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Why Are 700 Greeks Praying In a Turkish Hotel?

Despite the Turkish government’s drive to renovate ancient churches, many religious shrines remain off-limits to Turkey’s non-Muslim communities.

There is a small town on Turkey’s western Aegean coast, called Ayvalik. On Sept. 29, a striking photo from this town hit the newspapers. A local hotel was hosting a religious service, attended by 700 clerics who came from various Greek islands.

Those familiar with the historic tensions between Turkey and Greece could assume that the clerics prayed in Ayvalik in a show of defiance. The actual story, however, is quite different, offering a good perspective of how much religious freedom non-Muslims enjoy in Turkey.

The clerics had in fact come to Ayvalik to hold a religious service at the local Taxiarchis Orthodox Church. But as they failed to obtain the “required” permission from the authorities, they had to make a last-minute arrangement and pray at a hotel.

Let’s see how things unfolded, as reported in the Taraf daily: “When the governor’s office denied them permission for a service at the Taxiarchis Church in Ayvalik, the 700 Greeks decided to book the conference hall of a hotel. The service, held in the conference hall of the Halic Park Hotel in Ayvalik, was attended by a total of 700 people, including 400 from the island of Lesbos and 300 from Athens, Crete and elsewhere. The Greek consul in Izmir, Theodore Tsakiris, a parliament member from Lesbos and the Orhomenos mayor also attended the service. A member of the Greek Orthodox community in Turkey, who requested anonymity, told Taraf : ‘Back in April, we applied to hold a service at the Taxiarchis Church on Sept. 29. We waited six months for a reply. The rejection came only three days before the scheduled service date. Why did they wait for six months? We believe they did so deliberately. Concerts are being organized in the church where we want to pray. It is hard to understand why our religious service becomes a problem while concerts are allowed to be held in the church.”

The Taraf story contains also the following information: “The Ecumenical Patriarchate in Istanbul applied to the governor’s office in April for a permission for a religious service on Sept. 29 at the Taxiarchis Church, which has a ‘museum’ status. The governor’s office, in turn, sought an approval from the Ministry of Culture and Tourism. The ministry rejected the request on the grounds that ‘the Taxiarchis Church does not figure in the 2000 catalogue of churches where religious services could be held.’”

You may already be confused. Why has a church become a museum? Why does worshipping in a church require the permission of administrative authorities? Why do Greek clerics hold prayers in Turkey?

Let’s start with the last question. The Greek Orthodox patriarchate in Istanbul is an ecumenical patriarchate, according to the title it uses. The title signifies a declaration that the ecumenical patriarch is the spiritual leader of all Orthodox Christians in the world, just as the pope is for Catholics. Even though some Orthodox churches do not recognize the patriarch’s authority, many others around the world accept the patriarchate in Istanbul as their universal spiritual leadership.

Turkey, however, refuses to recognize the patriarchate’s ecumenical title. Officially, the patriarchate is considered to be the religious institution of the Greek community in Istanbul, which has today dwindled to 3,000 people.

Since the Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power, restrictions on the patriarchate have been eased to a certain degree, but measures that would meet the genuine needs of the institution have never materialized. A decision to reopen the Halki Theological School was removed at the last minute from the democratization package that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan unveiled on Monday, Sept. 30. The seminary is vital for raising future patriarchs.

This brief explanation should have made it clear why 700 Orthodox Greeks would come to Turkey for a religious service. They did so on the call of their spiritual leader to pray in a church which is historically theirs.

Like many other churches, the Taxiarchis Church, built in 1844, has lost its bond with the patriarchate over the years. Until recently, Turkey’s Orthodox Christians were unable to use their ancient churches. And this was true not only for Greek Orthodox churches, but also for churches and synagogues that historically belong to the Armenian and Jewish communities. Many such shrines across Turkey were left abandoned and dilapidated.

Under a 2010 decision, the AKP government reopened some of those ancient churches to worship. The examples include the Sumela Monastery in the Black Sea province of Trabzon and the Armenian Akhtamar Church on the island with the same name in Lake Van, eastern Turkey. As the Ministry of Culture and Tourism renovated the shrines, many wondered who their proprietors would be once the restoration was finished. The churches were then declared to be “museums,” and thus the ministry became their proprietor. Then, the shrines were opened to worship only once every year. Hence, Turkey’s Armenians and Greeks had to suffice with one-day yearly permissions to pray in the churches that belonged to them in the past.

Some shrines, meanwhile, were allocated for other purposes after restoration. According to the Norwegian Helsinki Committee, the Surp Pirgic Church in Diyarbakir, southeast Turkey, became a center to “teach women manual skills” after it was renovated by the Directorate-General of Foundations.

Similarly, the synagogue in Gaziantep, southeast Turkey, was renovated by the Directorate-General of Foundations, and then rather than being returned to the Jewish community, it was handed over to Gaziantep University to be used as a “culture museum.”

The Hagia Sophia Church in Trabzon, on the other hand, became a museum first, and was then opened to worship in June — as a mosque.

The Taxiarchis Church, where the 700 Greeks wanted to pray, was also renovated by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, on a budget of 3 million Turkish lira (about $1.5 million). While the renovation was under way, there was talk that the church would attract a major wave of “faith tourism” to the district.

The latest incident, however, demonstrates that “faith tourism” is unwelcome, and that, when it comes to Christians, Turkey can never shrug off its prejudices. The incident, which coincided with Erdogan’s “democratization package,” is a clear indication that democratization should first take place in one's mentality. 

Orhan Kemal Cengiz is a human rights lawyer, columnist and former president of the Human Rights Agenda Association, a Turkish NGO that works on human rights issues ranging from the prevention of torture to the rights of the mentally disabled. Since 2002, Cengiz has been the lawyer for the Alliance of Turkish Protestant Churches.

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