Churches are hot news these days in Turkey. Yesterday a mass was held at the Armenian Church of the Holy Cross in the eastern province of Van; some weeks ago a religious service was held outside the Greek Orthodox Monastery of Sümela in Trabzon province. And last week, a group of Greeks from the United States were set to come to Istanbul to pray in the Aya Sofia, the top tourist attraction.
I talk of churches now, but it would be more correct to speak of museums. Because both the Armenian church and the Greek Orthodox monastery as well as Istanbul’s Aya Sofya are officially museums, belonging to the Turkish state. Officially, it’s not allowed to perform religious ceremonies in museums. So when a believer comes and lights a candle, an official comes an blows it out. That is, unless the state gives special permission for a ceremony, as happened in Sümela, and yesterday in Van. Both places of worship have permission now to have a religious service once a year.
Over the last couple of years, more and more churches have undergone renovations paid for by the Turkish state. The Armenian Church of the Holy Cross in Van was one of them, and across the country other, usually less famous, churches are being saved from total dilapidation. After renovation, they are always turned into a state museum. That’s an easy way to hinder any religious activity and totally control what does and doesn’t happen in religious buildings. What it comes down to is this: churches become a tourist destination, or just a renovated building not many people are interested in. They are considered part of Turkish cultural heritage.
The state never allows a church to get its original purpose back. Or for the building to be officially owned by the religious group that once – generally before the foundation of the Turkish republic in 1923 – had the use of it. On one side, this has to do with the secularism that applies in Turkey: the state controls religion, mosques are owned by the state and Turks follow the state version of Sunni Islam. Other religious foundations are not allowed to legally exist. Neither Christian foundations, nor Muslim ones, which for example causes big problems for the large group of Alevis, a path in Islam.
If the state were to allow Christian congregations to officially exist, then Muslim groups other than the state Islam would also demand rights, and that’s the last thing the secular republic wants. In fact, strict secularists fear that that would be the beginning of the end of the Republic of Turkey as we know it.
On the other hand, allowing churches to function as churches (including the ringing of church bells, mass whenever there is a need for a mass, a cross on top of the dome or tower) brings out fear in some Turks that the places will be used for ‘political reasons’. If the Armenian church in Van gets the right to function fully as a church, there is a good chance it will become a place of pilgrimage. Before the mass killings of Armenians almost a hundred years ago, huge numbers of Armenians lived in the region, and they are all dead or gone now. The church could be used in the efforts of (diaspora) Armenians to get their claims that at the time genocide occurred recognized.
The same goes for the Monastery in Trabzon. Many Greeks lived in the Black Sea Region. During World War I they were subject first of all to ethnic cleansing and later, after the foundation of the Republic of Turkey, to the population exchange between Turkey and Greece. Many so called ‘Pontus Greeks’ left the region when they saw what was happening to Armenians at the time. Reviving the old culture could stir up some historic and nationalist sentiments, both on the Greek and on the Turkish side.
These fears are understandable and not unrealistic, but is that a reason to restrict the freedom of religion? Not in my view. What if the Turkish state and citizens could take the sting out of the whole matter by speaking openly about history in these regions of Turkey? Not only really acknowledge the deaths among Turks around the time of the First World War (yes, there were, that is often forgotten), but also acknowledge that in the end, Turkey was ethnically cleansed. Firstly to try to save the Ottoman Empire and later to build the Turkish nation state. If the members of all communities that used to live in Anatolia and in small numbers still live here, felt that their grievancess were really heard, there would be no need to use sacred places for political purposes.
To come back to Istanbul’s Aya Sofia, mentioned at the beginning of this blog post. Greek-Americans planned to come to pray in the building. They were all ready to come, but the Ministry of Culture made very clear that praying in the building would not be allowed and would be considered a provocation. In the end the group was wise enough to decide not to come. Wise? Yes, wise. Aya Sofia was built as the Cathedral of Constantinople in the sixth century, and was the largest cathedral in the world for about a thousand years. It became a mosque when the Ottomans took over in 1453. The Aya Sofia is of great significance for the history of architecture, for the Byzantine area and for Christianity and Islam. The decision of Atatürk to turn it in a museum in 1936 was the only right one.
Aya Sofia cannot serve as a church anymore, nor as a mosque – as some Muslims would like. Many other old churches in Turkey, and their congregations, would be done more justice though if they could serve their original purpose again. As cultural heritage of the people who used to live on this soil.