F18News: Turkey – What will happen to state-confiscated places of wo


The right to believe, to worship and witness
The right to change one’s belief or religion
The right to join together and express one’s belief

Wednesday 24 September 2014

The use and ownership of Turkey’s many state-confiscated places of worship
raises many questions, including how to address past injustices and the
present needs of religious communities and historical preservation.
Opinions are divided on who Christian churches converted into mosques
centuries ago and then turned into museums should be returned to. Many
Alevi tekke (dervish lodges) were turned into mosques under the control of
the government’s Diyanet or assigned to the use of municipalities. The many
current uses of such buildings, and the legal status of their potential or
past owners, also affects Turkey’s implementation of its international
obligations to protect freedom of religion or belief. With little or no
consultation with religious or belief communities and other interested
parties and no general guidelines, state decisions on this delicate subject
are bound to be taken on an arbitrary basis, Forum 18 News Service notes.


By Mine Yildirim, Norwegian Helsinki Ctte

For many years, in some cases going back to the 1920s, numerous religious
communities have been unable to use their places of worship as the state
has confiscated them. These buildings are under the care of, among other
state bodies, the Culture and Tourism Ministry, the General Directorate of
Foundations, the Treasury, the Diyanet or Presidency of Religious Affairs,
and municipality or village administrations. Forum 18 News Service notes
that this situation allows the authorities considerable discretion in how
these sites – in some cases of great historical importance – are cared for
and used.

Complex problems

The situation of each place of worship within the state’s control is
embedded within a complex series of legal and administrative decisions
taken over many years without the participation and consent of the relevant
religious communities. In many cases, more than one group has a legitimate
interest in a particular building, as historically the buildings in
question were often built as a church, taken over as a mosque, and then
taken over again as a museum.

Crucially, no religious or belief community of any kind in Turkey is
allowed to have legal entity status. This makes it very difficult to find a
legal body to which a particular worship place could be returned. Various
foundations and associations exist which do have legal status and which
have some kind of link to various places of worship. But these are not the
same as belief communities and handing over places of worship to these
bodies may cause different problems, even if these associations and
foundations request the building concerned (see Forum 18’s Turkey religious
freedom survey ).

All this makes the problems caused by state confiscations very difficult to
solve, even if the government decided to solve them.

Recent museum to mosque conversions

Much attention has been paid to government decisions to turn two former
churches into mosques: in 2011 over the north-western city of Iznik’s Hagia
Sophia Museum (from its construction in the mid 6th century until 1337 a
Greek Orthodox church, from then until 1935 a mosque); and in 2013 over the
north-western port city of Trabzon’s Hagia Sophia Museum (from its
construction in the mid 13th century until 1584 a Greek Orthodox church,
from then until 1964 a mosque).

This attention may have been sparked by the questions of whether and when
the government intends to turn Istanbul’s high profile Hagia Sophia Museum
into a mosque. Built as a Greek Orthodox Cathedral in 532, it was turned
into a mosque in 1453 when Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II conquered the then city
of Constantinople. It became a museum following a decree by the Republic’s
founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in 1935.

Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia

Turning Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia Museum in Istanbul into a mosque is not as
unlikely as it once seemed. The process would probably follow the one
applied in the cases of Iznik’s and Trabzon’s Hagia Sophias and is a
political decision. At the re-opening ceremony of the renovated Arap Cami
Mosque in 2012 (built in 1325 as a Latin-rite Catholic church, used since
1475 as a mosque), Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arinc stated that mosques
should only be used as mosques, and it was wrong for them to have been
turned into museums. In 2013 he said that “the days that Hagia Sophia [in
Istanbul] will smile are close”.

Among Arinc’s responsibilities is overseeing the Vakiflar Genel Müdürlügü
(VGM – Directorate-General of Foundations). Among other things, the VGM is
responsible for implementing the limited but welcome 2011 Restitution
Decree allowing non-Muslim community foundations to apply to regain or
receive compensation for some property the state confiscated from them (see
F18News 6 October 2011

In February 2013, Talip Bozkurt, an individual from the city of
Kahramanmaras, applied to the Turkish Grand National Assembly’s Petitions
Commission for the opening of Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia as a mosque. Before
it decides, the Petitions Commission is collecting the opinion of relevant
parties on the request.

Contrasting opinions

Opinions on this application are divided. In recent years the youth
organisations linked to two political parties – Anadolu Genclik Dernegi
(Anatolian Youth Association – AGD), close to the Saadet Party, and Alperen
Ocaklari, close to the National Movement Party – have been campaigning for
the conversion of the Hagia Sophia Museum into a mosque. On 31 May 2014 the
AGD held early morning Muslim prayers outside Hagia Sophia. However, the
Tarih Vakfi (History Foundation) started a campaign on 12 May to keep the
Hagia Sophia Museum as a museum, in order to ensure that its historical and
cultural heritage is preserved.

