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ICC NOTE: Bursa once was a thriving community of multicultural and multi-faith interaction. Turkey in general though has seen a shift to the more conservative wing of Islam which adheres to more traditional teachings and does not include the freedom for other faiths without approval or other arrangements. The city’s only church houses four different Christian congregations due to restrictive permit laws within Turkey. Government officials previously told congregants they must vacate the building by February 26 for legal violations. Thankfully due to unforeseen circumstances they have rescinded the order to vacate the premises allowing for the pillar of a once proud past to remain as a beacon of hope for religious freedom for all. 

2/25/2016 Bursa, Turkey (World Watch Monitor) – The local government of the northwestern Turkish city of Bursa ordered that its only church, which serves four congregations, be vacated by Friday (26 Feb.) before rescinding the order on Tuesday.

Ismail Kulakcioglu, the pastor of the Protestant congregation, said they were given less than a week to vacate the building. Approximately 200 Christians share the church for their Sunday worship services.

The Directorate General of Foundations originally gave oral notice to church leaders on 18 Feb. that they had only five days to leave. It eventually extended the deadline by three days, before removing the order to vacate altogether on 23 Feb.

Four different branches of Christianity congregate in the building, officially known as the French Church Cultural Centre. They include Latin Catholic, German Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestant fellowships. Under Turkish law, non-Muslim faith communities face significant legal hurdles in registering an officially sanctioned house of worship. Multiple congregations often share the same space.

On Tuesday, the Bursa municipality and the Directorate General of Foundations announced that Christians would not be prevented from using the church.
Kulakcioglu noted that the city government’s original decision to close the church was at odds with its self-proclaimed image as a city of religious tolerance.

In a press release, Kulakcioglu said that he and the local government considered Turkey to be a cultural mosaic, and they did not want to see this mosaic smashed to pieces.

The pastor already has an appointment to meet with the Bursa mayor, Recep Altepe, to sign a new protocol for future use of the church building.

In 2013, city officials and church leaders hosted a delegation of Christian and Muslim theologians from Germany as part of an inter-religious dialogue initiative. Elpidophoros Lambriniadis, the Greek Orthodox metropolitan of Bursa, has praised the Catholic congregation for allowing Orthodox Christians to worship there.

Bursa is a conservative city of 2 million in the industrial Marmara region of Turkey. Located 100 miles (160km) southeast of Istanbul, Turks have nicknamed it “Green Bursa,” both for its nearby forests and its Islamic identity.

The church is a relic of a time when Bursa had a large non-Muslim population. It was built in the 1880s to serve local French-speaking people from the Levant (especially Lebanon) – Latin Catholics who lived under the Ottoman Empire – as part of a complex that included the Pere Augustin Assumption College. French Christians are buried in the nearby cemetery.

The four congregations moved into the church after restoring it between 2002 and 2004. They reopened it for worship after signing a protocol with the Bursa municipality.

The eviction order came from a supposed lapse in the protocol. It expired in 2015, and the Bursa municipality told the congregations to reapply. Their renewal application was received positively, but an element within the city council opposed it, Kulakcioglu said.

Bursa’s city council grants use of the building for religious purposes and the Directorate General of Foundations owns the property.

Failure to institutionalise religious freedoms

For decades, the church sat in ruins. Aykan Erdemir, a Turkish academic who grew up in Bursa and is now a fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told World Watch Monitor that as a child he played among the piles of rubble with friends. He saw the church’s reopening as a symbol of Bursa rediscovering its multicultural past.

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