Christian Belief in Turkey – part II: Conversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque
Over the past decade, Turkey has frequently used rhetoric that disparages Christians living in the country, and the most important belief center of the Greek Orthodox Church, Hagia Sophia, is abused to serve political purposes.
The Turkish government has already recognized Hagia Sophia, and in particular the status of the Greek Patriarch of Istanbul while the Turkish authorities have officially recognized the seminary in Heybeliada.
They often used Hagia Sophia as an element of provocation in their disagreements with Greece in the Aegean. During the "maritime border" crisis that erupted between the two countries in 2021 over oil and gas exploration permits in the Aegean Sea, Hagia Sophia was converted into a mosque through particular pressure from junior government partner and Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) leader Devlet Bahceli.
Hagia Sophia served as a museum for 86 years in the history of the Republic of Turkey before officially opening as a mosque on July 24, 2020 for Friday prayers, performed under the name of Ayasofya-i Kebir Cami-i Serifi (Hagia Sophia Grand Mosque).
To this end, all the sensitive demands of international and Greek society were ignored. Among these demands was the proposal that this place of worship be used as a common faith center for Christians and Muslims.
In order to appreciate the concern of Christian communities regarding their future in Turkey, it is necessary to mention the increase in attacks on places of worship in recent years. Curses and threatening messages written on the walls of churches in Istanbul in the last five years have increased the anxiety of Christian citizens, of whom there are very few left in Turkey.
To name a few examples:
On February 14, 2020, the cross on the grave of Zehra Colak, recently buried in the cemetery of St. Mary's Catholic Church in Trabzon, was found burned. Those who attended the funeral reported that a small group of people had shouted provocative slogans (“takbir”) during the ceremony. The suspects in the burning cross were taken into custody and later released following an investigation into the incident.
On May 8, 2020, an unknown person attempted to set fire to the front door of the Dznunt Surp Asdvadzadzin Armenian Church in Bakırkoy, Istanbul. The board of the foundation immediately filed a complaint with the police. After reviewing the footage, the suspect was identified, detained and taken to the police station. Suspect M.K., who reportedly declared "I burned it because they were the ones who brought the Corona virus upon us" in his statement, was referred to the court after further interrogation.
On May 23, 2020, a person removed the cross from the door of the Surp Krikor Lusavoric Armenian Church in Kuzguncuk, Istanbul. After the incident was reported to the security authorities, the suspect was arrested, but was later released. He was rearrested following an appeal from the prosecutor's office before he was finally released on condition of judicial supervision on May 29.
On July 14, 2020, at the 64th Istanbul Criminal Court of First Instance in Kartal, the offender was sentenced to one year and four months imprisonment for "damaging places of worship and cemeteries" but he was granted release in consideration of the nature and character of the offence. In the reasoned decision prepared in connection with the verdict, it was noted that the defendant's act was carried out with the aim of humiliating the segment of society that embraced the religious belief in question, and his sentence was increased accordingly. 2021 has also witnessed similar attacks.
In particular, as growing tensions in the Karabakh region between Turkey's closed border neighbors Armenia and Azerbaijan escalated into open conflict, hate speech and crimes against Christian Armenians in Turkey increased.
Threatening messages recalling the 1915 genocide were written on the doors of Armenian schools and churches. The community was terrorized by loud nighttime military marches in neighborhoods where Armenians lived. Consequently, thousands of Christians who came from Armenia to work in Turkey returned to Armenia. Due to the climate of fear in Turkey, officials at the Armenian Foreign Ministry's passport office stated that more than one thousand applications for citizenship from ethnic Armenians in Turkey have been received in the past five years. An unknown number of them have also fled to the EU and the US. The situation of the Protestant community in Turkey is not much different.
The Association of Protestant Churches released a report in 2021 which states that "offers of informing/spying on members of the Protestant community and non-Christians working in Christian institutions" have continued.
"It has been reported that in many cities with a Protestant community, individuals presenting themselves as intelligence officers have made offers to local and refugee Christians to become informants/agents, through threats, promises, favors and offers of money, in order to obtain information on Christian persons, churches, church activities and Christian organizations. This information comes from individuals who have been offered to become informants/spies. Open channels of communication should be created instead of such spying practices," the statement concluded.
Inability to train clergy
Another major problem of the Christian communities in Turkey is the inability to train religious servants. We have already referred to the fact that the status of the Heybeliada seminary, the only school for training religious officials in the Greek community, has been used by the Turkish state as a bargaining chip against Greece.
