Turkish government takes hold of Christian churches, land in Diyarbakir

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CB Condez
(Reuters/Stringer/Turkey/Sertac Kayar)Armenian Christians pray during an Easter mass at Surp Giragos church in Diyarbakir, in the Kurdish-dominated southeastern Turkey, April 5, 2015.
The Turkish government has seized churches and land in the Kurdish city of Diyarbakir in southeast Turkey, and this has caused alarm among those who reside in the area.

Among the churches that the Turkish government took hold of, according The New York Times, is the historic Armenian church of Surp Giragos, one of the largest Armenian churches in the Middle East. Large parcels of land and other churches were also seized, with the government reportedly saying that it wants to have the area restored.

However, the Armenians and Kurds who live in the area alongside other minority groups deem that the government has a hidden agenda. According to the report, they think that officials intend to build condominiums and other luxury rental places that only the rich can afford.

Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said recently that the Diyarbakir municipality of Sur will become like Toledo, Spain. His office also released a video earlier this month to show their plans.

However, Nora Hovsepian, chairwoman of the Western Region of the Armenian National Committee of America, told NY Times that this is like what happened before the beginning of the the Armenian genocide on April 24, 1915. During that time, she said, properties were confiscated illegally and the people were “displaced under the false guise of temporary relocation for its own protection.”

“The temporary relocation turned out to be death marches and permanent disenfranchisement of two million from their ancestral homeland,” she said.

In 2011, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said during his announcement of their urban renewal plans for Diyarbakir that the government would make the city “into an international tourism destination.” Demolition of old and battered residential buildings in Sur started soon after. However, the report says, since many of the structures are protected, large-scale restoration and construction are not allowed, except when urgent expropriation is declared by the government.

Now that the authorities have done just that — using Article 27 of Turkey’s Expropriation Law as a “last resort” to protect and restore the area that has suffered from violent conflict in the last few years — people are starting to worry. According to the World Watch Monitor, the Virgin Mary Syriac Orthodox Church, the Surp 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 are now also under government control.

“The government wants to seize the heart of Diyarbakir and singularize it, ridding it of its rich multifaith and multicultural structure,” said former mayor Abdullah Demirbas in a phone interview with the NY Times.

Ahmet Guvener, pastor of Diyarbakir Protestant Church, told World Watch Monitor that the Turkish government did not seize the properties in order to protect them.

“They did so to acquire them,” he said.