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As Turkey’s Christians Celebrate a New Church, Religious Minorities Still Call for Respect

Syriac Church
People attend the inauguration of Mor Ephrem Syriac Orthodox Church, Sunday, Oct. 15, 2023, in Istanbul, Turkey. It is the first Christian church to be built since the establishment of the Turkish Republic in 1923. (RNS photo/David I. Klein)

ISTANBUL (RNS) — On Oct. 15, hundreds of Turkey’s Assyrian Syriac Christians gathered in Istanbul’s leafy Yeşilköy neighborhood to witness the inauguration of Mor Ephrem Syriac Orthodox Church, the community’s first new church in more than a century.

A generation ago, the vision of building a new Syriac Christian church in Istanbul would have been a fantasy. One of the oldest branches of the church, Syriac Orthodox Christianity still uses a dialect of Aramaic, the language of Jesus and his disciples, for its liturgy. “We’re a very ancient people, a Mesopotamian people,” said Katia Arslan, an Assyrian who studies Turkey’s minority peoples.

But today only about 25,000 Assyrian Christians live in Turkey, represented across the Syriac Church, the Assyrian Church of the East and Latin Uniate Churches adhering to Rome, but most are Syriac Orthodox.

They are the last remnant of a community that once numbered in the hundreds of thousands in Turkey’s southeast but faced genocide at the close of the Ottoman Empire. Further persecution in the early days of modern Turkey kicked off a mass emigration abroad or to western Turkish cities. During the exodus, the state expropriated Assyrian properties, including churches and monasteries.

But at the inauguration of the new Istanbul church this month, the Syriac metropolitan of Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir, Yusuf Çetin, was met with cheers and ululation from the crowd as he anointed the church’s gates and recited a prayer.

As important, and perhaps more surprising, the previous Sunday, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who has done much to make Islam part of the Turkish identity, made a visit to celebrate the church’s completion.

“The church we have built is a symbol of freedom of religion and belief in our country,” said the president. “At a time when divisions, conflicts and hate crimes based on religious and ethnic origin are increasing in our region and the world, this embracing attitude of Turkey is very important,” he said.

Erdoğan has had a complicated relationship with Turkey’s Christians since he rose to power in the late 1990s. While restoring Islam to the public sphere in Turkey after nearly a century of a firm policy of secularization by his predecessors, he has also allowed several churches and synagogues that the state had expropriated to reopen as museums and cultural centers or even as active houses of worship.

In 2019, when construction on Mor Ephrem began, Erdoğan laid the foundation stone.

“As a community, we believed in him and trusted his sincerity,” Metropolitan Yusuf Çetin told Turkish media at the Oct. 15 inauguration. “He honored not only Assyrians in Turkey, but also diaspora Assyrians.”

Özgür Kaymak, a lecturer in political science at MEF University in Istanbul, explained that AKP’s policies toward religious minorities are part of his government’s break with Turkey’s secularist past, but that they also reflect its political pragmatism.

David Vergili, editor of Sabro, a journal covering the Syriac diaspora, agreed. “We see clearly that the AKP is trying to benefit from the presence of the minorities, especially in periods of conflict and in the eyes of Western countries,” he told RNS.