International Christian Concern (ICC) has observed a marked increase of reported religious freedom violations within Turkey since the start of the New Year. While most of these recent violations mainly impact church buildings, they also include a lack of interest by the authorities of pursuing and protecting justice for Christian victims.
Turkey's historic churches are often inaccessible for traditional Christians because of government regulations. Churches are seen as a source of income both by the government (faith tourism) and by society (treasure hunters). Otherwise, church buildings are neglected by the government and often turned into mosques. Recent incidents include:
- Restoration of Saint Michael Church in Trabzon Province completed with the intention to open as a museum later this year.
- Destruction of St. Toros Armenian Church in Kütahya Province despite its designation as an "Immovable Requiring Protection."
- Frequent excavations by treasure hunters led to the collapse of the only surviving chapel of Ai Dimitri Monastery in Balıkesir Province.
- Treasure hunters defile Aya Yani Church in Bursa Province despite the government having placed the church under preservation.
- The Church of the Virgin Mary in Germuş is defiled by an organized barbeque party in Şanlıurfa Province.
- Announcement of transforming the Holy Trinity Armenian Church in Konya Province into an Art Center.
- The Armenian Catholic Church in Bursa is listed for sale at $800k despite it being reportedly located on a territory that is considered historical heritage.
- Turkish President Erdogan wishes the country a blessed Friday (Islamic holiday) by sharing a picture of Kars Armenian Cathedral converted into a mosque.
It is important to note that though causality is not proven, this increase of religious freedom violations impacting church buildings has occurred while the US has negotiated and signed a cultural property agreement with Turkey. Many within the Christian community have expressed concern that such an agreement validates Turkey's activities of erasing, appropriating, and profiting from church buildings and other Christian artifacts.
In addition to these issues impacting church buildings, ICC is highlighting the following religious freedom concerns which occurred throughout the month of January:
- Syriac monk Father Sefer Bilecen has his trial delayed after the government filed terrorist charges against him for giving bread and water to monastery visitors.
- One year has now passed following the disappearance of elderly Christians Hurmüz and Şimuni Diril with no serious investigation by the Turkish authorities to identify and hold the culprits accountable.
- Fourteen years have now passed since the assassination of Armenian journalist Hrant Dink with no serious investigation by the Turkish authorities to identify and hold the culprits accountable
Claire Evans, ICC's Regional Manager for the Middle East, said, "Freedom of conscience is the bedrock of a diverse and healthy society. Yet we have observed Turkey's religious freedom violations increasing for a period of years. The rapid escalation of these violations within the past several weeks is very concerning, and they run parallel to comparable escalations in countries where Turkey has a military presence. These violations should be taken seriously and they are indicative that something is very severely wrong as regards to religious freedom in Turkey."