PM repeats promise made 6 years ago to Syriac Orthodox Church

  • Written by:

Turkish PM Ahmet Davuto?lu (Photo: DHA)
Prime Minister Ahmet Davuto?lu promised on Saturday at a meeting with representatives of religious minority groups to allow the construction of a church in ?stanbul’s Ye?ilköy neighborhood for the Syriac Orthodox community, a promise first voiced by the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) six years ago in the lead-up to local elections in 2009.

The Syriac community of ?stanbul has had a longstanding request for Turkish authorities to allow the construction of a Syriac church in the city. The ?stanbul Metropolitan Municipality approved its request in December 2012, the first permission granted for the construction of a new church in the history of the Turkish Republic.

Davuto?lu reiterated the promise at the event on Saturday that land will be given to the Syriac community for the construction of a church. The ?stanbul Metropolitan Municipality has been expected to allocate a 2,000-square-meter plot of land in ?stanbul’s Ye?ilköy neighborhood to the Syriac Church Foundation for the construction of a church since 2012. If the project is brought to completion, it will mark the first time a municipality has issued permission for the construction a place of worship to a non-Muslim community.

The pro-government media publicized the matter along news of the construction of a mosque on Çaml?ca hill in ?stanbul’s Üsküdar district. The Star daily published a report in December 2012 with the headline “Mosque in Çaml?ca, church in Ye?ilköy.” The construction of the Çaml?ca Mosque, which is expected to be visible from all over the city, has forged ahead and is scheduled for completion on July 1, 2016.

With dwindling numbers, most of Turkey’s non-Muslim communities do not need new churches to be built, as the current functioning churches are enough to support their communities. However, the Syriac Christians feel they need a church of their own in ?stanbul since they have had to use other communities’ churches for their religious practices, such as Latin Catholic churches, a practice that has often created scheduling conflicts with prayers and rituals for the religious communities.

The transfer to the Syriac Orthodox Church of 2,000 square meters of land in Ye?ilköy belonging to the Italian Catholic Church was denied in 2013 by ?stanbul’s 1st Cultural and Natural Heritage Preservation Board in order to preserve the ruins of a graveyard and a chapel on the land. When a new construction plan was presented to ?stanbul’s 5th Cultural and Natural Heritage Preservation Board, the board asked that the plan be revised as it encroached on trees on the land.

After revising the plan, the board approved the transfer. However, the Supreme Council of Monuments then asked to reduce the projected area for the church from 900 square meters to 500 square meters with a 1,200-square-meter garden. The Syriac community is now awaiting the decision of the council after voicing concerns that the reduced size will not be sufficient to serve the community.

Syriac Orthodoxy is a form of Christianity believed to have evolved from that taught by St. Peter in Antioch (Antakya) in the first century. In a country of around 75 million people, there are less than 25,000 Syriacs left, about 20,000 of them living in ?stanbul. Most of the Syriacs in ?stanbul live in Bak?rköy, Feriköy, Florya, Moda and Ye?ilköy.

There are also Syriacs living in the southeastern province of Mardin, where the group has dwelled for centuries. Conflicts, the latest of which was terrorism related to the Kurdish issue in the 1990s, led to their emigration. There are many more Syriacs overseas, and the biggest groups live in India and Sweden, with 3 million and 100,000, respectively.