Wednesday, May 4, 2016

RLPB 355. Turkey: Church seizures reflect Ottoman policy

Religious Liberty Prayer Bulletin | RLPB 355 | Wed 04 May 2016

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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.

Surp Giragos Armenian Apostolic Church, Diyarbakir (Nov 2014)
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 have 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 Elbeyo─člu, 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.


Turkey has escalated its military campaign against the Kurds and its covert campaign against its remnant Greek, Armenian and Assyrian Christian communities. Few churches seized during the Genocide of 1915-1923 were ever returned and in March 2016 the government seized six churches in Diyarbakir, south-eastern Turkey. They include a 1700-year-old Assyrian Orthodox Church, Armenian and Assyrian Catholic Churches, the Diyarbakir Protestant Church and the largest Armenian church in the Middle East: the magnificent, recently renovated and highly significant Surp Giragos Armenian Apostolic Church. Calls to open Istanbul's magnificent Hagia Sophia (Church of Holy Wisdom) as a mosque grow louder by the day. Deprivations and state-sponsored cultural destruction are fuelling Christian migration. Concern for the future of Christianity in Turkey is valid. Please pray for Turkey and its Church.

Elizabeth Kendal is the author of Turn Back the Battle: Isaiah Speaks toChristians Today (Deror Books, Dec 2012) which offers a Biblical response to persecution and existential threat.

Elizabeth Kendal’s new book, After Saturday ComesSunday: Understanding the Christian Crisis in the Middle East, is presently being published by Wipf and Stock (Eugene, OR, USA) and will be available shortly.