By Stoyan Zaimov, Christian Post Reporter
A man waves Turkey’s national flag during the Democracy and Martyrs Rally, organized by Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, November 12, 2016. | (Photo: Reuters/Umit Bektas)
Construction for the first-ever church to be built in the modern Republic of Turkey will begin in February, a move Syriac Orthodox believers have long been waiting for.
Bülent Kerimo?lu, the mayor of Istanbul’s Bakirköy municipality, said on Tuesday that the paperwork has been completed for the expected two-year construction project.
Anadolu Agency noted that when completed, the church will serve Syriac Orthodox believers, which number close to 17,000, living in Istanbul.
Yusuf Cetin, the Syriac Orthodox Church’s metropolitan for Istanbul and the capital Ankara, hailed the move, saying that “different religions, ethnic roots … everyone’s hearts beat for our Turkey.”
“We’re proud of living under the Turkish flag in this land,” he added.
Plans for the new church were first revealed in 2015, when Agence France Presse noted that the church would be the first one built since the end of the Ottoman Empire and the establishment of the modern republic in 1923.
While older churches have been restored and reopened to the public, the planned church will be the first new one in the territory in nearly 100 years.
Fides News Agency pointed out that the new church will be built in the Yesilkoy district of Bakirkoy and will have space for more than 700 believers.
It suggested that the increase of the Syriac Christian minority in Turkey due to the Syrian civil war is one of the main reasons for Turkey agreeing to build a new church. Turkish authorities had previously set up a refugee camp reserved for Syriac Christians hosting up to 4,000 people.
Christians have had strong religious freedom concerns during the administration of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, however. Back in 2016, the government seized the last six remaining Christian churches in the war-torn southeastern city of Diyarbakir, declaring them state property.
The decision caused outrage among the Armenian, Syriac and Chaldean communities and a number of church foundations, which threatened legal action.
The government claimed at the time that there were no religious motives behind the decision, pointing out that it had also expropriated a number of historic mosques in the town.
Erdogan has maintained that “Turkey has no problems related to [religious] minorities,” pointing to a joint declaration signed by Christian representatives in 2018 stating that they live “freely” in the Muslim majority nation.
But some church leaders, such as Anthony J. Limberakis, the National Commander of the Eastern Orthodox Church order, said that the Turkish government placed “pressure” on the churches to sign the document.
“One need not be a U.S. evangelist or have a Zionist mentality to see that the statement from representatives of the Greek Orthodox and Armenian churches and other religious minority communities was obtained under duress,” he stated.