Thursday, December 29, 2011

Historical Armenian Church re-opens in Istanbul

Built in 1828, but abandoned 100 years ago, during the conflict between Armenia and the Ottoman Empire, its restoration was part of Istanbul's 2010 European capitol of Culture's heritage and preservation projects.

Yet under the current political air, the re-opening of an Armenian Church has even greater significance. Turkey's current dispute with France over their government's approval of the “Armenian bill” has thrown Turkey's relations with its Armenian population under the spotlight.

Turkey says the deaths of Armenians under the Ottoman Empire during World War 1, was a “fight between two good friends” and to recognize them as otherwise is reactionary.

But Turkish Armenians and 20 countries around the world, including France, don't see it that way.

The killing/murder of Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink in 2007 by Ogün Samast, a 17-year old Turkish nationalist, shows how fragile that friendship is.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Christians in Turkey festively celebrate Christmas

The thousands of Christians in Turkey began their Christmas celebrations on Dec. 24, and several religious ceremonies were held in different churches as political figures like the president and prime minister issued holiday messages.
İstiklal Street was the center of activity where Christians gathered together to spend the evening. Some joined parties while many others went to church to pray.

Many Catholics celebrated Christmas with a religious service on the night of Dec. 24 at St. Antuan Church on İstiklal Street. The evening Christmas Eve service commemorates the fact that Jesus was born at night, more than 2,000 years ago.

Along with Christians, Muslims also visited the church that evening to watch the service. After singing hymns, bread spread with butter and marmite was distributed to visitors.

On Friday, President Abdullah Gül issued a Christmas message. Emphasizing that traditions and customs that have evolved over the centuries tie citizens together, Gül said in the message that “our values such as solidarity, good faith and compassion that also reflect the spirit of Christmas form the most valuable part of our common heritage. In this sense, I wish our citizens of all Christian traditions and the entire Christian world a Merry Christmas, lots of happiness and much success.”

Another ceremony was held at the Fener Greek Patriarchate on Sunday morning, Christmas Day.

Along with local Orthodox Christians, hundreds of Orthodox Christians from different provinces of Turkey and abroad attended the service led by Greek Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew. The service began at 9 a.m. in the Aya Yorgi church located in the garden of the Fener Greek Patriarchate.

Guests took photo of themselves in front of the decorated Christmas tree in the garden.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said on Saturday that "we have lived on this soil together by sharing a common destiny and history and displaying tolerance, respect and understanding for each other."

In his Christmas message, Erdoğan said the residents of Turkey continue to live together as equal citizens and in unity.

“I believe that the spirit of unity and the climate of mutual love and respect will get stronger in the future. With these thoughts, I wish all Christians a happy Christmas in tranquility and in peace,” Erdoğan said.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Istanbul allocates some EUR 1,2 million for Saint Stephen church restoration

The municipality of Istanbul has allocated about TRY 2,5 million, or EUR 1,2 million, for the restoration of the Bulgarian church there Saint Stephen, architect Vasil Kitov, a Bulgarian observer of the repair and restoration works in the church, said in an interview with FOCUS News Agency.
However, it might turn out that the money will not be enough. My colleagues in Istanbul have told me that if more money is necessary for the restoration, it will not be a problem for the local authorities to approve it, he added.
He also said that a Bulgarian campaign is raising money for the restoration of the church’s iconostasis.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

İnanç Özgürlüğü Girisimi (Türkiye) / Freedom of Religion or Belief Initiative in Turkey

New blog to read
My friend's wife has started an excellent new blog on the subject of religious freedom in Turkey. Most of the articles are in Turkish, but she often writes a summary in English at the bottom of each article. I will be highlighting certain posts from time to time, but this blog would make an excellent add to your feed list.

Turkey Uncovers Al-Qaida Plot To Bomb Churches

Suspected members of terror group al-Qaida faced additional charges Saturday, December 10, including planning to bomb churches in the capital Ankara, Turkish media reported.

About a dozen militants who are already accused of planning to attack the United States Embassy in the capital had also plotted to target churches and Turkey's parliament, said the influential Taraf daily, which claimed to have seen the indictments against 11 alleged militants.

It said police also seized plans how to target the parliament building and a list of churches as well as names and home addresses of church staffers in Ankara.

Besides chapels on Ankara’s British, French, Greek, Italian and Vatican embassy grounds, the capital city has several international churches and some Turkish Protestant congregations.

