Turkey's ancient Syriac community is counting down the days until construction starts on their church, which will mark the first time one is built from scratch in decades. Construction work of the Syriac Orthodox Church in Yeşilköy, Istanbul will start soon and the community expects President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to take part in the foundation-laying ceremony. Sait Susin, chairman of the foundation that will build the church, said Erdoğan has always been supportive of their plans to build the church and they would be honored to have him lay the foundation.
Erdoğan, under his tenure as prime minister and president, has been credited for reforms for religious minorities, to help them regain their rights, including the return of properties that were unfairly seized from minorities in the past.
A string of controversial policies toward minorities dating back to the early years of the Turkish Republic, stifled their rights and led to a decline in church attendance as many migrated abroad over the years due to policies of suppression.
"This will be our first church here and it will be a first in the history of the Republic. If the president comes to the foundation-laying ceremony, he will be the first president to approve the construction of a church and personally starting its construction," Susin said.
There are 25,000 Syriac Christians in Turkey, 17,000 of whom live in Istanbul. They only have a small church in Tarlabaşı, a neighborhood next to the iconic Taksim Square. The faithful have been forced to perform their religious duties in churches of other denominations.
The community had appealed to Erdoğan, who was then prime minister, years ago to resolve the clearance issues for building permits. For his part, Erdoğan tasked Istanbul municipality with the allocation of land for the church.
An empty lot belonging to municipality near the Italian Cemetery was designated as the construction site for the new church whose location will be at the heart of a neighborhood with a high concentration of Assyrian faithful.
Along with the municipality, the community received approval from the Catholic Church to use the land, which was originally allocated for potential burial plots for the cemetery.
The community had been trying to collect funds and receive permits for years and to find a good place to build the church.
"We had to pray in the churches of our brothers and sisters but we used to have problems," Susin said, pointing out the time differences between rituals of other denominations and those of the Assyrian community. He added that they expect to complete the construction of the church within two years.