Church Construction Halted Since November
by Barbara G. Baker
ISTANBUL, May 7 (Compass) -- Protestant pastor Ahmet Guvener goes on trial in Turkey's southeastern city of Diyarbakir in late May, accused by the state prosecutor of making illegal changes in the architectural plan of his nearly completed church building.
If found guilty of the charges filed before the Diyarbakir Criminal Court, the Turkish pastor could be sentenced to two to five years in jail. The first hearing in the case is set for May 28.
Meanwhile, Guvener and his small congregation are shut out of their new building, which was only a month from completion when Turkish authorities intervened to stop the construction last November. The premises have been locked and sealed for the past six months.
Architectural plans for the three-story building had been approved in February 2001 by both the municipality and the Ministry of Culture. Registered in the pastor's name of Guvener, as he owns the property, the building includes living accommodations for the pastor and his family, as well as a modest sanctuary on the main floor. But on November 26, the pastor received abrupt orders to halt construction.
Initially, Guvener was told by representatives of the Diyarbakir Council for the Protection of Cultural and Natural Riches that the style of windows installed in the building were not in conformity to those required in Diyarbakir's protected "old town" where the building is located.
Then he was informed that an archeologist and architect from the council had concluded during an October 23 visit to the site that his plan was "not proper" and "to a great extent blocked the view" of the ancient Syrian Orthodox church just across the street, thus violating the zoning requirements for protected historical sites.
However, the underlying objection voiced to the council by the governor of Diyarbakir was over the building's intended use for worship by Turkish Christians.
According to a Diyarbakir city official who requested anonymity, the story was spread through the Turkish media that Guvener had applied for permission to build a home for himself, while secretly planning to turn it into a church.
"It wasn't until after the 'Ceviz Kabugu' talk shows on TV last November raised public debate about Christian missionary activities in Turkey and articles appeared in the weekly Aydinlik magazine against this particular church that a problem was raised about this," the official admitted.
Both Guvener and his architect told Compass they had clear-cut evidence that they had never disguised the purpose of the building.
"Before the city engineers approved the architectural plan," Guvener said, "they asked us to remove the last row of pews in the sanctuary, to prevent a fire hazard, because it was to be used as a public place." The plans also included a baptismal pool and pulpit, both clearly marked on the drawings.
"Our consciences are very clear," the church's architect confirmed. "Not from a technical standpoint nor in any other way did we ever try to deceive the city authorities about this building." Although a few small changes had become necessary during the building's construction, Guvener said, he had later submitted these to the authorities and received retroactive approval.
Over the past few months, the Ministry of Culture's Diyarbakir Council has tried to dictate major changes in the architectural plan before allowing the construction to resume. Guvener has been told to remove the kitchen and one of the two restrooms from the plan, and also to construct a wall on the main floor that would split the sanctuary into two smaller rooms.
Turkish authorities have defended the halted church construction as simply an administrative order to enforce legal building codes and zoning regulations. In response to an inquiry from a member of the Swedish Parliament, Turkish Ambassador Selim Kuneralp claimed that Guvener's "attempt to build [a church] without authorization in a protected part of the city has been prevented."
The January 8 letter stated that building permission had been "withdrawn" because "the construction did not conform to the original project" and also cited its proximity to the Syrian Orthodox community's Virgin Mary Church.
The new Protestant church is located in a traditionally Christian district of Diyarbakir, just across a narrow street from the city's ancient Syrian Orthodox church complex in the Sur municipality's Lalebey neighborhood.
"So where is our congregation supposed to worship?" asked Guvener, noting that they now number around 40 Turks, including families with children. Married with four children, Guvener, 37, converted to Christianity 11 years ago.
"Maybe the Turkish state, or someone in it, feels there is a genuine danger of massive turnings to the Christian faith," commented one observer close to the situation. "Otherwise, why are they making such a hullabaloo about it? It's hard to believe that reasonable people are concerned, except as a political ploy."