Those mentioned are among 14 suspected al-Qaida militants police detained in a series of raids across western Turkey in July. They included alleged al-Qaida members with 700 kilograms of explosives, officials said.

Turkish officials said at the time that the militants were almost ready to attack the embassy when they were captured in July, just ahead of a visit to the nation by U.S.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

The additional planned bombing of churches is the latest in a series of sometimes deadly violence against Christians in this heavily Islamic nation.

Saturday, December 03, 2011

Turkey: Mystery Surrounds Decision to Turn Byzantine Church Museum into a Mosque |

In its 1,700-year-old history, Hagia Sophia in the northwestern town of Iznik has witnessed many turning points. In 787, as a Byzantine church, it housed the Second Council of Nicaea, which restored the veneration of icons to Christianity. After the Ottoman conquest of the area, Hagia Sophia in 1331 was turned into a mosque, only to be destroyed in 1922 by the Greek army during the Greco-Turkish War.

Then, this November 6, the building, a museum and popular Iznik tourist destination, underwent its latest transformation: It officially reopened as a mosque.

The first call to prayer had resounded from its minaret five days earlier, on the evening of November 1. With a new wooden floor, carpets and a sound system for the minaret, Hagia Sophia was opened to Muslim worshippers during Kurban Bayrami, the Festival of Sacrifice, a four-day Islamic holiday that commemorates Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son, Ishmael, at God’s command.

But a day after the holidays, the mosque remained half-empty during noon prayers. Hagia Sophia’s latest transformation has created controversy not only among archeologists, historians and politicians, but also among local residents.

“There are so many mosques in the city and around here,” said Irfan Karaman, who runs a small restaurant across from the Byzantine building. “In my opinion, it was utterly unnecessary to turn the Hagia Sophia into one as well.”

He claimed that many people in Iznik feel similarly. “Before it was seven lira (about $3.83) to enter,” Karaman added, laughing. “At least now it’s free. It looks like our religion is cheaper than yours!”

Historian and documentary filmmaker Ömer Tuncer, also an Iznik resident, agrees. “This is a question of respect. What would Muslims say if the Al-Aqsa Mosque [in Jerusalem] was turned into a church now? The Hagia Sophia in Iznik is an important symbol in Christian faith, a place of pilgrimage,” Tuncer said. “It is clear that a building like this needs to be protected as a museum.”

Acknowledgements of Turkey’s Islamic heritage and beliefs have become more frequent in recent years, but the conversion of Iznik’s Hagia Sofia does not appear to stem from any government policy by the ruling, Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party. Although the changeover from a museum has sparked national debate, the decision is seen as locally rooted. Attendants at Hagia Sophia, however, declined to speak with about the mosque opening.

Those siding with the conversion project argue that Hagia Sophia has never been a museum. “This historical building was used as a mosque for 680 years, and has been in disrepair ever since 1922,” Adnan Ertem, head of the central government’s Directorate of Religious Foundations, asserted to Turkish media. “To hear the Muslim call to prayer in this house of worship made us all happy.”

Apparently, the entrance fee charged to tourists in the past escaped the notice of Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arinç, who also maintains that the building “was never a museum.”

“It is possible that it was used as a church in the past,” Arinç told Turkish media. “But ever since the conquest of Bursa [in 1326], it has been used as a mosque.”

However, both the Governorate of Bursa, the administrative district in which Iznik is located, and the Turkish Ministry of Culture and Tourism have listed and promoted the Iznik Hagia Sophia as a museum on their Turkish-language websites.

The explanation could lie in a red-tape loop-hole, Tuncer hypothesized. “Just as with the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, there was never an official law to turn the Hagia Sophia in Iznik into a museum,” he commented. “That is why it is still listed as a mosque with the Directorate of Religious Foundations, but as a museum with the Ministry of Culture.”

After renovation of the building was finished in 2007, the Hagia Sophia was opened as a museum, and the local governorate placed a ticket booth at its entrance. Restaurant owner Karaman fears that the decision to turn the building now into an mosque will negatively impact the tourism sector, an important source of income for many Iznik residents.

Representatives of the Ministry of Culture were not available to comment about the changeover, but Tuncer asserts that “[i]t is up to them to veto this decision, and to protect buildings like this one.”

“When the church was turned into a mosque in 1331, it was a mere symbol of conquest, it happened in many cities,” he continued. “But in our times, this decision seems incomprehensible to me.”

Turkey: Mystery Surrounds Decision to Turn Byzantine Church Museum into a Mosque |