The rise of the AK Party in the early 2000s represented an effort to address the grievances of religious Muslims, as well as non-Muslim communities including the Turkish Jewry
Thursday, March 26 marked a historic day for Turkey's 25,000-strong Jewish community as the once-abandoned Great Synagogue of Edirne re-entered service following a four-year, $2.5 million restoration sponsored by the government. The facility, once the largest Jewish temple on the Balkan Peninsula, was established in 1907 by an edict from Ottoman Sultan Abdülhamid II. The building was abandoned in the mid-1980s and the General Directorate of Charitable Foundations (GDFC) assumed ownership of the building in 1995. The first service set the stage for emotionally-charged moments as live updates from Edirne popped up on my Twitter feed. "For the first time in my life, I will attend the opening ceremony of a synagogue," one member of the Jewish community in Istanbul tweeted, demonstrating how 140 characters can speak volumes on occasion.
Visiting the Great Synagogue, many members of the Jewish community understandably thought about the 1934 pogroms that drove thousands of Jews out of their native Thrace. The event, of course, was not isolated or unique in any way. Throughout the 20th century the Turkish state promoted Turkish and Sunni Muslim identities at the expense of all others while non-Muslims found themselves actively targeted by official policies. Having successfully eliminated the previous ethnically, religiously and culturally diverse nature of this land's society, the state moved to infringe on the property rights of non-Muslim charitable foundations by unlawfully seizing control of their estates.
The rise of the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) in the early 2000s represented an effort to address the grievances of not only religious Muslims, but also non-Muslim communities including Turkish Jewry. Over the past decade, the government has pioneered initiatives to address leftover grievances from the 20th century in a self-identified effort to concentrate on the country's future.
During this period, one of the most important steps was that the estates of non-Muslim associations have been gradually returned to their rightful owners. According to the Prime Ministry, 1,014 properties have already been returned to non-Muslim communities. Another key initiative was to revive religious diversity in the country. In recent years, religious services have begun at the Greek Orthodox Sümela Monastery in Trabzon and the Armenian Church of the Holy Cross on Akhtamar/Akdamar Island in Van. The government understandably remains committed to its democratic reform agenda as restoration work continues at the Greek Church of St. Nicholas in Ayvalık and the Church of Saint George in Istanbul.
Surely enough, the Great Synagogue's reopening sparked controversy at the local and national level. In November 2014, Edirne Governor Dursun Şahin announced that the building would not be used for religious functions, but serve as a museum, while engaging in a lengthy tirade about Israeli military operations in Palestine. Ahead of Thursday's ceremony, a deputy from the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) brought up the issue in Parliament to suggest that opening a synagogue on the memorial day for the Balkan Wars could lead to riots and clashes. Meanwhile, local papers complained about the effort citing the lack of Jews in Edirne.
The mood, however, had seemingly changed by Thursday, when Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç received a standing ovation from members of the Jewish community attending the first service and recalled the sacrifices made by "Edirne's Jews who died in defense of their city alongside Muslim martyrs." Welcoming Arınç to the synagogue, Jewish community leader İshak İbrahimzadeh (left) told the story of the former chief rabbi of Edirne who said that the reopening represented "the government's greatest answer to those who describe Turkish Jewry as traitors and enemies."