Turkey’s non-Muslims also demand respect for sacred sites

muslim2.jpgNon-Muslim minorities in Turkey have expressed an expectation that their buildings of religious and historic significance deserve respect amid a debate over whether a fashion show should be held at Mardin’s Kasımiye Medrese.
Some locals and civil society organizations were offended by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism’s plan to hold the “An Eastern Tale: Four Seasons” fashion show by famous designer Cemil İpekçi at the historic building of a medrese, an educational institution estimated to have been built in the late 15th or early 16th century. Last week the Mardin Governor’s Office stated that the building was being rented from the Diyarbakır Foundations’ Regional Directorate for cultural purposes. The statement also said the masjid (a room for worship) inside the building was not functional up until April 2009, when it was put back into use by the Mardin Governor’s Office, and a religious official led the noon and afternoon prayers there each day.The statement also listed previous events organized in the historic building by the Mardin Governor’s Office, including a religious Tasavvuf Music and Church Choir Concert, two art exhibitions hosted as part of the Mardin Biennial, another tasavvuf music concert with a whirling dervish performance, a concert by the İstanbul State Symphony Orchestra and film screenings as part of the SineMardin International Film Festival.

According to the governor’s office, İpekçi’s show was part of a project to design and produce attire based on the region’s traditional designs and patterns. In addition, the earnings from the show will be used to support a school in the region, and around 50 women in the region would be employed through the project.

Those explanations came as some locals and civil society organizations in the city raised their voices against the show because they said it would amount to a violation of the site they consider sacred.

Mehmet Kızılkaya, the mufti of Mardin, said the public has strongly reacted to the show and added that it should have been held somewhere other than the medrese.

“The show is important, but it should have been held elsewhere,” he said.

Asked by Sunday’s Zaman about his opinion regarding various religious groups’ sacred or valued historic sites in the region, Kızılkaya said they should also be shown due respect.

“We should express the same sensitivity towards places respected by non-Muslims. The places they value should be valued by the Muslim majority, too. An example of this is the church on Akdamar Island,” he said, referring to a recent historic religious ceremony held at the Armenian Church of the Holy Cross on the island in the eastern province of Van, after it was renovated.

Johny Messo, president of the Syriac Universal Alliance (SUA), reminded Sunday’s Zaman that in the 1950s the local Syriac Catholic Church of İskenderun in Hatay province was confiscated by the Turkish government.

“It was turned into a cinema for decades to come. Sometimes it even played erotic movies, as several Turkish newspapers testified last year. Obviously the Aramean people, both in Turkey and the diaspora, felt offended by this disrespectful act in two ways. First, they lamented the confiscation of their age-old property. Secondly, they felt insulted by the insolent way their holy place was used, or rather misused. Thankfully, the church was recently given back to its rightful owners and the most respected Syriac Orthodox bishop of Adıyaman, His Eminence Gregorius Melke Ürek, occasionally conducted a holy service in the Aramaic language there,” he said.

He also said that there are numerous churches, monasteries and other property throughout southeast Turkey that historically belonged to the Aramean (Syriac) people but which have been confiscated by the government.

“Or locals there today have ruined some of them and transformed several others into mosques, culture houses and even stables for animals,” he added.

Messo, who lives in the Netherlands, noted that many former Christian religious sites and places had been used for similar purposes in Europe and reactions depended on the new purpose of the old monuments, as well as on the background of the community that traditionally used these buildings for religious rituals.

Tatul Anuşyan (Tatoul Anoushian), head of the clergymen at the Armenian Patriarchate based in İstanbul, told Sunday’s Zaman that there were mosques and churches in Turkey which now served as museums, like İstanbul’s Aya Sofya (Hagia Sophia), Kariye (Chora) and Aya Irini (Hagia Irene), and Van’s Akdamar.

“Some places of worship are used as museums now, and there are many examples of this in the world,” AnuÅŸyan said. “Sometimes mystic concerts are held in currently functioning places of worship — as long as they don’t cause tension and conflict in society.”

When it comes to the use of Aya Irini for various stage performances, Mihail Vasiliadis, editor-in-chief of Apogevmatini, a weekly Greek newspaper serving the Greek community in İstanbul, said it would be a “sin if the great acoustics” of the church were not benefited from.

“Displaying the creations of humans should not be a sin. Humanity’s efforts to produce and create can be also considered acts of worship,” he said. “But if in a fashion show the bodies of top models are displayed more than the designs, this could be disturbing. Likewise, having a belly dancer at Aya Irini would not be appropriate.”

Vasiliadis added that Anatolia was full of old churches, giving an example from the Cappadocia region — one of Turkey’s most popular tourist destinations — which is home to hundreds of ancient monasteries and churches.

“If an abandoned church will house a homeless person, this is good, but if it will be destroyed by hatred, this is not good,” he said. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs had prepared a report in recent years identifying the number of minorities living in Turkey — which has a population of more than 70 million. According to the report, Turkey hosts 89,000 minorities, including 60,000 Armenians, 25,000 Jews and 3,000 to 4,000 Greeks — most of them living in Ä°stanbul. Those communities were in much larger numbers before political circumstances forced the minorities to leave the country.

26 September 2010, Sunday