Turkey seizes six churches as state property in volatile southeast
The 1,700-year-old Virgin Mary Syriac Orthodox Church in Diyarbakir was one of the churches seized.
World Watch MonitorAfter
10 months of urban conflict in Turkey’s war-torn southeast, the
government has expropriated huge sections of property, apparently to
rebuild and restore the historical centre of the region’s largest city,
But to the dismay of the city’s handful of Christian congregations,
this includes all its Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant churches. Unlike
the state-funded mosques, Turkey’s ancient church buildings – some of
which pre-date Islam – have been managed, historically, by church
The new decision has effectively made the Diyarbakir churches – one
1,700 years old, another built only in 2003 – state property of Turkey,
an Islamic country of 75 million.
Who are the Kurds?
Kurds make up an estimated 20%
southeast is heavily populated by Kurds – an ethnic Muslim group also
extending across Turkey’s borders into Iran, Syria and Iraq, where
Kurdish militias are prominent in all the regional fighting.
Fierce fighting, centring heavily on Diyarbakir, has escalated since
the end of a two-year ceasefire between the Turkish armed forces and the
militants of the Kurdish Workers’ Party (the PKK) in June 2015.
Last autumn, the PKK youth declared self-rule over large parts of the
Diyarbakir district of Sur, digging trenches and building barricades to
keep authorities out. Blanket curfews left the populace under siege for
weeks at a time, causing more than 30,000 to flee the city.
Then in late March, the government announced the “urgent
expropriation” of 6,300 plots of land in the Sur district. Six churches
are now under state control: the Virgin Mary Syriac Orthodox Church, the
Surp (Armenian for “Saint”) Sarkis Chaldean Catholic Church, the
Diyarbakir Protestant Church, the Apostolic Armenian Surp Giragos
Church, an Armenian Catholic church, and the Mar Petyun Chaldean
Churches affected and their historical significance
For much of the past 10 months, the small Christian communities of
Armenians, Assyrians, Chaldeans and Turkish Christian converts have been
unable to access their church buildings in Diyarbakir’s city centre due
to the heavy fighting; several have suffered minor damages.
Few Christian houses of worship exist in Turkey’s southeast. Although
it is the ancestral homeland of Syriacs and Armenians, well over a
million of these ethnic Christians were massacred and sent on death
marches during the final years of the Ottoman Empire at the beginning of
the 20th century.
Diyarbakir’s Surp Giragos Church is the largest Armenian church in the Middle East.
Sitting near the banks of the Tigris River, its large bell tower stands
out as a symbol of Christianity’s once vibrant presence in the region.
First built in the 1600s, Surp Giragos was closed in the 1960s after
the city became depopulated of Armenians. After the diaspora funded $1
million for its renovation, Surp Giragos reopened in 2011.
Very few Armenians still live in Diyarbakir. The church only holds
services for major holidays like Christmas and Easter, when priests fly
in from Istanbul to offer communion. The rest of the year it has
remained open as a tourist attraction.
The new expropriation order, published in the government’s Official
Gazette on 25 March, came from a council of ministers led by Turkish
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The government didn’t
take over these pieces of property in order to protect them. They did so
to acquire them.
The decision was based on Article 27 of Turkey’s Expropriation Law.
According to Fatmagul Sari, the Minister of Environment and Urban
Planning, the decision was made as a “last resort” to protect the area.
In 2010, 330 structures in the Sur neighbourhood were demolished as part
of an urban renewal programme.
The ruling has caused “disquiet” among Armenian, Syriac and Chaldean communities,
according to the Turkish-Armenian daily, Agos. Multiple church
foundations are preparing to appeal the decision. Archbishop Aram
Atesyan of the Armenian Apostolic Church said he has demanded a meeting
with Sari to ask the cabinet to correct the decision.
The Diyarbakir Bar Association is the first group to bring legal
action against the decision. Any appeals must be filed within 60 days.
“Among the expropriated plots, there are structures belonging to
public institutions … and places of worship and residences considered
as historical and cultural heritage,” according to a statement in Agos.
“This decision, which seems to be made by the request of the Ministry of
Environment and Urban Planning without any reason or justification, is
unacceptable within the limits of constitutional order.”
Despite sporadic violence, some of the churches are now beginning to
hold Sunday services once again. But with the Turkish government as the
de facto owner of the properties, they could be closed down at any time.
“They want to destroy the living spaces and houses of the people who
have survived death and massacres in those places,” said Figen
Yuksekdagi, co-chair of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP).
She told a Turkish parliamentary group meeting on 29 March that
nearly 90 per cent of the Sur district had been seized. “Where is the
law and justice in this?” she asked.
Mulling legal action
celebrate the reconsecration of the Surp Giragos Armenian Apostolic
Church in 2011, after it had fallen into serious disrepair. It once
served as the metropolitan cathedral of Diyarbakir.World Watch MonitorGafur
Turkay, a member of the Surp Giragos Foundation, told World Watch
Monitor the government hasn’t told them when the church property would
be returned. He is in discussion with lawyers about taking legal action.
So far the foundation has not taken a public position on the matter.
Turkay is a grandson of a survivor of the Armenian genocide committed
under the Ottoman Empire in 1915-1917. His family accepted Islam to
escape persecution, but he has in recent years re-embraced Christianity
and publicly identifies as an Armenian.
Perhaps most shocking was the expropriation of the Virgin Mary Church
in the Lalabey neighbourhood. The 1,700-year-old Syriac Orthodox church
is of enormous importance to Eastern Orthodoxy. It holds such holy
relics as a piece of the cross and the bones of the apostle Thomas.
Fr. Yusuf Akbulut, the priest of the church, said that he is
currently holding talks with the government to have the church property
According to Adnan Ertem, head of the Directorate of Religious
Foundations, the government seized these properties only to safeguard
the historical district of Sur from further damage. But the authorities
have set no timeline for the return of the church properties to their
respective Christian communities.
Local municipal officials criticised the decision for lacking legal
justification and its potential to cause enormous social and cultural
damage to the city. Cultural heritage director Nevin Soylukaya called on
property owners to take legal action against the government.
That is exactly what one Turkish cleric is thinking of doing. Ahmet
Guvener, pastor of Diyarbakir Protestant Church, is considering opening a
lawsuit. Barring success in Turkish courts, he said he could appeal to
the European Court of Human Rights.
He considers the expropriation move a bid to take over the city’s church buildings.
“The government didn’t take over these pieces of property in order to
protect them. They did so to acquire them,” he told World Watch
Government officials argue that the decision was even-handed, since
mosque properties were also expropriated in the move. These include the
Kursunlu Mosque (an Armenian church converted into an Islamic building
in the 16th century), the famed “four-footed minaret” at the 14th
century Sheikh Matar Mosque, and the 12th century Hazreti Suleyman
But in Turkey, mosques are already state property, since the
government funds their construction and upkeep, and pays the salaries of
To Guvener, the expropriation shows Turkey’s preferential treatment
of its mosques over its churches. He complained that the state is
confiscating Christianity properties that were privately funded by local
communities, while at the same time building large mosques in the
Guvener was referring to the Turkish government’s funding of a
massive mosque near Washington D.C., inaugurated on 2 April during
Erdogan’s visit to the United States. The mosque is constructed in the
style of imperial Ottoman architecture, with two large minarets.