Yet another example of intolerance has taken place in the southeastern Turkish city of Sanliurfa (Urfa)—the historic Assyrian Church of St. Peter and St. Paul in the city is now being used as a municipality-owned cultural center and the foundation of the Islamic school of Harran University.
According to sources, the church was used actively until 1924, when Assyrians (Syriac Christians) left for Aleppo.
Locals call the church “the Regie Church”, because Tekel, the Turkish tobacco and alcoholic beverage company, had once used it as a tobacco factory. This tobacco factory had been known as the Regie Tobacco Company in Ottoman times, and was nationalized in 1925.
It was also used as a grape storehouse for decades. After its restoration in 1998, it hosted a carpet-making class. In 2002, it became the “Kemalettin Gazezoglu Cultural Center,” named after the governor of the city. Today, a part of it has been given to a foundation that runs the Islamic school at the city’s university.
Turkey has used the historic church for many different purposes—except for its intended purpose: a church.
Called Edessa in ancient times, Urfa has been inhabited since prehistoric times. The modern city was founded in 304 B.C by Seleucus I Nicator.
In the late 2nd century, as the Seleucid dynasty disintegrated, it successively became a Parthian, Armenian, and Roman state, and eventually an Eastern Roman (Byzantine) province. It was frequently conquered during periods when the Byzantine central government was weak, due to its location on the eastern frontier of the Empire. It fell to the Muslim conquest in 639 but was briefly retaken by Byzantium in 1031. It then fell to the Turkic Zengid dynasty in 1144, and was eventually absorbed by the Ottoman Empire in 1517.
Edessa was an important early center of Syriac Christianity. For Armenians, too, the city is significant since it is believed that the Armenian alphabet was invented there.
But the traces of Assyrian, Armenian, and Greek Christians have been systematically erased from the city by Muslim governments and residents throughout centuries.
Scholar Ian Wilson describes the current absence of the Christian heritage in his proposal for an archaeological survey of the city as follows:
“For any Christian… Urfa appears to offer nothing of Christian interest even when you get there. To the best of my knowledge there is not a single Christian church, and certainly not an ancient one, the Moslem minaret being all-pervading…Yet if we could turn the clock back just over a thousand years, say to 943 AD, what a different picture of Edessa/Urfa we would find! Despite the city even then having fallen under Moslem control (though Arab rather than Turkish), we would find a full-blooded city, as distinct from a town, almost literally bristling with Christian churches and monasteries, numbering more than three hundred, according to one Arab geographer. At least three different rival denominations were represented, and the Christian pilgrim and tourist trade was then already at least six centuries old.”
All this is history now. Urfa today is an all-Muslim city. Christians were exposed to mass murders several times ever since Turks arrived from the Central Asia in Anatolia and Mesopotamia in the 11th century.
Between 1894 and 1896, for example, a series of massacres spread through nearly every major Armenian-inhabited town of the Ottoman Empire.
The massacres culminated in the single worst atrocity “with the burning of the Armenian cathedral of Urfa within whose walls some 3,000 Armenians had taken refuge during the siege of their neighborhood,” according to the Armenian National Institute.
Assyrian Christians too were targeted in the massacres. “In October 1895 the Turkish army and Hamidian troops entered Urfa and killed 13 thousand Assyrians,” writes Dr. Anahit Khosroyeva in her article “A History of the Assyrian Genocide.”
But the gravest attack that exterminated the majority of Assyrian Christians in the region happened in the 1915.
Historian Paul R. Bartrop writes in his book Encountering Genocide: Personal Accounts from Victims, Perpetrators, and Witnesses:
“The Assyrian genocide… took place alongside those of the Armenians and the Pontic and Anatolian Greeks, during and after World War 1. At the start of the twentieth century, the Assyrian population in the Ottoman Empire numbered about one million, and was concentrated largely in what are now Iran, Iraq, and Turkey. As with the Armenian genocide, a large proportion of the Assyrian deaths occurred as a result of death marches into the Syrian Desert. Most of those who died were the victims of heat, starvation and thirst, exposure, and incessant brutality… The Assyrian population throughout the Empire was subjected to massacre, deportation, dismemberment, torture, and other atrocities. Whole cities were depopulated, and, when not killed outright, the inhabitants were sent on the aforementioned death marches.”
The Ottoman Turkish party the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP) was the planner and organizer of the genocide. According to many scholars, including Professor Bartrop, the major motivations of the perpetrators were the Turkification and Islamization of the region.
“One of the major factors contributing to the Turkish campaign against Christian minorities was the pre-war commitment to the Turkification of the empire. Accompanying this was an Islamic incentive, whereby the Turkish national dimension could be wedded to an Islamic revival for the caliphate… Accordingly, on Oct. 11, 1914, Sultan Mehmet V declared jihad (holy war) against all the Christians living in the Empire. The call to holy war was reaffirmed on Nov. 14, 1914, by the Sheikh al-Islam, the most senior Islamic cleric in the Ottoman Empire. It was directed toward all Christians, hitting particularly hard for those of Armenian, Assyrian and Greek descent,” Bartrop writes
What followed was the confiscation, plunder, and seizure of Christian properties.
“The state-orchestrated plunder of Armenian property immediately impoverished its victims,” according to scholar Umit Kurt, in his article “The Plunder of Wealth through Abandoned Properties Laws in the Armenian Genocide.”
“This was simultaneously a condition for and a consequence of the genocide. The seizure of the Armenian property was not just a byproduct of the CUP’s genocidal policies, but an integral part of the murder process, reinforcing and accelerating the intended destruction. The expropriation and plunder of deported Armenians’ movable and immovable properties was an essential component of the destruction process of Armenians… Genocide does not only mean physical annihilation,” according to Kurt. “What is important is the complete erasure of the traces of the Armenians from their ancient homeland.”
This attempt to erase the traces of the genocide victims has been applied to Anatolian Greeks and Assyrians, as well.
The homes, businesses, churches, monasteries, and other economic, religious and cultural sites of Assyrians were systematically seized by government officials or Muslim locals. Churches and monasteries were either destroyed or used for sacrilegious purposes, such as stables or storehouses.
Turkey today has a smaller Christian percentage of its population than all of its neighbors including Syria, Iraq and Iran. Only less than 0.2% of Turkey’s population is now Christian.
Though the constitution is officially secular, Christianity as well as other non-Muslim faiths are under the constant pressure and attacks at the hands of the Turkish government. Persecution stemming from this destructive worldview has turned the indigenous and once flourishing Christian community into an almost-extinct, second class minority that are still not allowed to live as equal citizens who can freely practice their faith on their native lands.