agenda every election period. Votes were sought in the 2011 general, and 2013 local elections with the promise that permission would be given for a [new] church,” an anonymous source told Taraf, a daily newspaper.
“Of course, the same subject is coming up for the 2015 general elections. Because this year is the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide, they are bringing up this issue again in order to give positive messages to the international public.”
Aydin Ayaydin, a parliamentarian for the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) questioned whether the proposed church would actually be able to overcome bureaucratic obstacles. In an inquiry to the Culture and Tourism Minister on January 12th, Ayaydin was quoted in Hurriyet newspaper as asking, “Why has the church’s application to the Higher Monuments Committee still not been processed until now? What is the reason?”
The government’s promise involves the allocation of a 2,700-square-meter plot of land to the church in the Yesilkoy neighborhood, where many Greek Orthodox, Armenian, and Catholic churches are also located. Over 17,000 Syriac Christians live in Istanbul, but the only church that has official recognition, the Virgin Mary Syrian Othodox Church in Tarlabasi, seats merely 300. This has been a problem for Syriacs who live far away from the church building due to a Syriac tradition of fasting until their Sunday service concludes. In Yesilkoy, they do not have their own building and must meet in a Catholic church building, but scheduling conflicts with the host church necessitate an 11 am service, creating problems for children and the elderly who find it difficult to break their fasts so late. They have been waiting now for nearly 6 years for the government to fulfill its promise.
The city government first promised permission for the church construction in 2009 during local election campaigns. It approved construction of the new church in 2012 amid much fanfare from the pro-government press. The Daily Star announced in a headline “A a Muslim place of worship in Camlica, a Church in Yesilkoy,” a reference to a mega-mosque being built on the highest land area in Istanbul. But while the mosque is nearing completion, the Turkish government has not yet cleared all hurdles for construction of the church to even begin.
“We do not consider any religious or cultural tradition to be foreign,” Davutoglu said at the meeting with Christian representatives. He added that the government respects the “equal citizenship” of all Turkey’s minorities, regardless of religion.
But international watchdog groups disagree. According to the 2015 Open Doors World Watch List, Muslim-majority Turkey is among the 50 countries in the world where it is most difficult to live as a Christian. Turkey is ranked 41st on the current list, which notes that four churches in Turkey were attacked and damaged during 2014. The main “engines” of persecution against Turkey’s Christians were identified as Islamic extremism and religious nationalism.
Davutoglu further believes discrimination against Muslims to be an equally problematic global issue. He has called on Turkey’s non-Muslim communities to raise their voices against Islamophobia. “When we raise our voice together against Islamophobia, then we do not only stand against discrimination against Muslims, but we raise our voice against discrimination against all religious identities,” he said.
Some Syriac church leaders agree that relations have improved with the Turkish government. Susin said that the government is paying more attention to the needs of the Syriac community than in the past. He noted that the government allowed the first Syriac preschool to open in Istanbul in September 2014. Some 25 children attend the Mor Efrem Syriac preschool, surrounded by icons and crosses, singing songs in their ancient Syriac language, closest to the Aramaic dialect spoken by Jesus.
Opinions differ, but the question remains: Will this promise be fulfilled in the coming year?
Source: World Watch Monitor