Home Christian News As Turkey’s Christians Celebrate a New Church, Religious Minorities Still Call for...

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

Indeed, Mor Ephrem’s opening was celebrated not only by Syriac leaders but by other Christian sects: The church isn’t just the first Assyrian structure, but the first church of any sect to be built anew since the establishment of the Turkish Republic in 1923 — The republic’s early years were defined by policies of Turkification that resulted in the repression of ethnic and religious minorities in the name of shoring up a unitary, and nationalist, Turkish identity.

The Rev. Luka Refatti, the Dominican pastor of the Mary Queen of the Rosary Catholic Church, which stands near the Syriac church, stood alongside other clergy at the front of the church at Mor Ephrem’s inauguration.

For years, Refatti’s was one of several Christian congregations — Armenian and Greek Orthodox, Latin Catholics and others — to host the Assyrian community, which has only one existing church in Istanbul, located in the rougher Tarlabaşi neighborhood and far from where most of Istanbul’s 18,000 Assyrians are clustered.

“Now, for them, it is a new stage,” Refatti said. “I hope that this won’t just be a place to show and display their own identity, but also to pray and meet God. Not just for Syriac Christians but all denominations,” he added.

The new building, which can hold as many as 750 people for a service, is five stories tall and mixes modern construction with traditional Syriac styles. Its facade includes a sandstone design that echoes Syriac churches in Turkey’s southeastern Mardin province, a historically Syriac area, while the sanctuary is decked out with frescoes of early church figures such as its fourth-century namesake, Saint Ephrem the Syrian.

While the church is a happy turn of events for many Christians, some who have long tracked the affairs of Turkey’s religious minorities are skeptical. Successive Turkish constitutions have granted equal rights to non-Muslim minorities, Kaymak noted, but real equality seldom followed.

Erdoğan’s rapport with Christians has had its vagaries as well. Just a year after laying the foundation of Mor Ephrem, Erdoğan incurred the ire of the Christian world when he converted Hagia Sophia, a UNESCO World Heritage site that had been a center of both Byzantine Orthodox Christianity and Ottoman Islam, back into a mosque.

A month later, the ancient Chora Church/Kariye Mosque, which had been maintained neutrally as a museum since the founding of the Turkish Republic, also reverted to a Muslim sacred space. Greece’s foreign ministry called it “a provocation against all believers.”

The move wasn’t missed by the Syriac community, either.

“Converting Hagia Sophia in Istanbul and other churches in the country, the destruction of Christian heritage alongside long-held obstacles and difficulties for the ancient Christian communities in the country are real concerns for our people,” Vergili said.

The same week that Erdoğan attended the opening ceremony at Mor Ephrem, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Turkey had violated the rights of the Assyrian community in a dispute over property owned by the Mor Gabriel Syriac monastery, in Turkey’s southeast.

In 2011, Turkey seized more than 60% of the monastery’s land. Much of it was returned in 2018 by the Turkish parliamentary measure that returned dozens of historic properties to the Syriac church, but one plot of land in the city of Mardin remains under dispute.

“The government’s approach to the Syriac community is a bit vague and ambiguous,” Arslan said. “On the one hand, in the southeast region, it has one politics, while in the western region, it has another.”

The 2021 arrest and imprisonment of a Syriac monk, Aho Bileçen, in southeastern Turkey also sparked protests from the Assyrian community worldwide.

For Christians of all kinds, Erdoğan’s policy toward minorities’ place in public life needs to restore respect for a truly pluralistic society as much as for church property.

“The protection and well-being of Syriac people and Christian communities need a long-term project in line with truth, transparency and democratic principles,” Vergili said.

This article originally appeared here