The Greek Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew I, told Milliyet
newspaper in February 2014 that “If it [Hagia Sophia] is to reopen as a
house of worship, then it should open as a Christian church”. He stressed
that it had been “built as a church not a mosque”. But Mehmet Görmez, Head
of the Diyanet, told Turkish Public Television news on 11 September that
“Hagia Sophia is not a museum, not a church. It is the common place of
worship of all Muslims.”

Political trend

The demands and debates concerning the proposed conversions of buildings
are best seen as a part of the trend under the currently-ruling Justice and
Development Party (AKP) to undo or compensate for the actions of previous
governments of the Republic from 1924 onwards. Observant Muslims have
regarded these earlier government actions as injustices which should be
corrected, although they also regard previous conversions by the Ottoman
Empire of buildings from churches into mosques as just under Islamic Law –
even though the Christian community sees them as unjust. One can speak of
an apparent web of injustices, with no universally-acceptable correction
yet proposed.

The General Directorate of Foundations (VGM) under Deputy Prime Minister
Arinc has emerged as a key institution in the highly politicised process of
giving new uses to these old buildings confiscated by the state. A recent
example is Istanbul’s oldest church building, St John the Baptist Church
built in 463 and turned into a mosque in 1486. The dilapidated building was
under the protection of the Culture and Tourism Ministry. The building was
transferred to the VGM in January 2013, which intends to restore it and
turn it into the Ilyasbey Mosque, Agos newspaper reported on 13 November
2013. According to VGM Director Adnan Ertem, the decision to turn the
museum into a mosque was made by the Turkish Cabinet and were it to make
the same decision for Hagia Sophia, the VGM would implement this.

What happened to the dervish lodges?

Laws passed in 1925 had an enormous impact on Alevis, who may amount to one
third of the population, banning their places of worship (see Forum 18’s
Turkey religious freedom survey
). Dogan Bermek, Deputy
Head of the Federation of Alevi Foundations, told Forum 18 on 8 August that
many tekke (dervish lodges) were turned into mosques under the control of
the Diyanet or assigned to the use of municipalities for a variety of
purposes, including as cemeteries.

Uncertainty surrounds the number and location of such properties, who their
owners were, and in what circumstances they were transferred to state
control. Much documentation that might clarify this may no longer exist.

Following the 2011 Restitution Decree (see above), numerous Alevi
associations and foundations, including the Federation of Alevi
Associations, have called for the return of property confiscated from them
under the 1925 Law No. 677 (“Closure of Dervish Convents and Tombs, the
Abolition of the Office of Keeper of Tombs and the Abolition and
Prohibition of Certain Titles”) (see Forum 18’s Turkey religious freedom
survey ). But there has
been no response to these requests.

Cases still occur of tekke being converted into Diyanet-administered
mosques. In July 2014 the building of the Kececi Baba Dergah in eastern
Turkey was converted into a mosque. The Dergah is thought to have existed
for 1,000 years until its closure in 1924. An imam has been appointed and
the Muslim call for prayers started.

The village muhtar (headman) Gürsel Gürbüz pointed out that villagers do
not worship in mosques, Cumhuriyet daily reported on 24 July 2014. He was
among a group of villagers who visited the Governor of Erbaa, Abdülkadir
Demir, asking for the imam to be removed and for the call to prayer to
stop. The Governor verbally rejected the request, stating that if villagers
want the call to prayer to stop he would doubt their Muslim identity.

The local mufti was unavailable to comment to Forum 18 in early September.

Places of worship – or something else?

The VGM must by law administer confiscated properties it holds in
accordance with the legal foundation deed of the relevant foundations. On
11 August the VGM told Forum 18 that 172 Sufi Muslim tekkes, 98 Christian
churches, 34 Alevi dergahs, and 3 Jewish synagogues are under its

But as the Norwegian Helsinki Committee: Turkey Freedom of Belief
Initiative’s (NHC:IÖG) January – June 2013 monitoring report notes, places
of worship handed to others by the VGM are not always used in accordance
with their initial purpose. A synagogue in Gaziantep was architecturally
restored but then assigned to Gaziantep University. Similarly, an Armenian
Protestant Church in Diyarbakir was assigned to the use of a carpet weaving
centre in 2012 (see
). The Armenian
Protestant community had asked for their Church to be returned for its use.

