Turkey Allows Construction of First New Church in Nearly a Century

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A Syriac church in Turkey By Doron (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons
Whether looking to score points with the European Union, or striving to recreate a golden age of Ottoman benevolence, Turkey’s ruling party has announced the construction of Turkey’s first new Christian church in nearly a century.

The church, to be built in Ye?ilköy on the European side of Istanbul, will belong to the neighborhood’s Syriac Christians, who number about 17,000. Parishioners will pay for construction themselves, but the land will be allocated by the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality.

With Latin-Rite, Greek, and Armenian churches, the Christian presence in Ye?ilköy is unusually strong, and dates back to Byzantine times. Local legend once held that a ship carrying the relics of St. Stephen, the Church’s first martyr, was forced to dock there during a storm. To honor the saint, the village was named Aghios Stefanos after the saint. It acquired its current name, which means “Green Town,” in 1926.

Plans for construction go back several years. Permission was initially granted in October of 2011, following what Hurriyet Daily News calls “years of tussling and hair-splitting.” Even then, however, Syriac leaders and Istanbul municipal authorities proved unable to agree on a location. In the meantime, Syrac worshippers rented existing churches – including St. Stephen Catholic Church – for their Sunday Masses.

Since its rise to power following Turkey’s 2002 general elections, the Justice and Development Party, or AKP, has been making Christian-friendly gestures with a certain regularity. In 2005, Turkish then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdo?an, who won the country’s presidency in August of 2014, joined with Jorge Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, then Spain’s Prime Minister, in forming the Alliance of Civilizations. Erdo?an has also promised to restore properties seized from Christian communities following a 1936 census.

In November of 2014, Erdo?an greeted Pope Francis with a cannon salute and escorted him, past an honor guard, into the presidential palace. In the same month, Prime Minister Ahmet Davuto?lu named journalist Etyen Mahçupyan, a Turkish citizen of Armenian ethnicity who was raised Catholic, to serve as his senior adviser

Perhaps hinting at one motive for this conciliatory mood, Davuto?lu told the media last month that Turkey still aims to play “in Europe’s first division.” But his party’s vision for the future takes a good part of its inspiration from the country’s Ottoman past. Davuto?lu has made “restoration” into something of a catchphrase, proclaiming, “We need to embrace fully values that we have lost” over “the new identities that have been thrust upon us in the modern era.”

A government spokesman cast the construction of Ye?ilköy’s new Syriac church as an act of restoration, telling Agence-France Presse that it will be the first new church since the foundation of the Turkish Republic. “Churches have been restored and reopened to the public, but no new church has been built until now,” the spokesperson said.

In a recent Pew survey, the percentage of Turks reporting a favorable opinion of Christians was smaller than the percentage of Christian-friendly Pakistanis, Egyptians, or Jordanians. Part of the animosity dates back to the period following the First World War, when Christian Allied nations made claims on Turkish territory. The Allied powers’ defeat by the Turkish National Movement under the future Atatürk played a large role in forming the modern Turkish political consciousness.

In a meeting last Friday with Istanbul’s religious leaders, Davuto?lu tried, once again, to re-direct the popular imagination to an earlier time. Reminding the gathering that Syriac Christianity has a long tenure in Turkey, he said that “no faith that has lived in the country could be regarded as foreign.”