The Directorate General of Foundations for the local government of the northwestern Turkish city of Bursa gave a verbal order on February 18 for the city’s only church building, which is home to four congregations, to be vacated in five days. The deadline was later extended to February 26, and on February 23, he rescinded the order altogether.
Approximately 200 Christians share the church for their Sunday worship services. Four different Christian congregations meet in the building, officially known as the French Church Cultural Center, including Latin Catholic, German Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and Protestant fellowships. Under Turkish law non-Muslim, significant legal hurdles face faith communities that attempt to register an officially sanctioned house of worship. Multiple congregations often share the same space due to these challenges.
Ismail Kulakcioglu, pastor of the Protestant congregation, noted that the city government’s original decision to close the church was inconsistent with Bursa’s self-proclaimed image as a city of religious tolerance. In a press release, Kulakcioglu said that he and the local government considered Turkey to be a cultural mosaic, and they did not want to see this mosaic smashed to pieces. The pastor is scheduled to meet with Bursa’ mayor Recep Altepe to sign a new protocol for future use of the church building.
Bursa is a conservative city of 2 million in the industrial Marmara region of Turkey. Located 100 miles southeast of Istanbul, Turks have nicknamed it “Green Bursa,” both for its nearby forests and its Islamic identity. The renovated French Church Culture Center stands as a reminder of a time when Bursa had a large non-Muslim population. The church was built in the 1880s to serve local French-speaking Catholics from the Levant who were living in the Ottoman Empire, many of whom are buried in the nearby cemetery.
For decades the church sat in ruins. The four congregations moved into the church after restoring it between 2002 and 2004. They reopened the building for worship after signing a protocol with the Bursa municipality. The Directorate General of Foundations is the official owner of the property, and Bursa’s city council has the right to grant use of the building for religious purposes.
The eviction order came as a result of a supposed lapse in the previously signed protocol. It expired in 2015, and the Bursa municipality told the congregations to reapply. According to Kulakcioglu, their renewal application was received positively, but encountered opposition from an element within the city council.
Aykan Erdemir, a Turkish academic who grew up in Bursa and is now a fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told World Watch Monitor that as a child he played among the piles of rubble from the historic church with friends. He saw the church’s reopening as a symbol of Bursa rediscovery of its multicultural past. Erdemir views the eviction order as a demonstration of Turkey’s failure to institutionalize religious freedom for its non-Sunni Muslims. “Christians do not have any legal entitlement to the building,” he said. “They only have usage rights for the time being, which I think is a very precarious situation. Members of non-majority religions have to depend on the goodwill of bureaucrats and the majority population.”
Erdemir added that such problems will persist until religious minorities gain property rights for their houses of worship and restitution rights to reopen historical churches.
Some Turkish officials assert that the decision to close the church was based on a misunderstanding over the church’s legal status, not the specific targeting of Christians. Toros Alcan, a Turkish-Armenian representing minority interests on the Foundations Directorate, maintained that no one from the Bursa municipality or his organization ever produced an actual written order to vacate the church.
The church remains a symbol of the struggle Bursa’s non-Muslims citizen’s face in becoming an accepted part of society. Kulakcioglu said he has sought to convince the council that Bursa would lose a priceless piece of its cultural heritage if the congregations were forced out of their building.
“We’re trying to explain that this church – which is used as a house of worship by different congregations – is perhaps the only example of its kind in the world,” he said.
Source: World Watch Monitor
We give you our thanks and praise today for restoring worship in this church building and for the generations before who have proclaimed the gospel from this place. We pray for continuing favor with the local authorities to permit Your worship to continue unhindered. Truly we are pilgrims on this earth and the world that hated Jesus often hates us, as well. But Christ reigns over rulers and authorities, so we pray with confidence that Your gospel will continue to go forth in the nation of Turkey in great power and authority—in this church building as well as in the homes and workplaces of Your people there. In the Name of Jesus, who reigns in glory and is gathering His church from among the nations, Amen.