Against a background of political upheavals, including a failed coup against Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and a referendum on increased presidential powers, the outlook is bleak for the country’s Christian community. Anglican Canon Ian Sherwood, who has been chaplain to the British consulate and shepherded the Crimean Memorial Church in Istanbul for more than a quarter of a century, summed up the mood of the country’s churches when he said: “I’m not optimistic about the plight of Christians in Turkey. Bear in mind we’ve had a Roman Catholic Bishop murdered [Luigi Padovese in 2010], we’ve had clergy threatened, we’ve had one priest murdered 10 years ago [Fr Andrea Santoro]. Any Christian leader, if they’re being honest, would say that some of what’s going on is quite alarming.”
Despite some positive moves during the last period under examination (2013-15), when minority groups were invited to apply for properties seized by the government to be returned or compensation granted for the land, there has been a fresh spate of property seizures during the current period under examination and on a massively increased scale. It was reported by the Agos newspaper that at least 100 Syriac Christian properties in Mardin have been transferred to the state over the past five years. Around 50 properties belonging to the Syriac Orthodox Church in Mardin were seized following a municipal reordering, on the grounds that their title deeds had expired. Among the property taken were two functioning monasteries built around 1,500 years ago, including the fifth-century Mor Gabriel, one of the oldest working monasteries in the world. Kuryakos Ergun, the chairman of the Mor Gabriel Monastery Foundation said: “Our churches and monasteries are what root Syriacs in these lands; our existence relies on them. They are our history and what sustains our culture. While the country should be protecting this heritage, we instead see our culture is at risk.” One analysis saw this seizure as symptomatic of deeper problems for the Christian minority, and a statement from the Assyrian Confederation of Europe said: “This act of confiscation is a grave violation of … human and cultural rights… serving as a stark contrast to the image Turkey has projected in recent years as a Muslim country tolerant of non-Muslims and minority groups in general.”
But the Mardin appropriations were not the only major seizure of churches and in April 2016 authorities declared six churches and Church-owned plots in Diyarbakir to be state property. While the council of ministers claimed the move formed part of plans to rebuild the city centre following heavy fighting between Turkish military and armed militants from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, Christians expressed fears that property would not be returned. The Christians strenuously challenged state assertions that the seizure of Church property was connected to the reconstruction of the city centre following localised fighting. A number of property disputes are ongoing and it is notable that 2016 marked the 45th anniversary of the Greek Orthodox seminary of Halki, on the island of Heybeli, being seized by the state. Despite dialogue between the current government and the Church on the issue, it remains closed. While often localised, the issue of land seizure is nevertheless particularly indicative of a worsening situation for local Christian Churches in many parts of the country.
While the country’s constitution is based on the French model of laïcité, “[u]nder the Turkish interpretation of secularism, however, the state has pervasive control over religion and denies full legal status to all religious communities.” The state religious affairs directorate, the Diyanet, oversees all aspects of religion. All jobs related to religion (teachers of religion, ministers, etc.) depend on the department for their appointments, training and salaries. This extends to Christian communities, even though constitutionally its role is described as “to execute the works concerning the beliefs, worship, and ethics of Islam, enlighten the public about their religion, and administer the sacred worshipping places” (Italics mine). Christians and Jews are not represented on the Diyanet. Christians are not allowed to train ministers in the country, meaning communities are forced to send students abroad or rely on foreign ministers. However, there has been a government crackdown on foreign ministers with long-term residence in Turkey, as seen in the case of Rev Andrew Brunson, who was detained in October 2016 (see incidents below).
In the sphere of education, controversy continues to surround the ‘Religious, Cultural and Moral Knowledge’ course for primary and secondary schools, which has been made compulsory by the government. Although non-Muslim students can be exempted, this often necessitates disclosing their religion affiliation, thereby causing social ostracism. In February 2017, the government responded to concerns that the course showed favouritism towards Islam to the detriment of other faiths by announcing that a more balanced approach would be put in place.
Perhaps the clearest symbol of the tensions in Turkish society between pluralism and Islamisation has been the proposal to make the historic Hagia Sophia into a mosque again. Built as a Greek Orthodox church in 537AD, it was converted into a mosque after the fall of Constantinople in 1453, before becoming a museum in 1935 when the new republic was declared. On the anniversary of the fall of Constantinople in both 2016 and 2017 members of the Nationalist Anatolian Youth Association prayed in front of Hagia Sophia and demanded that the building be “reconverted” into a mosque. In April 2015 the Qur’an was proclaimed in Hagia Sophia for the first time in 85 years at the launch event for an exhibition of Islamic calligraphic work, and this was followed in June 2016 by the recitation of the Qur’an every day through Ramadan for broadcast on the state religion channel run by the Diyanet. According to a statement by Greek politicians Dora Bakoyanni and Ioannis Kefalogiannis, the Ramadan programme “virtually transformed it into a mosque for the first time in 80 years. It is a provocative and incomprehensible act and shows disrespect against Orthodox Christians across the world…”