On a Saturday in late March, a group of 20 volunteers entered an abandoned church in Turkey’s southeastern city of Mardin. They cleaned out broken chairs, a cracked pulpit, and books that haven’t been opened in decades. In the corner sat a 100-year-old organ.
The church, in the heartland of Assyrian Orthodoxy, has recently been opened to a Protestant congregation. This donation marks an extraordinary change in relations between the two Christian denominations.
The Syriac Church (known as Assyrian in Iraq and Syria) is one of the oldest denominations of Christianity in the world; its churches in Mardin date back to the 4th century. It claims a historical connection to the Assyrian Empire of the Old Testament, which predates Syria’s current national borders. But its population has dwindled in Turkey ever since the Ottoman Empire’s 1915 massacre of hundreds of thousands of Armenians and Syriacs. Some 20,000 Syriacs still remain in Turkey, with only 3,500 in its remote southeastern region.
Although only big enough to hold 50 people, the building’s transfer represents the first steps of reconciliation between Protestantism and Orthodoxy in a city where the denominations have been locked in a bitter rivalry for nearly two centuries.
“At first, the Syriacs were worried, but as they saw our sincerity, both the archbishop and head priest have given us permission to use the building,” Ahmet Guvener wrote in a recent report on the church restoration project. He is the pastor of nearby Diyarbakir Protestant church, the largest of its kind in the region.
When American Protestants first came to the Ottoman Empire in the 1800s, they drew tens of thousands of the empire’s ethnic Syriac Christians away from their Orthodox churches and baptized them as Protestants. Within decades, the Western missionaries had set up hundreds of churches along with hospitals and schools where foreign languages were taught. Orthodox patriarchs threatened excommunication for anyone who fraternized with them or went to their churches.
The church, in the center of Mardin, was built by American missionaries who came to the city 150 years ago. They left in 1973, when their organization cut funding. The building sat empty for more than 40 years; two trees sprang up through the cracks in the courtyard and they are now over 20 feet tall.
Guvener, a convert from Islam, sent Ender Peker to Mardin two years ago. Peker and his small congregation meet in a house every Sunday. Peker spent over a year cultivating relationships with Orthodox leaders before approaching them about the building. Every time he drove past an Orthodox Church or monastery, he told World Watch Monitor, he stopped by to talk with clergy members.
“I told them I’m not here to steal your members. My vision is not to preach to Syriacs or Armenians, but to preach to Muslims. Your church is your church,” he said. (Peker, also a convert from Islam, preaches in both Turkish and Kurdish).
Peker reached an agreement with Syriac Orthodox priest Gabriel Akyuz saying that he would not reach out to any Orthodox or Catholics; he would not even let them visit his church unless they had permission from their priest to come. After this, Fr. Akyuz signed off for the property transfer to the Protestants. A priest in the city for 30 years, he leads a congregation of over 200. “We told Ender that you can work and minister among Muslims,” Akyuz said. “But if you try to take members from us, we will make war against you.”
Protestantism had gradually diminished among the local population, who had either returned to the Syriac Orthodox Church or left the city. The building eventually came under control of Syriac Orthodox leaders. Even in the last 10 to 15 years, the Syriac Church in Mardin has refused to give the building to local Protestants, fearing that they were coming to poach their tiny Orthodox flocks.
Orthodox priest Akyuz told World Watch Monitor that he finally agreed to transfer the property to Protestants because he did not want it to revert to the Turkish government. (Under Turkish law, property registered as a foundation that goes unused for 10 years or more must be transferred to state ownership).
Since this agreement was reached, relations have thawed between the church leaders. Peker has worked with the Syriac Church several times to provide aid to hundreds of Assyrian Christian refugees fleeing Islamic State attacks in Iraq and northern Syria who reside temporarily in Mardin.
For his part, Peker has taken steps to blend into the local religious community. He wears a priest’s collar when in public, since local priests and imams always wear their clerical garb. “I wanted to be taken seriously by the other religious leaders. When Syriac Orthodox Christians first saw me wear this, they told me that they liked it.”
Protestant Turkish fellowships are attempting to raise $75,000 to restore the doors and windows, replace the electrical wiring and plumbing, and do interior stonework restoration. They hope to reopen the renovated building for worship next year. Then Peker plans to maintain open hours in the church building in order to talk with visitors. He hopes to run events and teach Bible courses open to the public.
Source: World Watch Monitor
Father, we thank You for this church building being restored for the proclamation of Your Word in Turkey. Provide the resources, Father, so that the work may be completed. May the trees and rubble that have taken over this structure be replaced with Your people and the Good News of Christ. And, we pray that You will continue to bless the efforts of Peker to increase unity with the Orthodox church leaders, and to reach out to Muslims in the city with the gospel. May the Spirit of the living God cause a mighty revival to move across this nation and lead the redeemed to proclaim, “You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for You created all things, and by your will they were created and have their being.” In the name of Jesus, the light of the world, Amen.