President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has taken control of six churches in the war-torn southeastern city of Diyarbakir in his latest move to squash freedom of speech and religious movement.
Included in the seizures are Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox churches, one of which is over 1,700 years old.
They have now effectively become state property – meaning they are run by the government – in a country with a dire human rights record where about 98 percent of the population is Muslim.
They claim it was made on the grounds that authorities intend to rebuild and restore the historical centre of the city, which has been partially destroyed by 10 months of urban conflict between government forces and militants from the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK).
President Erdogan has overseen a crackdown on freedom of expression
Christians in the Middle East are under increasing attack
Ahmet Guvener, pastor of Diyarbakir Protestant Church, said: “The government didn’t take over these pieces of property in order to protect them. They did so to acquire them.”
And the Diyarbakir Bar Association – which represents Christians worshipping at one of the churches, has now officially filed an appeal the government’s action.
In a statement the group said: “Among the expropriated plots, there are structures belonging to public institutions … and places of worship and residences considered as historical and cultural heritage.
“This decision, which seems to be made by the request of the Ministry of Environment and Urban Planning without any reason or justification, is unacceptable within the limits of constitutional order.”
The ancient Maryam Ana Syriac Orthodox Church has been seized by ministers
Diyarbakir has been destroyed by urban warfare
The government didn’t take over these pieces of property in order to protect them. They did so to acquire them
Ahmet Guvener, pastor of Diyarbakir Protestant Church
In response ministers have insisted the order to take control of the churches was not religiously motivated, pointing out that they have also occupied a number of historic mosques in the city.
But, unlike Christian churches which are maintained by the generosity of their congregations, all mosques in Turkey are state-backed and funded, meaning their futures are secure.
Reacting to the seizure Victoria Coates, who is foreign policy advisor to US Presidential hopeful Ted Cruz, said the seizure fits into a pattern in the Middle East, where Christians are systematically displaced and persecuted.
“The government of Turkey should move swiftly to return these churches to their rightful owners, and not take advantage of the situation to seize them permanently.”
Erdogan has courted open controversy in recent months with the seizure of opposition newspaper Zaman, which has unsurprisingly since toed a sycophantic pro-government line.
His apparently anti-democratic moves have provoked outrage in Europe, where politicians have been left bowing and scraping at his feet in a desperate bid to resolve the migrant chaos.
As part of a deal designed to stem the flow of people entering the continent EU leaders have promised to open up Europe to 80 million Turks and to accelerate talks on the country joining the 28-nation bloc.