CHURCHES and land in the south-eastern Turkish city of Diyarbakir have reportedly been taken over by the authorities, in a move that has caused alarm among Christians.
The expropriations came after months of fighting in the region between Turkish armed forces and Kurdish separatists, which has damaged much of the city.
The government says that it is taking over the buildings because it wants to rebuild and restore them, but some Christians fear that their historic places of worship will not be returned to them.
The New York Times reported that Armenian Christians in Diyarbakir, whose 1700-year-old St Giragos’s Church was among those seized, believe that the government wishes to force them and non-Sunni Muslims out of the area.
Armenian historians and activists told the newspaper that confiscations of property and forced relocation were hallmarks of the 1915 genocide, in which Turkey deported and killed up to 1.5 million Armenians.
As well as Armenian Catholic churches, Syriac Orthodox, Chaldean Catholic, and Protestant churches in the district around Diyarbakir have also been expropriated by the government. Some of the churches have also been badly damaged in the fighting.
The Turkish Prime Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, has released a video showing the government’s plan for the restoration of Diyarbakir. But religious minorities, fearful of being forced out of their homeland, are alarmed at some words in the video: “The call to prayer that rises from Diyarbakir’s minarets will not be quieted down.”
The government of the President, Tayyip Recip Erdogan, has been seen as increasingly Islamist and authoritarian in recent years.
A report this week by Christian Solidarity Worldwide has claimed that discrimination against religious minorities has now spread into the education system, and civil liberties, including freedom of expression, are now under threat.
The city’s Bar Association has begun legal proceedings against the government in an attempt to force them hand back the land and churches.
A former mayor of Diyarbakir, Abdullah Demirbas, told The New York Times: “The government wants to seize the heart of Diyarbakir and singularize it, ridding it of its rich multi-faith and multicultural structure.”
The pastor of Diyarbakir Protestant Church, Ahmet Guvener, told the website World Watch Monitor, which reports on the persecution of Christians, that he, too, was considering filing a lawsuit.
“The government didn’t take over these pieces of property in order to protect them. They did so to acquire them,” he said.