ROME — Barely a month after Pope Francis’ Nov. 28-30 visit to Turkey, in which the pontiff pushed President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on religious freedom, the government has given a green light to build a Christian church for the first time in almost a century.
The only problem is, Turkey’s Christians have been down this road before.
The announcement was made Jan. 2 by Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu after a three-hour meeting with Turkish religious leaders in Istanbul. Davutoglu reportedly said, “We do not consider any religious or cultural tradition as an outsider.”
The permission applies to a new church structure for Turkey’s burgeoning Syriac Christian community, most of whom are refugees fleeing ISIS forces in their home nation. The cost for the project is estimated at $1.5 million.
Syriac-speaking Christians compromise several traditions within Eastern Christianity, united by the use of a language related to Aramaic, the tongue that Bible scholars believe was spoken by Jesus.
Davutoglu said the permit to build a new church, which he called a “first” since the creation of the Turkish republic in 1923, is important “in the context of equal citizenship.”
Since becoming an official secular state, Turkey would sometimes grant permits for existing churches to be expanded or remodeled, but not to build new ones.
More than 20,000 Syriac Christians live in Istanbul. Without any official church of their own, the parishioners worship in rented Catholic buildings located throughout the city.
Although Pope Francis’ visit to Turkey may have contributed to the breakthrough, there’s a long way to go for this announcement to become a clear sign of an improvement for the day-to-day reality of Turkey’s Christian population.
The building of a church for Syriac Christians was first announced in 2011, when after two years of tussling and hairsplitting, the community secured approval from Erdoğan, who at the time was prime minister, and then-President Abdullah Gül.
Both in 2011 and this time around, when the announcements were made of approval for the building project, no location was disclosed other than the general neighborhood.
In 2012, Istanbul’s city government granted the Syriac Orthodox a plot to build a house of worship, but the Christians rejected the offer on the grounds that the allotted property was a Catholic cemetery and should be returned to its rightful owner.
They insisted on a separate plot to build the church, but no offer was ever forthcoming. As a result, the church was never built, making some Christians in Turkey skeptical that things will be different this time.
Turkey’s Syriac Orthodox population is rapidly growing as a result of the more than 1 million Syrian refugees that are currently in Istanbul and other metropolitan areas waiting for a permanent relocation outside of Muslim-majority country.
Turkey’s constitution protects the right to freedom of belief, the right not to believe in anything, and the right to change one’s belief.
In practice, however, those who profess a religion different from the Sunni Islam patronized by the state are often discriminated against when looking for a job, applying to a school, or running for public office. The Turkish ID card includes religion as personal information, so each person’s religious affiliation is a matter of public knowledge.
Minority rights and religious freedom are one of several sticking points in negotiations with the European Union about Turkey becoming a member.
The closure of the Orthodox seminary of Halki since 1971 has become a symbol of the difficulties still to be overcome, and is often cited by Human Rights observers as religious freedom indicator.
Halki was once among the most important centers of learning and culture in the Orthodox world, and its closure seriously limits the ability of the Patriarchate of Constantinople to shape new generations of clergy.