Municipalities also have control over the use of places of worship. Izmir
Greater City Municipality has recently architecturally restored an
originally Greek Orthodox church in Bornova. But despite requests from
local Protestant churches to use the building for worship, it is being used
as a cultural centre. The same municipality also recently architecturally
restored the 19th century Greek Orthodox Agios Voukolos Church (also since
used as a museum and rehearsal hall for opera singers) and in 2011 decided
it should be used for social purposes. A Greek Orthodox liturgy celebrated
there in August 2014 – the first in the city since 1922 – appears to have
been a one-off event. Bornova’s Beit Hillel Synagogue was similarly
architecturally restored, but not assigned for the use of the Jewish

Government ministries, such as the Defence Ministry, also control
confiscated places of worship. The Sivas Ermenileri ve Dostlari
DerneÄŸi (Association of Armenians from Sivas and Friends – SEDD) have
since 2012 been asking to take over the Armenian Apostolic Surp Kevork
Church, which has been used by the army as an ammunition store since 1940.
On 9 December 2013, the Governor of Sivas, Zübeyir Kebelek, told Sabah
newspaper that the church will be architecturally restored. But Sebuk Koçak
of the SEDD told Forum 18 on 22 September 2014 that they are still waiting
for a response from the Defence Ministry.

Faith tourism?

Restricted possibilities for some to meet for worship are being permitted
in places of worship that are now museums under the Culture and Tourism
Ministry – especially it seems if the former place of worship has major
historical significance. All such sites appear to be confiscated Christian
churches. Occasional Christian worship is being allowed at a small number
of these confiscated churches.

A list of such churches and sites of historical long-ruined churches (such
as at places named in the New Testament) now used as museums where worship
is permitted once a year was prepared by the Ministry in 2000 and has been
added to since. The list has been made public. It is unclear what criteria
were used to compile the list, but it appears that no Turkish religious
community was consulted.

The Culture and Tourism Ministry has not responded to Forum18’s 8 August
request for the full list of all sites under its care that have previously
been places of worship.

Historically significant places of worship of Turkey’s Alevi community have
not been included in this list. One example is the Haci Bektas-i Veli
Dergah in Nevsehir, founded in the 13th century but closed in 1925. The
Dergah was opened as an Ethnography Museum in 1964, but the Alevis are not
allowed to perform their rituals in this place of worship which has been
significant for them for centuries. However, they are allowed to hold
worship and other religious ceremonies for three consecutive days a year in
the nearby Haci Bektas-i Veli Culture Centre.

Those who visit the Dergah Museum during these days do not have to pay an
entrance fee – but those who visit the museum churches when worship
services are allowed must pay an entrance fee. This further demonstrates
the arbitrary nature of the concession to some but not all religious

Among the museum churches known to be on the list since 2010 is Akdamar’s
Armenian Apostolic Church in Van and Trabzon’s Greek Orthodox Sumela
Monastery. Both were forcibly abandoned, in 1915 and 1923 respectively,
during the conflict and forced population exchanges that took place during
and after the First World War.

Permission for worship

Prior government permission is required for worship in buildings on the
Culture and Tourism Ministry list. The Ecumenical Patriarchate asked the
western Balikesir Governorship in April 2013 to celebrate worship in
September 2013 in the Taksiyarhis Church on Ayvalik’s Cunda Island. The
request was refused three days before the planned meeting for worship
“because Taksiyarkis does not appear on the list of churches where worship
can be held”, Taraf Daily reported on 8 December 2013.

The Church was built in 1873, converted into a mosque in 1927, and
abandoned after an earthquake in 1944. In 2011 the Rahmi M. Koc Foundation
for Musicology and Culture leased the church from the VGM to use as a
museum and concert hall. “They organise concerts in the church, so we find
it difficult to understand why it is a problem for us to hold worship
there,” an unnamed Greek Orthodox believer told Taraf Daily.

Way forward needed

The use and ownership of the many state-confiscated places of worship
raises many questions, including but not limited to how to address past
injustices and the present needs of religious communities and historical
preservation. The many current uses of these buildings, and the legal
status of their potential or past owners, also affects Turkey’s
implementation of its international obligations to protect freedom of
religion or belief.

With little or no consultation with religious or belief communities and
other interested parties and no general guidelines, state decisions on this
delicate subject are bound to be taken on an arbitrary basis. One way
forward could be to establish an inclusive commission to draft guidelines
for good practice for public authorities facing this issue, taking full
account of Turkey’s international human rights obligations.

The issue appears likely only to increase in importance. Previous and
current state approaches have already failed to address the issue
adequately, and could even lead to Turkey losing cases at the European
Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. (END)

The Norwegian Helsinki Committee: Turkey Freedom of Belief Initiative’s
(NHC:IÖG) January – June 2013 monitoring report can be found at

For more background, see Forum 18’s Turkey religious freedom survey at

More analyses and commentaries on freedom of thought, conscience and belief
in Turkey can be found at

A compilation of Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe
(OSCE) freedom of religion or belief commitments can be found at

A printer-friendly map of Turkey is available at

All Forum 18 News Service material may be referred to, quoted from, or
republished in full, if Forum 18 is credited as the

© Forum 18 News Service. All rights reserved. ISSN 1504-2855.

From: Baghdasarian


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