ISTANBUL: President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Sunday inaugurated the first church built with government backing in overwhelmingly Muslim Turkiye’s 100-year history as a post-Ottoman state.

The Mor Ephrem Syriac Orthodox Church’s opening marks an important cultural and political moment for both Turkiye and its powerful leader.

Erdogan drew widespread condemnation during his two-decade rule for converting ancient chur­ches into mosques and making Islamic conservatism into a leading social force.

He has always countered that he was simply restoring the rights of pious Muslims in the staunchly secular republic founded by field marshal Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in 1923.

Erdogan laid the first stone for the church’s construction for Istanbul’s 17,000 Assyrian Christians in 2019. Assy­rian Christia­nity traces its history to communities that lived in the first century AD in a region stretching from southeastern Turkiye to Syria and Iraq. Its main church moved from the Turkish city of Mardin to Damascus in 1932. Some small Turkish churches have been quietly restored and re-opened in the past 100 years.

Erdogan said that 20 existing churches had been repaired since his Islamic-rooted party came to power in 2002. But the Mor Ephrem “is the first newly built church to open its doors since the founding of the Turkish Republic,” Assyrian community leader Sait Susin said.

Published in Dawn, October 9th, 2023

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