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Turkish President Erdogan Seizes Six Christian Churches, Making Them State Property

Syrian-Orthodox-Church-Diyarbakir

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's administration recently seized six churches as state property in the volatile southeastern part of Turkey. As World Watch Monitor reports:

After 10 months of urban conflict in Turkey’s war-torn southeast, the government has expropriated huge sections of property, apparently to rebuild and restore the historical centre of the region’s largest city, Diyarbakir.

But to the dismay of the city’s handful of Christian congregations, this includes all its Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant churches. Unlike the state-funded mosques, Turkey’s ancient church buildings – some of which pre-date Islam – have been managed, historically, by church foundations.

Because of this move, the churches in Diyarbakir now factually belong to the state. This includes a church that was built 1,700 years ago, and a new one, built in 2003.

Earlier this year the Syriac Orthodox Archdiocese of the Western United States published a photo of one of the seized churches writing: "Our Church, the Syriac Orthodox Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary (Maryam Ana), in Diyarbakir - Turkey, had been attacked a few days ago. The wall of the Church was hit with explosives, our dear priest father Yusuf Akbulut with his wife were threatened in their home in the court of the church." Earlier this year the Syriac Orthodox Archdiocese of the Western United States published a photo of one of the seized churches writing: "Our Church, the Syriac Orthodox Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary (Maryam Ana), in Diyarbakir - Turkey, had been attacked a few days ago. The wall of the Church was hit with explosives, our dear priest father Yusuf Akbulut with his wife were threatened in their home in the court of the church."

It's always problematic when a state takes over churches, but that's even more the case in a Muslim majority country, which Turkey is: 99% of Turks are Muslim. What makes matters even more troubling is that the current president, Erdoğan, isn't merely an authoritarian ruler, but also an Islamist.

Most criticism of Erdoğan nowadays is directed at his horrendous policy towards ISIS (he's credited with helping ISIS grow, either by arming the group directly or by allowing it to grow because it undermined Syrian President Bashar al-Assad), his horrific treatment of critical journalists, or his war on the PKK, which many people believe to be a war on the Kurdish people. I don't agree with the latter, but with regards to the first two points, his critics are completely right. The church seizures are just one more reason to tell Erdoğan enough is enough. 

Ted Cruz's foreign policy advisor, Victoria Coates, told PJ Media the seizure fits into a pattern in the Middle East, where Christians are systematically displaced and persecuted. Although Erdoğan for a long time got away with his authoritarian and Islamist tendencies, times are a-changing. Coates said American Republicans aren't happy with Erdoğan's self-declared "New Turkey." She noted that Turkey's seizure of the churches in Diyarbakir fits into a wider pattern in the Middle East. "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," she said.

Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz and his foreign policy advisor, Victoria Coates. Photo: Handout Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz and his foreign policy advisor, Victoria Coates. Photo: Handout

She isn't exaggerating. In Syria and Iraq Christians are faced with genocide. And now this in Turkey, a supposed ally of the West.

Coates continued: "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."

The seizure has also set off alarm bells in Europe, where Dutch Christian Democrats (of the CDA party) are demanding action from their government. In parliamentary questions (PDF alert) directed at the Dutch foreign minister, MPs Omtzigt and Knops accused Erdoğan of violating human rights. They added that a police official is accused of making a Turkish nationalist salute in the St. Giragos church after the seizure, and even saying: "Sultan Alp Arslan's grandchildren will bring the unbelievers of churches to the faith."

The intention of that comment is obvious: the official sees the seizure as a means to force Christians to convert to Islam.

Pieter Omtzigt is a Dutch MP for the Christian Democrats (CDA), a member of the Council of Europe, and a widely respected expert on Turkey. Photo: Wikimedia Commons Pieter Omtzigt is a Dutch MP for the Christian Democrats (CDA), a member of the Council of Europe, and a widely respected expert on Turkey. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

MPs Omtzigt and Knops added:

Are you [the foreign minister] prepared to aggressively protest the seizure of these churches to the Turkish government? And are you willing to address this issue at the EU, the Council of Europe, and other forums?

The Christian Democrats also point out that some of the seized churches were targeted by Turkish tanks in battles between the Turkish army and sympathizers of the PKK, a Kurdish terrorist organization. This seems, they argue, to be in violation of the law of war. That's why they want to convince the Dutch cabinet to officially demand an independent investigation into the behavior of Turkey's security forces.

It's now up to the Dutch government to follow the CDA's lead and convince the rest of Europe to finally act against President Erdoğan. It has to be made clear to him that he risks international isolation if he doesn't return these churches to their rightful owners. And although I have little to no faith in President Obama's willingness to protect Christians in Turkey and the rest of the Middle East, Erdoğan undoubtedly understands that he'll be in serious trouble if Ted Cruz (or another real conservative Republican) wins the presidential elections in the U.S. later this year.