Turkey: Turkish Protestants Seek Legal Status

Besiktas, Turkey - On Istanbul’s official municipality site map, the Besiktas Protestant Church is marked in green, signifying a building used for religious purposes.

So for all practical purposes, it is clear that the administration of Turkey’s largest city considers the building a church.

In fact, that is exactly how the three-level structure has been used ever since it was purchased five years ago to serve a congregation now numbering 35. In addition to a sanctuary on the top floor, the building houses several offices, meeting rooms, a library and a small nursery, together with a kitchen and dining area on one level.

At least 25 other Turkish Protestant congregations meet throughout the city in rented or purchased facilities, many also marked in green on the site map.

“Even the Koca Mustafa Pasha church, which meets in a basement, is shown,” one of the Besiktas church leaders noted. “But the map is a usage map, rather than a municipal zoning plan.”

And there lies the rub, local Protestants say.

'Calling [a Building] a Place of Worship is Different'

“The issue is not the right to worship,” Izmir pastor Zekai Tanyar told Compass. “The courts have upheld that right. But calling [a building] a place of worship is different.”

For decades, the Turkish penal code prohibited the use of “apartment flats, shops and free-standing buildings” as places of worship, either by Muslims or non-Muslim religious minorities. Although Turkey’s 70 million people are overwhelmingly Muslim, the country’s tiny religious mosaic includes an ethnic minority of less than 100,000 Armenian, Syrian and Greek Orthodox Christians, together with 25,000 Jewish citizens.

But in the drive to obtain membership in the European Union (EU), the Turkish government has included cosmetic legal reforms giving a vague nod to the concept of opening new churches and other non-Muslim places of worship.

According to Tanyar, chairman of the legal committee for the Alliance of Protestant Churches (APC) in Turkey, the problem is establishing an official, legal identity.

“Where the whole thing falls down is whether you can be considered a legal entity, to have your own bank accounts, to pay pastors, to have official status and own the building as a religious group,” Tanyar noted. Local police authorities have even forced some congregations to remove modest signs identifying their building as a church.

Church Buildings Lack Legal Status

Currently a total of 55 Protestant churches are publicly identified as places of worship in the major cities of Turkey, although all are not affiliated with the APC. However, none of these facilities have been able to acquire formal, legal status as church buildings.

Although Istanbul’s Altintepe Protestant Church, which won unique foundation status in a December 2000 court ruling confirmed in two Supreme Court appeals, shares this same problem, in practical terms it operates as a legal entity.

Two Protestant churches who subsequently applied for church foundation status were denied by the government, which advised them to instead request association status. Ankara’s Kurtulus Church was granted full association status in March. “Now we can do all kinds of activities,” Pastor Ihsan Ozbek said.

So a growing number of Turkish congregations are exploring the bureaucratic application process to become an association, which then authorizes them to start setting up a church.

“This is not a complete answer,” APC lawyer Orhan Kemal Cengiz told Compass, noting that associations could not be labeled churches as such. “They are instead associations to form churches.” But right now, he said, “This is the only way to become a legal church.”

Approvals Vary Among Government Officials

Since no unified “state attitude” has yet been spelled out on this sensitive process, Cengiz admitted, the path of necessary approvals seems to vary according to the attitude of both local and high-level government officials.

“Some officials want to create more obstacles for these churches, some want to find a middle way, and others want full-fledged religious freedom,” he said.

Over the past two decades, an estimated 3,000 Turkish Muslims have converted to Christianity. Under the laws of the secular state, Turkish citizens are allowed to record this legal change of their religion on their official identity cards, although only a few hundred have done so.

Legal Obstacles

Over the past four years, city construction and zoning regulations have been cited as one legal obstacle preventing newly formed congregations of Turkish Christians from worshipping in buildings they may have rented or purchased.

In Diyarbakir a year ago in May, a criminal court dropped all charges filed against a Protestant pastor for opening an “illegal” church. The Diyarbakir Protestant Church then faced strong opposition by a local committee of the Turkish Ministry of Culture, insisting the church property was not properly zoned for the place of worship they had built.

Another obstacle raised was the alleged requirement that every place of worship be situated on a plot at least 2,500 square meters in area. In Diyarbakir and most other cities of Turkey, only the local Grand Mosque meets this requirement. Nevertheless, after Ankara officials weighed in on the local objections, a final municipality approval is expected for the church building later this week.

Still another legal loophole is a federal statute requiring owners of one floor or apartment within a residential building to obtain written permission from the other owners of the building if they want to use it as a public place, such as for church services.

Two years ago, an Istanbul court cited this regulation in a blanket rejection of lawsuits for legal status filed by eight separate congregations in the city. Photocopies of the decision were sent to each church, despite the fact that several of the groups were worshipping in free-standing buildings, to which the regulation does not apply. The churches’ separate appeals of the decision are all still pending.

Some Authorities Refuse to Register a New Church

In some cases, local authorities have refused to even consider registering a new church. In the Black Sea city of Samsun, Pastor Orhan Picaklar of Agape House was told that his building and property was too small and that nearby neighbors would be disturbed by their worship.

“Our building is in fact 660 square meters,” Picaklar said, making it one of the largest Protestant structures in use in Turkey. “But it seems the authorities want to view it as a house church.”

In the Avcilar district of Istanbul, a small congregation led by Australian Ian McLure won a formal acquittal two years ago on charges of holding illegal meetings in their rented building. But then they were promptly threatened with prosecution for not complying with zoning laws dictating where religious buildings could be established.

So the Avcilar congregation moved out of its premises and has since applied to buy land close to an existing mosque and an Alawite worship center. “The land is available and suitable,” McLure said, “so there is no justification for us to be refused.”

According to a September 2003 communique from the Interior Ministry outlining the procedure for opening new places of worship, it is theoretically possible for local municipalities to re-zone the property of buildings already functioning as churches. But so far no town planners are known to have implemented such a re-zoning.

“Churches can’t be legally harassed very easily after they’ve formed associations,” Pastor Carlos Madrigal of the Altintepe Protestant Church observed, “but it’s still possible.

“Nevertheless, the state has shown the churches the way, and we need to follow it. If we do not do so, it would be like not giving Caesar his due. In the long run, we will be able to set up churches. And according to the European Constitution, free expression of religion will become an established fact of life in Turkey.”

Some Opt for 'House Churches'

But some Protestant groups have opted for “house churches,” with 40 or more groups meeting in small numbers in private homes for prayer, Bible study and worship rather than pursuing any formalized official status.

“I would hate to see the church fall under the conditions mosques are in here now, under government control,” one expatriate Christian admitted. “If this is the price of formalizing the relationship with the state, I’m not interested.”

While such a stance might not be patently illegal, lawyer Cengiz believes such house churches could make it more difficult for congregations trying to legalize themselves.

Several Turkish Protestant churches currently meet in chapel buildings on foreign consulate or European church properties, thus remaining outside the formal reach of Turkish law.

With a place of worship secured for the Istanbul Presbyterian Church in the Anglican All Saints’ Church in Moda, Pastor Turgay Ucal admitted he has stopped pushing for legal status. “We can afford to be patient for some years yet, while our congregation grows in numbers and maturity,” he explained. Perhaps then, he said, Turkish society would be ready to accept their legal presence.

“The issue of the legalization of Protestant churches is under constant and close scrutiny,” a source from a European embassy in Ankara confirmed to Compass last week. “It will continue to be one of the topics on the agenda of the EU.”