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Why the Turkish government seized this Armenian church

The Justice and Development Party’s rhetoric and legislation differ on the expropriation of Armenian churches in Sur, causing further frustration among locals and diaspora Armenians.

Turkey has been making drastic decisions in different towns of the majority Kurdish southeast in the past few weeks. On March 21, Turkey's Justice and Development Party (AKP) government hastily passed legislation referred to as “urgent expropriation of the Sur district” of Diyarbakir province. On March 26, the government's Official Gazette announced all the addresses of the properties to be expropriated.

These decisions have been met with local opposition, which has been silenced swiftly. But the Sur situation generated global reactions because of the town's history — so much so that Galip Ensarioglu, a prominent AKP parliamentarian, told the press that the US Embassy had called him asking about the reports. Ensarioglu said the reports amounted to a smear campaign spreading false information about the confiscation process. Others beg to differ.

Indeed, the story of Sur evolves around historic churches and citadels of the town, which are on UNESCO’s World Heritage List. Months of fighting with the Kurdistan Workers Party have left the region in ruins, and ambiguous government statements furthered the frustration of civilians who were obliged to leave their homes. One of the concerned groups is Armenian. About 110 years ago, the region’s population distribution shows Sur was an Armenian majority town.

As aerial images of Sur expropriations started circulating on social media, Armenians all around the world became concerned, particularly about one church that was reopened only in 2011. Soon it became clear that several inalienable religious endowment properties, or waqf, along with the largest Armenian Church, St. Giragos Armenian Apostolic Church, were included on the list. About 82% of the district is estimated to have been expropriated by the government.

Raffi Bedrosyan, a Canadian-Armenian civil engineer and writer who was involved in the reconstruction of St. Giragos, spoke to Al-Monitor about its significance. According to Bedrosyan, St. Giragos is the largest Armenian church in the Middle East. "It dates back to the 14th century, and with several expansions, it served the large Armenian community of 100,000 in Diyarbakir until 1915,” he said.

After the Armenians were forced to leave the city, the church was made to serve different purposes, from an army barracks to a warehouse. Constant attempts to keep it functioning as a church were futile until a waqf foundation was able to reclaim the property.

“In 2009, a newly formed church charitable foundation showed the courage and determination to start reconstruction of [St.] Giragos. With organized fundraising from the Armenian community in Istanbul and worldwide Armenian diasporas, as well as some contribution from the local Kurdish municipal leaders, the church was renovated and opened in 2011, and more than 4,000 people attended,” Bedrosyan said.

He added, “It soon became a spiritual and cultural center for Armenian pilgrims from the diaspora and a meeting place for thousands and thousands of hidden Armenians living in the region, who are the descendants of 1915 orphaned Armenian girls and boys [who were] forcibly Islamized, Kurdified and Turkified. The [St.] Giragos Church Foundation also succeeded in having several properties … restored to church ownership.”

In 2012, Bedrosyan gave a memorable piano concert at the church. The church became a catalyst, bringing Christians and descendants of Armenians from all around the world to Sur, and it also served as a spiritual refuge for hundreds of Islamized Armenian survivors.

Aline Ozinian is a regional analyst for the Armenian Assembly of America and a correspondent for Agos, an Armenian daily published in Turkey. She described for Al-Monitor how the news of expropriation resonated among Armenians.

“First and foremost, it caused a loss of trust of the government. In the early years of the AKP, there was hope for a fresh start because the AKP appeared to be embracing the rhetoric of religious freedom. During the reconstruction process of [St.] Giragos, there was hope that, as citizens of Turkey, Armenians would have an achievement,” Ozinian said. “Yet with this expropriation decision, it is confirmed that this was a cheap illusion. The police mentality that yells at the Kurds ‘You are all Armenians’ has now been institutionalized. The expropriation of [St.] Giragos symbolizes a punishment for both Kurds and Armenians. It is highly probable that the AKP is punishing Armenians, as some Armenians have voted for the pro-Kurdish HDP [Peoples’ Democratic Party].”

The AKP has repeatedly denied expropriating churches. Ensarioglu vehemently rejected expropriation of any of the churches, saying, “We are only here to repair the churches and give them back to the waqfs.” Yet none of the locals seemed convinced by his statements. As the pressure built, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu visited Sur on April 1.

Ozinian said, “Davutoglu’s first task at Sur was to pray at a mosque. This was a message. The church had rejuvenated the Islamized Armenians in the region, encouraging them to investigate their histories. It seems the Turkish government, intolerant toward differences, will resolve all problems by expropriating the church.”

She also emphasized the sudden turn in Turkish press coverage. “During the reconstruction process of the church from 2009 to 2011, the press coverage was extensive. The church was portrayed as a monument of ‘the AKP’s tolerance,’ yet the expropriation news barely made it into the mainstream media, and not to the headlines at all. In 1915, hatred removed and cleansed the Armenians from Sur, and now I fear a similar destiny awaits the Kurds.”

Indeed, Ozinian’s concerns have been repeated by several columnists from the region who say they fear the government plans to empty the region of Kurds and settle Syrian refugees as a buffer zone between Kurdish areas. Another concern is the greed factor. The AKP has prepared a video showing what the future of the historic Sur district would look like. Davutoglu likened it to the reconstructed city of Toledo, Spain. “I told my wife, we should own a house in Sur as well,” he added.

Locals were not satisfied with his words, as prominent columnist Nurcan Baysal penned a searing column titled “Take Toledo for yourself and leave Sur alone.” Garo Paylan, an Armenian member of the HDP, had already submitted an inquiry about the ancient church and has been seeking to halt its expropriation.

Many believe this move by the AKP is another lucrative gentrification project for construction companies belonging to AKP cronies. In the midst of all this, the country's biggest Armenian church appears to have met the same destiny as dozens of others in the region — it has become collateral damage.

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