Christians fear losing ancient churches in Turkey after government takeover

The 1,700-year-old Virgin Mary Syriac Orthodox Church in Diyarbakir was one of the churches seized by the Turkish government.(World Watch Monitor)

For centuries, Christians in Turkey, though a minority in the predominantly Muslim country, have maintained and protected their sacred places of worship. These ancient churches are even older than Islam.

Now, Christians in Turkey are fearful that they might lose six of these ancient churches after they were recently taken over by the government. These are the Virgin Mary Syriac Orthodox Church, the Surp (Armenian for "Saint") Sarkis Chaldean Catholic Church, the Diyarbakir Protestant Church, the Apostolic Armenian Surp Giragos Church, an Armenian Catholic church, and the Mar Petyun Chaldean Catholic Church.

Late last month, the Turkish government decided to expropriate 6,300 plots of land in the Sur district, located in Turkey's war-torn southeast.

Fatmagul Sari, the Minister of Environment and Urban Planning, said the state decided to expropriate these huge sections of property as a "last resort" to protect the area after being the site of an armed conflict between the Turkish armed forces and the militants of the Kurdish Workers' Party (the PKK) over the past months.

Gafur Turkay, a member of the Surp Giragos Foundation, however, expressed concern about the fact that the government did not specify a period as to when it will end its takeover of the property, and in effect, the churches.

According to an article on Charisma News, Turkay is discussing with lawyers on possible legal actions that could be taken to make sure that the churches will remain in the care and maintenance of worshippers.

Turkay would not be the first one to raise the issue of the government takeover of this crucial piece of land before the courts. The Diyarbakir Bar Association earlier argued in a complaint it filed that the government's decision to expropriate the area is unjustifiable.

"Among the expropriated plots, there are structures belonging to public institutions ... and places of worship and residences considered as historical and cultural heritage," the lawyers' group said in a statement, as quoted by Charisma News

"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 association added.

Ahmet Guvener, pastor of Diyarbakir Protestant Church, is also considering filing a lawsuit, fearful that he may lose his place of worship.

"The government didn't take over these pieces of property in order to protect them. They did so to acquire them," the pastor said.