The legal status of the school is not recognized by the state, and therefore the school cannot provide active service.
The Assyrian and Armenian communities also do not have an active school for the training of their clergy. The Surp Hac Tibrevank, an Armenian school founded in 1678 for this purpose, cannot train clergy, as its status was revoked in the 1980s. As such, Christians who intend to train as clergymen have no choice but to study abroad, which implies that they cannot invoke their de facto constitutional rights.
Another inconvenience arising from this situation is that the eligibility of students who went to study abroad and then returned to work in Turkey is informally subject to the approval of the Turkish authorities.
A particular example of this practice took place when the Armenian community struggled for five years to be able to elect a new patriarch due to the illness of Patriarch Mesrob II, but was unable to hold an election in a manner consistent with the Church's traditions.
The Armenians' patriarchal election was bound by a charter in the Ottoman Empire. To this day, however, the Republic of Turkey has granted the Armenian community permission to elect their patriarchs through temporary regulations at election times. They used these regulations to interfere in the religious affairs of the community. In a sense, they would not issue the relevant regulation without a candidate of their choice running to win. The last Patriarch of Armenians in Turkey, Mashalian, was finally elected via this sort of regulation (2019).
Priest Aho Incident
Sefer (Aho) Bilecen, a priest of Assyrian Church of Saint Jacob in Nisibis, was detained and arrested in house raids in rural areas of Nusaybin district along with ten other people on January 9, 2020. Following public reactions, Priest Aho was released five days later under condition of judicial control, and giving regular signatures at a police station. The investigation launched against him revealed that in 2019 he allegedly provided food to two guerrillas who approached him in his monastery in 2018 and asked him for food. Indicted for "membership in a terrorist organization," he was sentenced to two years and one month for "aiding and abetting a terrorist organization." Priest Aho's case is currently on appeal. He now denies his earlier statement during the inquiry in which he allegedly stated "In 2018, two members of the 'organization' came to the monastery. They asked me for something to eat and I gave it to them. I didn't do it to help any organization, but because of my faith." He still has to go to the nearest police station once a week to give his signature.
The problem of the pending elections of minority foundations in Turkey
The minority places of worship in Turkey are each administered by a foundation. Under the auspices of these foundations, most of them established during the Ottoman period by a "firman", a decree of the sultan, each community held its own elections within it.
However, since the legal personality of the foundations was not fully formalized after the establishment of the republic, minority communities often have to face problems, both in electing their religious leaders and in holding elections for the administration of their schools and churches.
This situation, in which the state has circumvented the actual issue at every turn in its history by enacting provisional regulations regarding specific elections, led to the resignation in 2013 of the first minority foundation representative on the General Directorate of Foundations, Laki Vingas. However, Vingas was later persuaded to remain in his position and continued to work towards a solution. Unfortunately, no solution to the problem has been provided from 2013 to the present day.
A temporary solution to the problem of minority foundation elections for the past nine years has been devised by a decree published in the Official Gazette on June 18.
With this regulation, the election coordination of minority foundations is officially linked to the general directorate of foundations. On the other hand the relations between the minority foundations defined by the Treaty of Lausanne in Turkey and the state depend on the Ministry of Culture and Tourism.
The regulation, which took nine years to draft, was published without prior notice to foundation administrators and entitles foundations to vote for a board even if it is against their wishes, while the antiquity in the regulation raises concern. The regulation allows a representative of a minority community to serve as executive director for up to three foundations at a time. This could mean that the entire remnant Greek community, which currently numbers only a little more than a thousand citizens, would have to serve as executive directors for hundreds of foundations throughout the country. On the other hand, the electoral boards to be formed for the elections should have a different composition than the executive board candidates (by at least five people).
In addition, to be elected to the board of a foundation, one must have lived for at least six months in the constituency in which the foundation is registered. This may result in minorities, of which the majority are Istanbul residents, not being able to find a constituency outside Istanbul, which may also lead to confusion itself with its four constituencies. By establishing that the management of foundations must obtain a "certificate of authorization" from the provincial governor after the election results, the regulation may imply that those elected must be endorsed by the state. This may also entail that the state authority may deny authorization to foundation managers when it deems that they do not behave themselves.
When it comes to the freedom of faith of Christians in Turkey, it is unfortunately not possible to get out of the shadow of the political climate. While a clergy can be sentenced to jail, the incitement of hate speech against Christians in society leads to future hate crimes as well. Moreover, a large section of the Christian community lives in fear and refrains from freely practicing their religious traditions.
Part I: Freedom of belief for Cristians in Turkey