In a year in which in Istanbul the Turkish authorities have authorised the re-use for Islamic worship of the ancient Christian basilica of Hagia Sophia and of the ancient church of San Salvatore in Chora, on the outskirts of that same city the first church built from scratch in Turkish territory since 1923 – the year of the proclamation of the Republic of Turkey – is going up in record time.
This is the church dedicated to St. Ephrem, which is being erected in a few months at the request of the local Syriac Orthodox community in the Yesilkoy neighbourhood (Bakirkoy district), in an area not far from Ataturk International Airport.
The works for the construction of the church, authorised at the beginning of 2019 and launched on August 3 of that same year in the presence of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, are in the pipeline, and it is expected that the building will be finished in the first half of 2021.
The new place of worship will be able to accommodate more than 700 faithful, and will also house the seat of Metropolitan Yusuf Çetin, the head of the local Syriac Orthodox Christian community.
Turkish media supporters of President Erdogan flag the speed of construction of the church as a sign of the Turkish leader’s magnanimity towards local Christian communities, also as a way of countering the controversy and criticism raised around the world by the reopening of Hagia Sofia to Islamic worship .
In recent years, Turkish political leaders have repeatedly shown special signs of attention towards the Syriac Christian communities, so much so that observers and commentators have talked about the existence of a “Turkish plan” aimed at positioning Turkey as a new “homeland” for the many Syriac Christians residing in Syria and Europe, and whose ancestors resided in Turkish territory.
In the early years of the conflict in Syria, the Turkish authorities had set up a refugee camp for Syriac Christians in Mydiat (for centuries the center of a Syriac-Christian enclave in the province of Mardin), capable of hosting 4,000 refugees.
Currently, about 25,000 Syriac Christians live in Turkey, mostly concentrated in the suburbs of Istanbul.