Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu recently announced in a Jan. 2 meeting with representatives from Turkey’s non-Muslim communities that the government would provide land for a church for the Syrian Orthodox community.
“It is the first time since the creation of the Republic. Churches have been restored and re-opened to the public, but no new church has been built until now,” a government official told the AFP.
The 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 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 paper.
“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.”
Some Turkish politicians are skeptical. Aydin Ayaydin, a parliamentarian for the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) questioned whether the proposed church would actually overcome bureaucratic obstacles. In an inquiry to the Culture and Tourism Minister on Jan. 12, 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 city had promised to allocate 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, holds only 300. This has been a problem for Syriacs who live far away from the church building, due to a Syriac tradition that they must fast until their Sunday service concludes.
Because those in Yesilkoy do not have a building of their own, they have had to meet in a Latin Catholic church. It has led to scheduling problems, since Syriacs couldn’t begin their service until 11 a.m., creating difficulties for children or the elderly who do not want to break their fasts.
“The Latin church was not suitable for our purposes. It wasn’t large enough and we couldn’t use it for long enough. Only 200 people could fit inside,” said Sait Susin, president of the board of directors for the Syrian Church of the Virgin Mary Foundation.
The city government first promised permission for the church construction in 2009 amid local elections. It approved construction of the new church in 2012 to much fanfare from the pro-government press. The daily Star announced in a headline “A Mosque 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 cleared all hurdles for construction of the church to even begin.
In 2013 a government historical preservation committee denied a transfer of property from an Italian Catholic Church to a Syrian Orthodox committee in order to preserve the ruins of a chapel and graveyard on the land. It approved the transfer in 2014.
“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 annual World Watch List issued this month by Open Doors International, a charity which monitors religious freedom, 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 stated that four churches were attacked and damaged during 2014. The main “engines” of persecution against Turkey’s Christians were identified as Islamic extremism and religious nationalism.
Nevertheless, Davutoglu believes discrimination against Muslims to be an equally problematic global issue, when compared to anti-Christian discrimination. 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.
The Council of Europe hailed Turkey’s announcement that the Syriac community would be permitted to build a new church as “a sign of diversity,” wrote Daniel Holtgen, spokesman for the secretary general of the Council of Europe in his Twitter feed on Jan. 7.
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 pre-school to open in Istanbul in
September 2014. Some 25 children attend the Mor Efrem Syriac Pre-school, surrounded by icons and crosses, singing songs in their ancient Syriac language, closest to the Aramaic dialect spoken by Jesus.
The Syrian Orthodox Church is a branch of Eastern Orthodoxy that constitutes one of the oldest distinct church bodies in Christianity. The ethnic Syriacs who make up this church community in Turkey now number only 20,000. Their numbers have grown slightly in recent years due to Christian refugees flowing from Syria and Iraq across the borders of southeast Turkey, where some 2,000 Syriacs are living in villages and small towns near the church’s 4th century Mor Gabriel Monastery in Midyat.