The Turkish government has seized control of the last six Christian churches in the war-torn southeastern region and made them state property in what many see as a continuing war on religious freedom.
The order was given by Turkish President Recep Erdogan’s council of ministers, and includes every Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant church in Diyarbakir, including one 1,700-years-old that pre-dates Islam.
The council of ministers has vowed to protect, rebuild, and restore the seized churches, but the Christian population of the city fears the government means to take control of their religion, Pastor Ahmet Guvener told World Watch Monitor.
“The government didn’t take over these pieces of property in order to protect them. They did so to acquire.”
— Cliff Pickover (@pickover) April 23, 2016
Turkey, with a population of some 75 million, is 98 percent Muslim, has been battling Kurdish militants in the region for the last 10 months, and the fighting has heavily damaged the historical region of the town.
Christian worshipers have been unable to gain access to their churches for several months because of the heavy fighting, but services have begun again as the faithful gather to pray for peace.
The order to seize the Christian churches puts those newly renewed services at risk and makes it all but impossible to affect much needed repairs, Figen Yuksekdagi, co-chair of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party, told World Watch Monitor.
“They want to destroy the living spaces and houses of the people who have survived death and massacres in those places.”
— Doloroso (@Pynnha108) April 23, 2016
Local Christian worshippers and their leaders are outraged at the seizure, which they consider illegal, and have promised to fight the order in the country’s courts, Pastor Guvener told the Express.
Local worshippers point to the state’s funding of area mosques as proof of religious inequality and question the government’s right to seize their religious structure’s for state property. The Christian community in Turkey has vowed to fight the order with every legal means at their disposal.
“Among the expropriated plots, there are structures belonging to public institutions… and places of worship and residences considered as historical and cultural heritage.
“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.”
The Turkish southeast is populated predominantly by Kurds, an ethnic Muslim group whose reach extends past the border into Iran, Syria, and Iraq, where Kurdish militias are engaged in heavy fighting.
Obama BFF Turkish President Erdogan Seizes Six Christian Churches https://t.co/9OuzO5AKTe 1,700-year-old Virgin Mary Syriac Orthodox Church
— Joe McKinley (@bartmckinley) April 17, 2016
Last year, militants from the Kurdish Workers Party seized control of large parts of the Diyarbakir district, heavily damaging the historical center; a two year ceasefire had been in effect.
The state-sanctioned seizure of the last six Christian churches in Diyarbakir is only the latest concerning development coming out of hardline Turkey which is deep in talks with the European Union over visa-free travel, Ted Cruz foreign policy advisor Victoria Coates told the Express.
“What’s happening in southern Turkey is all too typical in the Middle East today, as ancient Christian communities are displaced and persecuted by sectarian violence. The government of Turkey should move swiftly to return these churches to their rightful owners, and not take advantage of the situation to seize them permanently.”
[Photo by Carsten Koall/Getty Images]