A 19th-century church built by the Bulgarian community in Istanbul was reopened after restoration Sunday in a ceremony attended by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım and Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov.
President Erdoğan, speaking at the opening ceremony, said the state was responsible for ensuring that everyone, no matter their beliefs, has the right to practice their religion freely. "Certain bitter memories in history should not be allowed to taint the long history of living side by side," he said, adding that the government has been working since the beginning to restore the houses of worship of all citizens.
Sveti Stefan, also known as the "Iron Church," is known as the only church mainly made of iron in the world, and restoration started seven years ago in a project co-funded by Turkey and Bulgaria. The church is located in Balat, a historic neighborhood on the shore of Istanbul's Golden Horn. Speaking to İhlas News Agency, Vasil Liaze, head of a foundation overseeing the church, said the restoration cost TL 16 million ($4.3 million) and the Turkish state covered TL 15 million of the budget.
The president noted that Turkey had supported the restoration of more than 5,000 historical artifacts in the Middle East, North Africa, South Asia and the Balkans in the past 15 years. "We do not separate freedom of worship in the Iron Church from the freedom of worship in the the Muradiye Mosque in Filibe [Plovdiv]. That is why my friend Boyko bringing Bulgaria's Chief Mufti Mustafa Aliş to this ceremony is important."
Prime Minister Yıldırım, also speaking at the ceremony, said there were unfortunate developments all around Turkey, especially in Europe, where religious tolerance was retreating in the face of narrow-mindedness. "The risk of polarization is increasing. People of different religions who lived in peace side by side for centuries in the Middle East are now becoming targets because of their beliefs. At the same time, racism and Islamophobia, fed by historical prejudice, are gradually increasing in the West."Since the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) came to power in 2002, Turkey has sought to restore the rights of religious minorities as well as the worship houses of minorities, ranging from Assyrians to Jews and Greeks. Many properties have been returned to these minorities - decades after they were forcefully confiscated by the Turkish state - while the government continues to pursue a policy of restoring abandoned historical buildings. In 2013, the Bulgarian Orthodox Church was returned a 59,000 square meter piece land in central Istanbul that once belonged to the foundation running the church.
In early November, Aya Yorgi, another historic church in the city's Edirnekapı district, was reopened after restoration work by the state, in a ceremony attended by Turkish and Greek Orthodox dignitaries. Erdoğan cited the restoration of the Great Sinagogue of Edirne, the Aya Nikola Church in Gökçeada, the Syriac Catholic church of İskenderun, Diyarbakır's Sur Armenian Protestant Church, the Nizip Fevkani Church in Gaziantep and the Taksiyarjis Church in Cunda Island as a few of the examples of state-sponsored restoration in recent years.
An outstanding symbol of Bulgarian Orthodox faith, the church was built in 1898 on the site of a wooden church destroyed in a fire. An Austrian contractor was hired for the construction and 500 tons of iron components were brought from Austria to Istanbul for the construction.
The components were pieced together in Istanbul before it was opened on Sept. 8, 1898. With its three domes and rich exterior decoration, the church stands out among many other Orthodox churches in Istanbul. Six bells in church's bell tower were brought from Russia's Yaroslavl, but only two have survived to the present day. The cross-shaped basilica has a ground floor, a basement floor, a gallery and a spire.
In 2016, Bulgarian Metochion, a renovated addition of the church, was reopened and hosted an exhibition of the history of the Bulgarian community in Turkey. The Metochion, a three-story stone building, was built as an addition, but in time, it turned into a community and culture center for the Bulgarian community in Istanbul. It was abandoned for years after it was converted into a school, printing house and then a nursing home throughout its history.
Turkey's Bulgarian community in Istanbul traces its history to the 18th century. Although Bulgarians were always present in the then-Ottoman Empire's capital, their number and settlement flourished in that century. It was Prince Stefan Bogoridi, an Ottoman statesman of Bulgarian origin, who spearheaded the efforts for construction of a Bulgarian church on the site of Sveti Stefan, on land he owned and donated to the church. Like other minorities, the number of Bulgarian community members dwindled in time, with many returning to Bulgaria or migrating to the U.S. and Europe.