The Turkish government’s expropriation of large swaths of land in the Kurdish majority southeast, including six churches, has been met with anger by residents of the region as well as world-wide diaspora communities.
Turkey has been fighting the banned PKK (Kurdish Workers Party) in the Diyarbakir province, including the historical Sur area, for 10 months, after tensions flared due to a combination of factors, including the Islamic State’s bid to conquer Kobani, a Kurdish city on the Turkish-Syrian border.
The tensions marked a break in the two-year peace negotiations between the Turkish government and the PKK and have resulted in hundreds of civilians killed by the Turks.
Last month, Turkey’s Islamist government passed a law regarding the “urgent expropriation of the Sur district” of the Diyarbakir province, taking control of 82 percent of the region’s properties, including all of the area’s Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant churches. The government said that the move was necessary to rebuild and restore the area’s historic center.
Included in the expropriation was a 1,700-year-old church that pre-dates Islam, as well as a church built in 2003 and the 400-year-old Surp Giragos Church, the largest Armenian church in the Middle East.
The Diyarbakir Municipality appealed the decision, saying it would result in the displacement of 50,000 people and that it violates seven articles of the Turkish constitution. The Turkish government responded that it also took control of local mosques, such as the Kursunlu mosque, which was originally an Armenian church. In addition, the municipality notes mosques are already under government control due to their state funding which covers maintenance and salaries of imams.
Diyarbakir was once the site of a thriving Christian community. However, the community was decimated in the genocide perpetrated by the Turks against Armenians and Christian minorities beginning in 1915. Remnants of that community are descendants of survivors of the genocide who returned to their historic homeland – mainly Armenians, Assyrians and Chaldeans – as well as Turkish converts.