In the leafy neighborhood of Yeşilköy on Istanbul’s European side, construction workers toil amid the sounds of cranes and hammers on a vast plot inside a Catholic cemetery. They are putting the final touches on the Mor Efrem Syriac Orthodox Church, which is set to open in August or September. The church is of historic importance both for the Christian community and Turkey: It is the first time that a church has been built from scratch in nearly 100 years, since the foundation of the Republic of Turkey.
Though the country boasts a rich history where Muslims, Christians and other religious communities have lived together peacefully for centuries, the diminishing numbers of Christian communities and legal issues ended the practice of church construction for decades. The Syriac community, with the support of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the Embassy of the Vatican, which allocated the plot in the Catholic cemetery for the church, laid the foundation for the church in 2019, in a ceremony attended by Erdoğan.
So far, 80% of the construction is complete. The church will address the needs of the Syriac community, which has few churches in Istanbul despite their high number of around 17,000. The community, which has its own churches in southeastern Turkey where its population is concentrated, has had to “lease” churches from other religious communities in Istanbul for years. It will be the second church in Istanbul wholly owned by the community.
In 2010, the community contacted the government, seeking permission to build its own church. Erdoğan and late then-Istanbul Mayor Kadir Topbaş responded positively. The Istanbul municipality offered a plot inside the Latin Catholic cemetery in Yeşilköy, which was preserved by the municipality and unused for decades. The community faced legal obstacles when the Catholic Church initially opposed the project, but the Vatican envoy to Turkey later reverted the Vatican’s stance, paving the way for construction.
Built in an area of 700 square meters (7,535 square feet) in a corner of the cemetery, the church’s bell tower was inspired by Syriac monasteries in Mardin, a hub of the Syriac community in southeastern Turkey.
The church has five floors and a separate place for worship. It will serve as a cultural venue where the community can come together for meetings, conferences, weddings, etc. A section is dedicated to the residential quarters of priests and guest rooms. The spacious church’s ceiling height is about 10 meters and its walls and floors are adorned with marble. Its doors and windows are being furnished with carved wood.
Yeşilköy is part of Bakırköy, a district with a high number of Syriac citizens. Bakırköy and the neighborhood are also home to Armenian and Catholic churches.
Sait Susin, president of the Istanbul Syriac Foundation, which oversees churches of the community, said, since the 1950s, they have used a church in the Tarlabaşı neighborhood of the Beyoğlu district, but the place could not accommodate the community, forcing them to fulfill their religious duties in six other churches originally owned by other communities. “Our rituals differed from other denominations, and we had limited time while using other churches. So, a new church was a crucial need,” he told Anadolu Agency (AA) on Wednesday. He said they had long sought to construct their own church, and the first concrete step was taken 10 years ago during the tenure of then-Prime Minister Erdoğan. “We finally found a place in the Latin Catholic Cemetery. This place was unused and no burials were made since 1996,” he said. Susin said the church was constructed with the utmost respect to the cemetery which will be preserved by their community.
Susin said the exterior of the church is almost completed, and they were now working on interiors.
“We thank the government for greenlighting our request. It was important that the government enabled this. Church construction may be easy but you can face bureaucratic hurdles. The president’s efforts brought us to this day. He both helped in the allocation of the land and made a great gesture by attending the foundation-laying ceremony. We hope he will also attend the opening ceremony,” he said.
Susin said the church’s architecture was a mix of modern architecture and designs of ancient Syriac churches and monasteries in Mardin.