Turkey seizes six Christian churches as state property

Let them into the EU!

Virgin-Mary-Syriac-Orthodox-Church-in-Diyarbakir

Virgin Mary Syriac Orthodox Church in Diyarbakir

“Turkey seizes six churches as state property in volatile southeast,” World Watch Monitor, April 6, 2016:

After 10 months of urban conflict in Turkey’s war-torn southeast, the government has expropriated huge sections of property, apparently to rebuild and restore the historical centre of the region’s largest city, Diyarbakir.

But to the dismay of the city’s handful of Christian congregations, this includes all its Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant churches. Unlike the state-funded mosques, Turkey’s ancient church buildings – some of which pre-date Islam – have been managed, historically, by church foundations.

The new decision has effectively made the Diyarbakir churches – one 1,700 years old, another built only in 2003 – state property of Turkey, an Islamic country of 75 million.

Who are the Kurds?

Kurds make up an estimated 20% of the total Turkish population. The Kurds maintain the Allies promised them an independent state after World War II, which never happened. Since 1984, more than 40,000 have died in Turkey in the fight for autonomy. Over the past 10 months, the Turkish army have killed an estimated 5,000 PKK militants and lost 355 soldiers across the southeast, according to current government statistics. (The number of civilian deaths remains in dispute.)

Turkey’s southeast is heavily populated by Kurds – an ethnic Muslim group also extending across Turkey’s borders into Iran, Syria and Iraq, where Kurdish militias are prominent in all the regional fighting.

Fierce fighting, centring heavily on Diyarbakir, has escalated since the end of a two-year ceasefire between the Turkish armed forces and the militants of the Kurdish Workers’ Party (the PKK) in June 2015.

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Last autumn, the PKK youth declared self-rule over large parts of the Diyarbakir district of Sur, digging trenches and building barricades to keep authorities out. Blanket curfews left the populace under siege for weeks at a time, causing more than 30,000 to flee the city.

Then in late March, the government announced the “urgent expropriation” of 6,300 plots of land in the Sur district. Six churches are now under state control: the Virgin Mary Syriac Orthodox Church, the Surp (Armenian for “Saint”) Sarkis Chaldean Catholic Church, the Diyarbakir Protestant Church, the Apostolic Armenian Surp Giragos Church, an Armenian Catholic church, and the Mar Petyun Chaldean Catholic Church.

Churches affected and their historical significance

For much of the past 10 months, the small Christian communities of Armenians, Assyrians, Chaldeans and Turkish Christian converts have been unable to access their church buildings in Diyarbakir’s city centre due to the heavy fighting; several have suffered minor damages.

Few Christian houses of worship exist in Turkey’s southeast. Although it is the ancestral homeland of Syriacs and Armenians, well over a million of these ethnic Christians were massacred and sent on death marches during the final years of the Ottoman Empire at the beginning of the 20th century.

Diyarbakir’s Surp Giragos Church is the largest Armenian church in the Middle East. Sitting near the banks of the Tigris River, its large bell tower stands out as a symbol of Christianity’s once vibrant presence in the region.

First built in the 1600s, Surp Giragos was closed in the 1960s after the city became depopulated of Armenians. After the diaspora funded $1 million for its renovation, Surp Giragos reopened in 2011.

Very few Armenians still live in Diyarbakir. The church only holds services for major holidays like Christmas and Easter, when priests fly in from Istanbul to offer communion. The rest of the year it has remained open as a tourist attraction.

The new expropriation order, published in the government’s Official Gazette on 25 March, came from a council of ministers led by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The decision was based on Article 27 of Turkey’s Expropriation Law. According to Fatmagul Sari, the Minister of Environment and Urban Planning, the decision was made as a “last resort” to protect the area. In 2010, 330 structures in the Sur neighbourhood were demolished as part of an urban renewal programme.

The ruling has caused “disquiet” among Armenian, Syriac and Chaldean communities, according to the Turkish-Armenian daily, Agos. Multiple church foundations are preparing to appeal the decision. Archbishop Aram Atesyan of the Armenian Apostolic Church said he has demanded a meeting with Sari to ask the cabinet to correct the decision….

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