Wednesday, March 14, 2012

How a Funeral Home is Healing the Painful History of Turkish Christians

More than 40 years ago, Kirkor Çapan, an ethnic Armenian, and his father set up what today is one of the last Christian funeral homes still operating in Istanbul. But the funeral parlor is not a religious island unto itself. With so few Christians left in Turkey, the stonemasons and carpenters working with Çapan are Muslim Turks.

"There are no more non-Muslim master craftsmen in my profession," commented stonemason Senol Ekinci, one of Çapan's craftsmen, who has been carving Christian and Jewish tombstones for 35 years.

Standing in the Greek-Orthodox cemetery in the Istanbul neighborhood of Sisli, where he is responsible for the graves' maintenance and renovation, Ekinci explained what drew him to work on non-Muslim tombstones. "These graves here are a bit more elaborate; they require more work and craftsmanship. Turkish tombstones do not necessitate as much effort," Ekinci said. He is particularly proud of making the tombstone for the grave of Lefter Küçükandonyadis, a Turkish football legend of Greek descent who died this year.

Opportunities to work on such tombstones are shrinking. The Turkish government claims that 99 percent of the country's 79.7 million inhabitants are Muslim; and according to official statistics, the country's Christian population has diminished by nearly half since 1965, when it stood at 207,000. The US Department of State's annual Freedom of Religion report puts the numbers of Christians living now in Turkey at approximately 115,000; only 2,500 of which are Greek Orthodox, and 20,000 Armenian Apostolic.

While Çapan serves all Christian denominations, most of his customers are ethnic Armenians. He also has set up a separate funeral home that is now the only Greek Orthodox funeral home left in Istanbul.

Ekinci claims that his friends and family never criticized his choice to craft non-Muslim tombstones. "There used to be a lot of pressure on non-Muslims, but things have much improved in the last 10 years," he said.

He attributes the change to the controversial Ergenekon trial of senior military officers and civilians accused of plotting to overthrow the government of the Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party. "There was much more anti-Christian propaganda before many of the main suspects were arrested, more aggression," he said. "We sense a difference."

Çapan agrees that Christians now feel safer in Turkey. "Turkey has come a long way in this matter," he said.


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