Passions Over St. Giragos: Turkish government decision to expropriate Armenian church sparks controversy

The Turkish government has decided to expropriate 6,300 structures and plots of land in the Sur district of Diyarbakir (one of the largest cities in southeastern Turkey), which includes St. Giragos Armenian church, one of the largest churches in the Middle East that belongs to the Armenian community. The decision caused concerns and anxiety among Armenians living in different parts of the world. In 2011, through their donations, St. Giragos was reopened and consecrated.

Answering the Turkey-based Armenian Agos newspaper’s questions, Adnan Ertem, the General Directorate for Foundations Director, said: “This expropriation decision is not about historical structures or civil architecture. We want to preserve them.”

“Left to its own fate for years, the church was finally restored and opened to worship after long lasted efforts. Sur is the only center that has places of worship for non-Muslims. With the help of funding campaigns started in the US and other countries, the church was restored. About 2 million Turkish liras were spent for restoration. Assyrian and Protestant churches have also been expropriated by the same decision,” reads Agos.

Andranik Ispiryan, an expert in Turkish studies, said the authorities set a ban to go out to streets in the Sur district due to possible clashes with Kurdish active population. As a result, after the prohibition, the Turkish security forces began active operations to clear that part from armed Kurds. According to the expert, St. Giragos was less affected because it had high walls and was well fortified from outside.

“The Turkish government wants to clean up the buildings, which were built at different times by the Kurds and dilapidated due to recent clashes. Instead, the government wants to build new structures through the means of the state’s largest construction company. By this, the government will clean the area from Kurdish population, which has constantly been rebelling against it, and they will inhabit the place with new people instead. Unfortunately the Armenian church has appeared in the center of the Turkish-Kurdish conflict. The Turkish officials made the decision of expropriation hastily,” the expert told ArmeniaNow.

Nevertheless, the expert said that the expropriation of Kurds’ houses is a controversial issue, and it is possible that in the coming days some lawsuits may be filed by Kurds against that decision, because it violates a number of European conventions, including the right to property.

“St. Giragos is officially registered and owned by the Armenian community. It is a historical and cultural structure. We did not have precedent, but some abandoned and ruined churches were expropriated previously. This will have a great response. The decision is not yet clear and is highly controversial. First, to expropriate an operating church, which belongs to a national minority, without legal proceedings, even in Turkey is illegal. It is contrary to the provisions of the Lausanne Treaty on the Rights of National Minorities and Turkey’s domestic laws,” said Ispiryan.

Speaking to Agos, Diyarbakir Metropolitan Municipality Cultural Heritage Director Nevin Soylukaya stated that all churches and properties belonging to the foundations are expropriated. Soylukaya said that the municipality will initiate a legal action against the government for expropriation of the properties that belong to it. She also urged the owners of other expropriated properties to take similar legal actions.

Garo Paylan, an Armenian member of the Turkish Parliament from the People’s [pro-Kurdish] Democratic Party (HDP), has presented an inquiry to Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu to clarify the details of expropriation of a number of areas and structures in Diyarbakir (former Tigranakert).

In his inquiry comprised of several points, which Paylan posted on his Facebook account, the lawmaker asked Davutoglu to clarify whether the expropriation decision affects the Christian, the Assyrian and Chaldean churches. At the same time Paylan wanted the authorities to clarify by what standards and laws the so called “under risk” areas were selected.

Paylan also asked whether the decision to expropriate the properties and churches of minorities does not contradict the legislation and the Treaty of Lausanne.