New church in Turkey marks first in a century, change in tide for Christians

by Vanessa Garcia Rodriguez, |
Syriac Christians from Turkey and Syria attend a mass at the Mort Shmuni Syriac Orthodox Church in the town of Midyat, in Mardin province of southeast Turkey February 2, 2014. Despite the empty streets of Midyat, the historical Mort Shmuni Syriac Orthodox Church is overcrowded with a community of three hundred people, mostly children. For longer than two years, not only the native Turkish Christian citizens of Midyat, but also the Syriac families escaping the bloody war in Syria just across the border are joining the congregation. Since then Sunday masses are more crowded, more enthusiastic. | (FILE) REUTERS/Umit Bektas

ISTANBUL (Christian Examiner) -- One of Turkey's oldest Christian communities will soon get a new building after receiving government approval to construct the first church in almost 100 years. After years of persecution and turning churches into mosques, the ruling government has increasingly demonstrated acceptance of Christians.

The Virgin Mary Syriac Church will be the only newly constructed church in the Ataturk republic since its founding in 1923, and demonstrates a significant shift in the government's previous treatment of Christians.

According to The Economist, last year the Syriacs were allowed to open a school where the curriculum included the teaching of Aramaic, the language believed Jesus probably used most.

Other changes the publication reported under the current government include allowing religious officials to teach at minority schools, the return of a number of churches to faith communities and the Prime Minister Ahmet Davuto?lu's move to appoint a Catholic Armenian as an adviser.

Officially a secular country, there are less than 100,000 Christians in Turkey. The Syriac Orthodox Church, which will fund the project, numbers about 25,000, and 18,000 in Instanbul where the church will be located according to the Daily Sabah. The majority of its 76 million residents are Muslims.

Approval to build the $1.5 million three-story building, which will also include three underground levels for parking, came during a meeting Davuto?lu held with religious minority leaders, January 2 emphasizing the theme of "unity."

"All [representatives] are equal and real citizens of the Republic of Turkey," Davuto?lu said in his speech.

The Council of Europe applauded the decision.

"The Council of Europe welcomes Turkey's decision to permit a newly built Christian church in Istanbul as sign of diversity," Daniel Holtgen, spokesperson for the secretary general of the Council of Europe, said via his Twitter account on Jan. 7.