Turkish president lays foundation stone for country's first new church since 1923

Turkey's President Tayyip ErdoganReuters

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has laid the foundation stone for what is reportedly the first new church building to be constructed in Turkey since it became a republic in 1923. 

The church is being built in Yesilkoy, a suburb of Istanbul, and will serve the 17,000-strong Syriac Christian community there, AFP reports. 

It is being financed by the Syriac Christian community and is expected to be completed in two years. 

At a stone laying ceremony in Istanbul on Saturday, President Erdogan said faith was not a barrier in Turkey and that "this country, this state belongs to everyone".

"It is the Turkish republic's duty to meet the need for space to worship for the Syriac community, who are the ancient children of this geography," he said.

"Anyone who has affection for, contributes to and is loyal to Turkey is a first-class citizen. There are no barriers to anyone in politics, trade or any other area."

Despite his assertion, Turkey has a chequered record when it comes to the treatment of Christians. 

The country ranks 26th on the Open Doors World Watch List of countries where Christians suffer the worst persecution.  Explaining the ranking, Open Doors blamed a rise in nationalism since the 2016 failed coup. 

"President Erdogan has used the situation to enlarge his power and position, beginning to transform Turkey from a secular state into a Sunni Muslim one, leaving little space for minorities," it says. 

Foreign Christians have faced imprisonment or expulsion from the country in recent years, most notably American missionary Andrew Brunson, who pastored a church in Izmir for 20 years before being imprisoned on espionage charges. He was freed last year after the US imposed economic sanctions and tariffs on Turkey. 

He returned to the US where he warned the US Commission on International Religious Freedom held earlier this summer that Christian persecution was on the rise in Turkey. 

"There is still a high degree of freedom for Christians relative to other Muslim countries in the region, but I am concerned that all the signs point to this changing soon," he told the Commission.

"I think there are a number of people in the Turkish church, who as they see a lot of the foreign Christians being expelled from the country, are very concerned about what is going to happen to them."