ISTANBUL – Milliyet
A church in a village on the outskirts of Istanbul, once used by Greeks and Armenians, has found itself at the center of the ongoing debate over the usage and preservation of Turkey’s historical assets. The metropolitan municipality says the locals had asked for a new mosque but the local municipality and the cultural minister are opposing the decision
Advocating preservation, the culture minister and the mayor of Silivri, among others, have come to the defense of the 178-year-old St. Dimitrios Church and voiced opposition to converting the church into a mosque.
The abandoned building is currently registered with the Silivri Municipality in Instanbul as a “derelict church” and according to the law it should be considered a first-degree historical site that needs to be protected.
The two top officials expressed similar sentiment Wednesday in saying that the decision to convert the structure into a mosque was unnecessary because there were enough mosques in the area already and suggesting the restoration project may have bypassed the proper authorization channels.
The Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality said the now defunct Ortaköy Municipal Assembly, which was governed by the Justice and Development Party, or AKP, until March 29 when the district was merged with Silivri and the opposition Republican People’s Party took over, had approached it to restore the building as a mosque and it had accepted the project and gained the approval of the provincial Cultural and Natural Resources Protection Board. The Istanbul municipal plan also includes the building of a minaret next to the mosque.
The municipality said: “The question is whether this restoration should be done or not. We know buildings that lose their function are destroyed one by one. The question should be: How do we preserve this building?”
Calls for preserving the building as a church came as Istanbul, which is governed by the ruling AKP, released a statement Wednesday dismissing Milliyet’s early report about the restoration project as “hiding the truth,” arguing that the building was used as a mosque between 1924 and 1963.
Where did this need come from?
Culture Minister Ertuğrul Günay, responding to questions about the restoration project, saidin the past, when the country had limited resources, unused churches were converted into mosques due to need.
Günay, who is also an AKP member, said such projects necessitated approvals from both the Foreign Ministry and the Culture Ministry.
“If a protection board came to such a decision, its decision lacks necessary approvals. I have asked officials to investigate whether the proper procedure was followed,” he said. He also said the project was sent back to the protection board for a review.
The minister said past needs may have necessitated conversion of abandoned religious buildings but times had changed.
“We utilize such buildings as museums or as houses of worship if there is a need. I will find out why this was necessary and inform the public,” he said.
Silivri Mayor Özcan Işıklar, also speaking on Wednesday, said the restoration efforts had already harmed the building. He said restoring the building as a Greek Orthodox church was important because the region was close to Greece. “The building was registered as a derelict church in 1978. Unfortunately, the protection board ignored this fact. We will lodge an appeal with the board, asking them to review their decision and agree to the building’s restoration as a church.”
He said Ortaköy has enough mosques. “In the past, people used abandoned churches as mosques due to need. We need to respect that. However, there is no such need now,” he said.
He said protecting the region’s historical sites was important for efforts to create an interest for tourists.
Better than a discotheque:
The head of the protection board, professor Sait Başaran, defended the decision to restore the building as a mosque.
“I would sign that decision if it came to me again,” he said.
The building had served at first as a church and then a mosque, he said, adding that the board had agreed to restore the building as a mosque because there was no Christians left in the region.
“Before the projects came, there was an application to use the building as a discotheque,” he said, adding, “The board said no.”
When asked about the addition of the minaret to the building, he said once the building was restored as a mosque, there was no reason a minaret could not be built next to it.
Art history professor Semavi Eyice, speaking to Milliyet, supported Başaran, arguing that during the Ottoman expansion, many churches were converted into mosques. “I personally believe there is no problem in restoring it as a mosque if there are no frescoes on the walls. It will at least be used as a respected religious building,” he said.
Church cannot be turned into a mosque:
The head of the Topkapı Palace Museum and respected Ottoman historian, professor İlber Ortaylı, said he was personally against restoring the building as a mosque.
“Such abandoned churches either collapse or a person from the Christian community or the state restores it. If it cannot be used as it was intended, it can be used as a library or a museum,” he said.
Converting churches into mosques was something done in the 15th century and was not suitable for contemporary Turkey, Ortaylı said.
“Go and build your own mosque. I believe if this matter goes to court, the restoration as a mosque will be stopped,” he said.
UNESCO Turkey National Commission member professor Cevat Erder described the restoration project as “unethical,” adding that UNESCO was adamantly opposed to such projects.
“Buildings have more than a physical structure. They have a soul. There maybe a bad building, but if, for example, Atatürk [Turkey’s founder] stayed there, the building becomes more than stones. If the building had been within historic Istanbul, UNESCO would have reacted,” he said.
Church history
The St. Dimitrios Church in the village of Ortaköy in Silivri, an Istanbul district along the Sea of Marmara, was built in 1831. The village was primarily made up of Greek Orthodox residents until the population exchange in the early 1920s, after which Turks from the Balkans settled there. The new residents preserved the cross and the figurines on the church, but converted it into a mosque by constructing a wooden minaret next to the building.
Villagers used the church as a mosque until a new mosque was built, after which the St. Dimitrios Church was abandoned. The wooden minaret collapsed after a while and eventually the abandoned building became a sty and depot.