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Turkey Seizes Six Churches for State Property

The country of Turkey has taken control of six churches and made them state property, including a 1,700-year-old church, according to World Watch Monitor.

The government seized large areas of property in Turkey's southeast, a region ravaged by 10 months of urban conflict, in order to reconstruct the historical center of Diyarbakir, the region's largest city.

Fierce battles have taken place in Diyarbakir since June of last year between the Turkish armed forces and the militants of the Kurdish Workers' Party (the PKK).

The property seized by the government includes all the Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant churches. The Virgin Mary Syriac Orthodox Church in Diyarbakir, which is 1,700-years-old, is one of the churches taken by the state.

It is tremendously important to Eastern Orthodoxy, holding holy relics like a piece of the cross and the bones belonging to the Apostle Thomas.

Government leaders say their decision was fair because they also took control of mosque properties. However, in Turkey, mosques are already state property and are funded by the government. Turkey's church buildings are not, as church foundations have historically managed them. Some existed before Islam.

Altogether, six churches are now controlled by the state:

  • The Virgin Mary Syriac Orthodox Church,
  • The Surp (Armenian for "Saint") Sarkis Chaldean Catholic Church,
  • The Diyarbakir Protestant Church,
  • The Apostolic Armenian Surp Giragos Church, the largest Armenian church in the Middle East
  • An Armenian Catholic church, and
  • The Mar Petyun Chaldean Catholic Church.

A council of ministers under the leadership of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan issued the new order as a "last resort" to provide protection for the area, according to Fatmagul Sari, minister of Environment and Urban Planning. Not everyone believes that reasoning.

"The government didn't take over these pieces of property in order to protect them," Pastor Ahmet Guvener, with Diyarbakir Protestant Church said. "They did so to acquire them."

Guvener is considering filing a lawsuit. Many church foundations are getting ready to appeal the decision, which must be submitted within 60 days.

Archbishop Aram Atesyan, with the Armenian Apostolic Church, said he's demanding a meeting with Sari to ask the cabinet to change the decision.

"This decision, which seems to be made by the request of the Ministry of Environment and Urban Planning without any reason or justification, is unacceptable within the limits of constitutional order," said the Diyarbakir Bar Association in a statement in Agos, the Turkish-Armenian daily.

The association is the first to bring a legal suit against the order.

Despite periodic violence, some of the churches are still holding services on Sunday. However, World Watch Monitor reports that they could be shut down at any time now that the state owns the properties.

In addition to the six churches, the Turkish government seized almost 90 percent of the Sur district.

"Where is the law and justice in this?" Figen Yuksekdagi, co-chair of the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP), asked.

Local city leaders say the government's decision lacks legal justification and could lead to huge social and cultural problems.

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