Churches across Turkey were packed with Christian faithfuls who convened for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day services. Peace in the Middle East in the shadow of the U.S.'s controversial decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital dominated the prayers, along with hopes of the liberation of Christian communities across the region from persecution.
In Kırklar, an Assyrian Christian church in the southeastern province of Mardin, the Assyrian Metropolitan for Mardin and Diyarbakır Saliba Özmen presided over the mass where people prayed for peace in Jerusalem and sang hymns in Turkish and Assyrian. The Mardin Municipality served sweet treats to the churchgoers at the end of the religious service.
Speaking after the mass, Saliba Özmen said they prayed for peace in Turkey and the Middle East.
"Unfortunately, the Middle East suffers from instability and we hope Christmas will be the beginning of the end for intolerance toward others," Özmen said.
Touching upon the crisis over Jerusalem, Özmen noted that the city was a sacred site for the three religions and it was "everyone's task to maintain its survival and peace."
"May God let peace prevail in Jerusalem," he said.
In Diyarbakır's Meryem Ana (Virgin Mary), another Assyrian church, the faithful also prayed for the Middle East and Jerusalem. Rev. Yusuf Akbulut, who presided over the religious service, told reporters after the mass that they prayed for an end to conflicts in the Middle East and said Muslims, Christians and Jews can peacefully share Jerusalem.
For the Christian faithful in Istanbul, two churches were at the heart of the religious services. The Greek Orthodox faithful came together at a church inside Fener Greek Orthodox Patriarchate while the Catholic community convened at the St. Anthony of Padua Church, the largest Roman Catholic place of worship in Istanbul.
The church is located in the city's Beyoğlu district, which historically has been home to a Christian population for centuries. The church hosted expats living in Istanbul and African migrants, as well as the local Christian community.
Fener Greek Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew presided over a Christmas Day mass at Aya Yorgi Church in the courtyard of the patriarchate building. Greek Orthodox faithful from Greece and European countries were among those who attended the mass.
At St. Anthony, Turkish visitors also watched the Christmas services while the Beyoğlu mayor addressed the congregation.
Though it is not a formal church, perhaps the most meaningful Christmas Eve service was in a house in Selçuk, a town in the Aegean province of İzmir. A large crowd of local and foreign faithful visited Meryem Ana Evi (Abode of Virgin Mary) for a service presided by Polish priest Maciej Sokolowski.
The place is believed to have been occupied by Mary and built by the Apostle John. The Catholic faithful believe she underwent her Assumption in the house which was discovered after a series of visions by a 19th century nun, Anne Catherine Emmerich.
The country's leaders also extended Christmas greetings on the occasion. In a message released by the presidential office, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said, "I congratulate our Christian citizens on the occasion of Christmas. Turkey's culture of tolerance has enabled a wide range of beliefs and traditions to live together in peace in its region. The lands of Anatolia have always served as a safe harbor for all who escape from conflict, persecution, war and oppression."
President Erdoğan went on to say that Turkey has always viewed diversity as a "valuable asset."
"We, as the adherents of an ancient tradition that is based on respect for thoughts, beliefs and basic human rights, regard the presence in our geography of different religions and cultures as a valuable asset today as well," he said.
"This understanding, which constitutes the basis of our nation's peace, security, unity and solidarity, is the greatest power we have that will enable our peaceful coexistence in the future, too," he continued. "I wish that Christmas, celebrated by our Christian citizens from different denominations, traditions and churches in line with their beliefs, will lead to the strengthening of the climate of solidarity in our country. I wish our Christian citizens and the whole Christian world a Merry Christmas."