Three years after a Syrian Orthodox foundation applied to build a church in Istanbul, Turkey, the Greater Istanbul Municipality has granted them a large plot of land and a building permit.
The only catch? The land is actually a Latin Catholic graveyard.
Banner headlines in the Turkish media praised the early-December decision as "a first in the history of the Republic," declaring that never before had Turkey allowed a non-Muslim minority to build an official new house of worship. (Existing churches in Turkey predate the republic's founding in 1923.) Still, Syriac Christians were far from pleased because the land they were granted does not rightfully belong to the city.
"We don't want a Syriac church on top of a cemetery!" the website suryaniler.com stated. "This is a big scandal."
The graveyard had been donated back in 1868 to the Italian Catholic Church but was officially registered as Catholic property in 1936, although later confiscated in 1951 by Istanbul officials.
The Council of Europe's 2011 progress report noted that Turkey was not fully implementing Law No. 3998, which states that cemeteries belonging to minority communities can no longer be taken over by local municipalities.
According to lawyer Nail Karakas, the Latin Catholic foundation had applied to the city last summer, in accordance with the government's August 2011 pledge to restore expropriated minority properties, in order to regain possession of their property and resume Christian burials in the graveyard.
As a result, Syriac leaders are insisting that the cemetery land newly designated for their church be returned instead to its rightful owners.
"It is clear that [the authorities] want to cause conflict between the minority communities," commented Syriac layman Sabo Boyaci.
More than 15,000 Syriac Christians have immigrated to Istanbul in recent decades. Without any official church of their own, the parishes worship in rented Catholic buildings located throughout the city.