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TURKEY: Church Seizures Reflect Ottoman Policy


Date:  May 4, 2016

by Elizabeth Kendal 

Aware that the neo-Ottoman Islamist AKP government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan is 
unwilling to accept any outcome in Syria other than regime change, many 
analysts expect Turkey will move to escalate the Syrian war. Meanwhile, in 
Turkey it is already escalating its military campaign against the Kurds and 
its covert campaign against its remnant Armenian and Assyrian Christian 
communities. In a sense the Genocide never really ended, as Christians are 
still being driven out - albeit quietly - primarily by means of deprivations 
and threats. 'In some ways,' wrote political scientist Dr Elizabeth H 
Prodromou and historian Dr Alexandros K Kyrou (2013), 'Ankara's policies 
against Turkey's Christian citizens have added a modern veneer and 
sophisticated brutality to Ottoman norms and practices. ... In the words of 
an anonymous Church hierarch in Turkey fearful for the life of his flock, 
Christians in Turkey are an endangered species.'  

As reported in last week's RLPB 354 (April Update), the mostly Kurdish city 
of Diyarbakir (majority Christian just 100 years ago) has been heavily 
shelled - no area more so than the historic, World Heritage listed Sur 
district on Diyarbakir's eastern fringe. After ordering residents out of Sur 
district, the government then seized 6300 plots of land, including six 
churches: the Assyrian Orthodox Church of the Virgin Mary (built in the 3rd 
Century), the Mar Petyun Chaldean Catholic Church, the Surp (Saint) Sarkis 
Chaldean Catholic Church, an Armenian Catholic church, the Diyarbakir 
Protestant Church and the largest Armenian church in the Middle East - the 
magnificent, recently renovated and hugely significant Surp Giragos Armenian 
Apostolic Church. These churches are now the property of the Turkish state, 
which has no interest in their survival. Christians are deeply concerned that 
the government may be planning to raze Sur district and rebuild it entirely. 
Unlike mosques, which are all state owned and run, these churches were the 
private property of their foundations, maintained and staffed through the 
donations of the faithful.  Furthermore, they are an integral part of 
Turkey's cultural heritage - lest people forget that Anatolia, once part of 
the Byzantine Empire, was a land of Greek, Armenian and Assyrian Christians.

Though a remnant survived the Genocide of 1915-1923, the pressure has never 
subsided. Few of the Greek, Armenian and Assyrian churches seized during the 
Genocide have been returned. Rejecting the pleas of Christians, the 
government prefers to use these historic churches and cultural treasures as 
warehouses, sports centres, stables for animals or squats for drug users. 
Occasionally the government sells them to investors and developers over the 
internet. And so the state-sponsored cultural destruction continues, quietly. 
This is the context in which many Muslims in Turkey are calling for 
Istanbul's (Constantinople's) famous 6th Century Byzantine Cathedral - the 
magnificent Hagia Sophia (Church of Holy Wisdom) - to be opened as a mosque 
[see RLPB 315 (24 June 2015)]. Pressure has been mounting since June 2012 
when Iznik's Hagia Sophia (formerly the Hagia Sofia of Nicaea) was converted 
into a mosque and December 2012 when a Turkish court ruled that Trabzon's 
Hagia Sophia should be opened for Muslim worship. Since May 2013, when 
Muslims celebrated the 560th anniversary of the conquest of Constantinople, 
calls to 'complete the conquest' through the removal of all churches has 
become even more shrill. On 9 April 2015, as Eastern Christians prepared to 
celebrate Easter, Istanbul's Hagia Sophia hosted the first Qur'an recitation 
under its roof in 85 years. Today, as the government seizes control of six 
more churches, there are reasons to be concerned about the future of 
Christianity in NATO-member, and aspiring EU-member, Turkey.  


* grace Turkey's Christians (including some 2,000 Greeks and 80,000 Armenians 
and Assyrians) with holy wisdom in abundance as they seek to navigate the 
difficult and dangerous days ahead.  'My soul melts away for 
sorrow; strengthen me according to your word! Your word is a lamp to my feet 
and a light to my path. Redeem me from man's oppression, that I may keep your 
precepts.' (Psalm 119:28,105,134 ESV)  

* provide for, guide and bless advocate Ali Elbeyoglu, the lawyer for the 
Surp Giragos Armenian Church Foundation, as he appeals to the Council of 
State for a stay of execution and annulment of the expropriation of the 
hugely significant Surp Giragos Armenian Apostolic Church. 'For 
the Lord loves justice; he will not forsake his saints.' (Psalm 37:28 ESV)  

* awaken Western leaders to start caring truly about the plight of Middle 
Eastern Christians and really listening to them in the realisation that their 
plight pre-figures our own; may West and East stand in solidarity against 
re-energised, belligerent Islam.  

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