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How Turkey Treats Its Historic Churches
By Uzay Bulut
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A viral social media video showed a group of young Turkish men dancing on top of the Saint Takavor Armenian Church in Istanbul on July 11.

Turkish media reported that while some individuals played music and partied on the pedestrian road in front of the church, three people from the group climbed over the entrance gate of the church and started dancing next to the cross there.

An Armenian human rights activist based in Istanbul, Murad Mih├ži, wrote on Twitter that police were normally always present in front of the church to stop political dissident activists from making a statement to the press. But that night, the police were nowhere to be seen and did not stop the perpetrators who desecrated the church.

The three men who danced on top of the church were briefly detained, and then released. The perpetrators will not face accountability, as the abuse of churches is not an isolated incident in Turkey.

Turkey’s whole population is about 80 million today, but Christians are on the verge of extinction; they comprise less than 0.1 percent of the population. Yet Christianity has a long history in Asia Minor, which is today inside Turkey’s borders.

Asia Minor (also known as Anatolia) is the birthplace of many Apostles and Saints, such as Apostle Paul of Tarsus, Timothy, St. Nicholas of Myra, and St. Polycarp of Smyrna. Two out of the five centers of the ancient Pentarchy – Constantinople (Istanbul) and Antioch (Antakya) – are also in Asia Minor. The followers of Jesus were called “Christians” for the first time in history at Antioch, where Saint Peter established one of the earliest churches. Asia Minor is also home to the Seven Churches of Asia, where the Revelations to John were sent. All of the first seven Ecumenical Councils were also held in the same region.

The cities across Turkey were established and ruled for centuries by the indigenous peoples, which included Greeks, Armenians and Assyrians. When the Roman Empire split into two kingdoms, Western (Rome) and Eastern (now known as the Byzantine Empire), Latin prevailed among the Romans while Greek was largely spoken across the Eastern Roman Empire, which also included Asia Minor. Byzantine Emperor Theodosius I declared Christianity the official religion in 380.

The Byzantine Empire survived for a thousand years after the western Roman Empire had disintegrated into many feudal kingdoms. However, when the Ottoman Turks invaded Constantinople in 1453, the Byzantine Empire fell. The Turks took over the region, turning Christians and Jews into dhimmis, a third-class, barely "tolerated" people who had to buy their lives through the heavy jizya tax in their dispossessed land under the Ottoman rule. The pressures and persecution against Christians led to the conversion of many to Islam throughout the centuries. And Hagia Sophia, once the world’s largest church, was converted into a mosque first by the invading Ottomans in the fifteenth century and then by the Turkish government in 2020.

Even after the founding of the Turkish republic in 1923, discrimination against Christians remained a government policy that manifested itself in different forms.

Today, Christians of all denominations -- Protestant, Greek Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic, Assyrian, Catholic, and others -- are exposed to discrimination and persecution in Turkey. Some examples of violations against Christian communities include:

Protestant Community: The Protestant community still does not have legal status in Turkey. The freedom of belief for Turkey’s Protestant community is systematically violated by the Turkish government, according to a recent report issued by the World Evangelical Alliance, the European Evangelical Alliance, the Middle East Concern and Turkey’s Association of Protestant Churches. Foreign Protestant clergy and other church workers are often deported, denied entry into Turkey, refused residence permits, or denied entry visas. Foreign Protestants are labeled as “security threats” by the Turkish intelligence organization. The report states that hostility is demonstrated towards Protestants and Protestant missionaries in the media, at schools, and within Turkish society. Turkish legislation does not make provision for the training of Christian clergy either in private establishments for higher religious education or through the public education system. And representatives from the Protestant community are excluded from government meetings or other state functions that include religious leaders of minority communities.

Greek Orthodox Community: The Greek communities of Anatolia were exposed to genocide between 1914 and 1923, as well as a forcible population exchange campaign between Turkey and Greece, in which many of the survivors were expelled from Turkey in 1923. The Turkish government is continuing to annihilate the Christian heritage in Turkey. For instance, the only school for training the leadership of Orthodox Christianity, the Halki seminary, located on the island of Halki (Heybeliada) in the Sea of Marmara, was closed by the Turkish government in 1971. Since then, the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople has been unable to train clergy and potential successors for the position of Patriarch.

According to the Order of Saint Andrew, Archons of the Ecumenical Patriarchate:

Since its closure, the Ecumenical Patriarchate has had to send the young men from its community desiring to enter the priesthood to one of the theological schools in Greece. In many instances, they do not return given the onerous restrictions in getting work permits and the general climate of intimidation. Despite promises by the Turkish government to re-open our theological school, there has been no progress. Left unresolved, the administrative functioning and future of the Ecumenical Patriarchate is imperiled.

In 2016, the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America listed other violations against the Orthodox Church by Turkey:

The Turkish government imposes restrictions on the election of the Ecumenical Patriarch and Hierarchs who vote for him by requiring that they must be Turkish citizens. In fact, the government arbitrarily can veto any candidate for the position of Ecumenical Patriarch.

