Turkey inaugurates first state - built church: “We are very happy”
“The solidarity shown today is very important”, said President Erdogan at the inauguration of the Syriac Orthodox church. Turkish Christians still face restrictions of their religious freedom.
Protestante Digital · ISTANBUL · 03 NOVEMBER 2023 · 16:35 CET
The Mor Efrem Syriac Orthodox Church building in Istanbul has already made history as the first Christian place of worship to be built entirely with state funding in the 100 years of modern Turkey, the secular state that emerged after the fall of the Ottoman empire.
At the opening ceremony of the building, which can accommodate up to 750 people, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan turned the attention to the conflict between Israel and Hamas in the Middle East.
"We are seeing big problems today across many parts of the world […] but I find it very important the solidarity shown here today", said Erdogan.
The construction work began in 2019 and the project also aimed to highlight Istanbul's Syriac Christian community of around 17,000 people.
The roots of these Christians in Turkey date back to the 1st century AD in the southeastern region of Turkey that extends into Syria and Iraq. The main church of the community moved from the Turkish city of Mardin to Damascus in 1932.
"We always protect the oppressed against the oppressor. That is our duty", pointed out the Turkish president.
Religious freedom promotion or political strategy?
The inauguration of the building comes barely three years after the international uproar caused by the transformation of the Hagia Sophia church-museum into a mosque by President Erdogan in July 2020.
Even UNESCO came out publicly against the Turkish government and judicial system's decision, stating that "states have an obligation to ensure that modifications do not affect the outstanding universal value of inscribed sites on their territories".
But the controversy only increased when a month later, in August 2020, Erdogan's government announced that it was also converting the iconic basilica of St Saviour's Basilica in Cora into a mosque.
Not even a year had passed when in June 2021 Erdogan inaugurated a new mosque located in Istanbul's central Taksim Square, with capacity for 2,500 people inside and 4,000. "Our mosque already occupies a prominent place among the symbols of the city", the Turkish president said then.
Erdogan claimed that since his party came to power in 2002, about 20 church buildings have been restored in Turkey. "We have penned a love letter to every individual of our nation, without any distinction of origin or religion," he said on the eve of the first round of the presidential elections in May, which he won.
“We are very happy”
The Syriac Orthodox community say they are "very happy" about their new church, which "is the first newly built church to open its doors since the founding of the Turkish Republic", the leader of the Syriac Christians, Sait Susin, explained to AFP.
Until now, Susin told the Anadolu news agency, "they were built without official permission. It is the first time a church has been officially built. This gives us great pride". The building cost $4 million.
Earlier, in statements to Daily Sabah, Susin had pointed out that behind the Mor Efrem church there was a whole process of work to "eliminate differences".
The structure is divided between a first floor, which houses a cultural hall for ceremonies such as baptisms, funerals and weddings, and a main ground floor for prayers and rituals, which also has a room for the bishop, rooms for guests and even a parking.
Difficulties for religious minorities in Turkey
Protestants are also concerned because foreign Christian workers are also banned, and denounce problems with their places of worship, and increased hate speech towards them on social media.
The World Evangelical Alliance (WEA) also denounced at the UN Human Rights Committee that Christians and other religious minorities in Turkey have to usually deal with restrictions of their religious freedom.
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