While many Islamic Middle-Eastern countries are forcing Christians out of their lands, Turkey is taking the opposite approach by building a new Christian church for the first time since 1923.
The new church will be for the country's small Syriac Christian community and will be built in the Istanbul suburb of Yesilkoy, right near other Greek Orthodox, Armenian, and Catholic churches on the shores of the Sea of Marmara.
Syriac Christianity is a traditionally Middle-Eastern denomination of Christianity that still speaks the ancient Aramaic language of the 5th century B.C. and thought to be the language of Jesus. In Turkey, the Syriac population is only around 20,000 people who live in the southeastern part of the country, with the majority being either Orthodox or Catholic traditions.
"It is the first since the creation of the republic," a government source reported on Saturday, explaining that the creation of new churches was banned after the Ottoman rule crumbled in 1923. "Churches have been restored and reopened to the public, but no new church has been built until now."
Even though Turkey is 99 percent Muslim, the officially secular government approved the new church to be built on land donated by the local council and paid for by a Syriac group. It's said that the church is being built as a show of solidarity among the world religions and is meant to act as part of Turkey's bid to join the European Union Amlara.
Although originally a Christian nation, Turkey has a long history of Muslim culture dating back to the rise of the Ottoman empire in 1453 when Constantinople (now Istanbul) was first conquered. The ruling sultan at the time ordered the Hagia Sophia Greek Orthodox church to be converted to a mosque, but the building has served as a museum since 1935.
But in July of 2013, controversy arose as the Hagia Sophia was used for first Friday prayers during the Muslim celebration of Ramadan. Many Christians accused Turkey of trying to erase its Christian past, but Adnan Ertem, the General Director of Foundations, disagreed. "The population of this city consists of Muslims. If the majority are Muslims, the places of worship need to be mosques," he said. "Suppose that the majority of this city was Christians or Jews, would they keep this place as a museum?"
A local court agreed that the occupation of the church for the Ramadan prayer was illegal, ordering a stop to the prayers in a further attempt to show the country's push for a separation of church and state.
Turkey's ruling political party, the Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi (AK Party) is thought to be pro-Western culture and described as "Neo-Ottomanist." The party disavows any notion that it's an Islamic party and considers itself "conservative-democratic."
There is no word yet on when construction on the new church is expected to begin or end.