With the dwindling population of Hierarchs and Orthodox Christians in Turkey, we may not be able to elect an Ecumenical Patriarch in the not too distant future.

Turkish authorities do not allow the use of the term or title of “Ecumenical” for any religious activity whatsoever despite the fact that it has been used since the 6th century A.D. and recognized throughout the world. Turkey regards the Patriarchate as an institution whose leader is seen as the spiritual head of Orthodox Christians in Turkey alone rather than the leader of 300 million Orthodox Christians worldwide.

The Ecumenical Patriarchate has no legal identity or bona fide legal personality in Turkey.

The lack of a legal identity is a major source of problems for the Ecumenical Patriarchate including non-recognition of its ownership rights and the non-issuance of residence and work permits for “foreign” (meaning non-Turkish) priests who are essential to the continuity and functioning of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. The Turkish authorities do not allow the Ecumenical Patriarchate to own any property — not even its churches. The Patriarchal house itself is not recognized as the Patriarchate’s property and even the Girls and Boys Orphanage Foundation on the Island of Buyukada (Prinkipos) for which the Patriarchate has held a deed since 1902 is not legally recognized by the Turkish government. The inability to secure work permits by “foreigners” who work at the Ecumenical Patriarchate results in these individuals having to leave the country every three months to renew tourist visas which disrupts the operation and productivity of the Ecumenical Patriarchate and discourages staffing from abroad.

Through various methods, the Turkish authorities have confiscated thousands of properties from the Ecumenical Patriarchate and the Greek Orthodox community over the years, including our monasteries, Church buildings, an orphanage, private homes, apartment buildings, schools and land.

Armenian Community: Following the 1914-23 Christian Genocide by Ottoman Turkey, lands and properties belonging to the victims were seized by either the Turkish government or private citizens. Author Raffi Bedrosyan explains:

Along with the hundreds of thousands of homes, shops, farms, orchards, factories, warehouses, and mines belonging to the Armenians, the church and school buildings also disappeared or were converted to other uses. If not burnt and destroyed outright in 1915 or left to deteriorate by neglect, they became converted buildings for banks, radio stations, mosques, state schools, or state monopoly warehouses for tobacco, tea, sugar, etc., or simply private houses and stables for the Turks and Kurds.

Abuses against historic Armenian churches across Turkey are ongoing. In January, for instance, a kebab seller hosted a barbecue party at an Armenian church in the town of Germus in the city of Urfa in southeast Turkey.

The Church, estimated to have been built during the 19th century, is already in ruins due to illegal excavations by treasure hunters. Yet it is still targeted by locals. According to the Turkish media, the kebab seller lit a torch and cooked kebab inside the ruined church and served it to people there.

In another incident, an Armenian church in the city of Bursa in northwestern Turkey was put up for sale on an internet site for 6.3 million liras, around $800,000 USD.

Oddly referring to the Armenian Genocide as “separation of populations,” the online sale announcement said: "The church, which was built for the Armenian population living in the region, passed into private ownership due to the separation of the populations after the population exchange. It was used as a tobacco warehouse for a while and then as a weaving factory since 1923. The church, which is located in a well-known location within a region included in the UNESCO World Heritage List, can be used for touristic purposes due to its location.”

Another Armenian Church in Bursa’s Setbasi district, which is also “privately owned” today (or stolen after the genocide), was put up for sale in 2016 for 1.5 million USD.

Assyrian/Syriac Community: An indigenous people of Mesopotamia, Assyrians/Syriacs have been victims of crimes at the hands of Turks and Kurds such as the 1914-23 genocide, and subsequent deportations, murders, kidnappings, and rapes throughout the decades, among other rights abuses.

The lands and properties that Assyrians have left behind were seized by Muslim locals in southeast Turkey and their churches are either left to ruin or used for sacrilegious purposes.

International Christian Concern reported in May:

Turkey has demonstrated its disinterest in preserving minority Christian heritage sites. Looting of historic churches is common as treasure hunters have seen their crimes go unpunished and historic places of worship have been left to crumble without government protection. Land and churches belonging historically to minority Christian groups like Syriacs, Armenians and Greeks also face damages.

In a country where Christians and their historic churches are systematically violated by the government and many members of society, people showing no respect to a church and dancing on it is not shocking behavior. But how would those Muslims feel, and what would they do, if some Christians openly violated a mosque in Turkey and danced on its gate? Some riots, pogroms or even yet another genocide would be on their way for the tiny, already dying Christian minority of the country. For dehumanization of Christians and other non-Muslims knows no bounds in the Islamic supremacist mindset.

This mindset is manifested through the genocidal hatred Islamic supremacists have towards Christians and their cultural heritage, the result of which is the continued desecration and destruction of anything belonging to Christians.

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