Turkish Authorities Block Use of Protestant Church

Wednesday, November 20, 2002

Diyarbakir Council Declares Worship Place ‘Illegal’
by Barbara G. Baker

ISTANBUL, November 20 (Compass) -- Seven months after the newly constructed Diyarbakir Evangelical Church opened in southeast Turkey, a local council under the Ministry of Culture and Tourism has again protested against the building’s use as a place of worship.

Pastor Ahmet Guvener was served written notice on October 30 by the Diyarbakir Culture and Natural Structures Protection Council that the use of his building for any purpose except as a home was illegal.

Signed by Mehriban Karaaslan, the document declared that the building violated Law No. 2863 regulating the protection of historical sites. It is assumed this is a reference to the location of the new church, which stands opposite the ancient Syrian Orthodox community’s historic Virgin Mary Church. Both churches are in the city’s traditionally Christian neighborhood of Lalebey.

The notice declared that police photographs of the building and two complaints filed on October 2 and October 20 confirmed that it was being used as a church. Emphasizing that the structure cannot be used as a place of worship, the council stated it was “obliged” to notify local authorities of this breach of the law, so that either a court case would be opened or the building closed to prevent its misuse.

In response to the council’s notice, Guvener applied to the local municipality on November 4, requesting that the building’s zoning status be changed to a place of worship.

The same day, the pastor also sent letters to Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul and Interior Minister Abdulkadir Aksu in Ankara, asking for their intervention in legalizing the church. To date, Guvener has received no response.

While municipality officials have been consistently cooperative toward the new church, Guvener said, they have no actual authority and take their orders from the governate’s security officials and appointed representatives.

“There are at least 50 Turkish Protestant churches like ours which are all in a similar situation,” Guvener told Compass. “Most of them do not possess a building like we do, but they suffer the same difficulties with their local authorities.”

Under Turkey’s antiquated laws, there are no provisions for the building of new churches. As a result, local Protestant congregations have constructed meeting places as private residences, and then petitioned local authorities to declare them places of worship.

“This creates a contradiction,” Guvener said, since under Turkey’s secular laws, “We have the right to become Christians. Yet we cannot build for ourselves places of worship.”

Both city and Ministry of Culture officials had approved the original blueprints for the building in February 2001. These architectural plans clearly depict a pulpit, pews, separate men’s and women’s bathrooms and a baptistery on the main floor, designated as the sanctuary. But when the exterior construction was nearly completed in November, 2001, Karaaslan’s council ordered work halted and the site sealed.

Another 10 months passed before government officials finally accepted a revised blueprint in July 2002, allowing the building’s interior to be completed for use.

Meanwhile, Guvener was put on trial in May 2002, accused of making illegal structural alterations in the three-story building registered in his name. As the legal owner, the pastor declared in his defense that he had never disguised the building’s purpose. This past February, a criminal court judge ruled that the charges against Guvener were “unfounded” and dismissed the case.

Although officially a private home, the building has been functioning openly as a center for Christian worship and fellowship for its 50-member congregation since April 6 of this year.

Now that a sign engraved in the basalt façade has been uncovered, declaring the building the “Diyarbakir Evangelical Church,” an average of 200 visitors stop by every week to see the new church, talk with the pastor or acquire a New Testament.