Turkey’s minorities have expressed relief over how things have improved over the past decade or so in connection with the overall freedom of worship in the the Muslim majority country.
Speaking to Haber Turk, spokesman for Turkey’s Minority Congregation Foundation Moris Levi says any Christian or Jew can freely pray at the place of their worship.
“In the last 20 years, Turkey has been focusing on freedom of worship for all. Any Christian or Jew can worship at their place of worship. No one has to get permission.”
Sait Susina, the head of the Virgin Mary Syriac Orthodox Church Foundation in Istanbul’s Beyoglu district, also shared similar views, saying “there have been major developments over the past 17 years and today we are experiencing unimaginable times.”
Susina said throughout history, minorities in Turkey have faced many difficulties but things are no longer the same. Today we stand in a new era.
Despite a rising tide of racism and xenophobia across the globe, Turkey remains an exception with its democratic reforms and respect-based policies towards non-Muslim minorities in the country, particularly since the early 2000s.
The latest example of Turkey’s positive approach in this regard was visible last Saturday when President Recep Tayyip Erdogan attended a groundbreaking ceremony in Istanbul of St. Ephrem Syriac Orthodox Church.
Expressing his pride, President Erdogan said the new Church would add “fresh richness” to the cultural mosaic that is Turkey, a land that has been home to scores of civilizations throughout the course of history.
In recent years, the Turkish government has stepped up efforts to restore and open churches and synagogues and has achieved fruitful results. Many places of worship that remained closed for over a century are now open.
Yusuf Cetin, the metropolitan bishop of Istanbul Syriac Church, said the laying of the cornerstone of the new church in Istanbul was a source of pride for the Syriac community.
The construction of the Syriac church “shows the democracy in our country, human rights and religious freedom,” Cetin asserted, stressing this was a clear example that people could freely perform their religious duties in Turkey.
Cetin went on to say that the Syriac community in Turkey had not been able to open schools or university departments studying the Syriac language, but this has also changed in recent years.
“Thanks to our government, following a judicial decision, we were able to open a private kindergarten in 2013 in Yesilkent [the neighbourhood of Istanbul],” he said, adding the school belonged to the Syriac Orthodox St. Ephrem Association.
He added that a Syriac literature department was founded at Artuklu University in the southeastern Mardin province, another source of happiness for the Syriac community, which has a history of 5,500 years.
“As a religious leader, we stand with unity and solidarity no matter which country we live in, and we commemorate our statespeople with our prayers during religious ceremonies and pray for every person in the country regardless of their religion or ethnicity. After all, we are on the same ship,” he said.
Sait Susin, head of the Virgin Mary Syriac Orthodox Church Foundation in Istanbul’s Beyoglu district, spoke highly of the Turkish government’s steps to restore synagogues and churches across Turkey, saying the Syriac community in Turkey faced no restrictions or limitations while performing their religious duties.
“Churches and synagogues are part of the cultural richness in our country. They have huge potential in terms of religious tourism,” Susin said, praising the restoration of places of worship.
He said religious rites are held once a year, arguing the places of worship should be open to religious ceremonies all year long.
According to Susin, Muslims and Syriac Christians in Turkey lived throughout history in almost total harmony, with all of the church foundation’s business-related issues being conducted in collaboration with Muslims.
Underlining that Syriacs faced difficulty in expressing themselves two or three decades ago, he said the various communities were now more accustomed to each other and that Muslims knew Syriac Christians well enough that their behaviours were based on respect.