The local government in south-central Konya, Turkey, announced this week that it would turn a fully renovated 19th-century Armenian church into a “humor art house” after barring worshippers from using the church for years, multiple reports revealed Thursday.
Under Islamist President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish government has aggressively targeted its Christian minority community and attempted to erase Christian heritage in the country. Erdogan’s most prominent attempt to erase the Christian history of Turkey occurred last year, when he converted the Hagia Sophia, one of Byzantine Christianity’s most important architectural facilities, into a mosque. The conversion process involved removing or covering up priceless Christian art in the former basilica.
Erdogan — who, like all Turkish leaders, denies the 1915 genocide of Armenians, Assyrians, and Greeks by Turkey occurred — has also escalated aggression against both ethnic Armenians within Turkey and the nation of Armenia. In September, after fighting erupted between Armenian and Azerbaijan in the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region, Erdogan’s government reportedly recruited thousands of battle-hardened Syrian mercenaries to fight in the Caucasus war theater. Erdogan attended a “victory parade” in Baku in December alongside Azeri President Ilham Aliyev to celebrate the expulsion of the indigenous Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabakh.
According to the Stockholm Center for Freedom, a news organization founded by dissident Turkish journalists, the Surp Yerrortutyun (Holy Trinity) Armenian church was built in 1859 and boasts an official cultural heritage site designation in Turkey. The Turkish government reportedly used the church’s location — the hometown of a medieval Turkish “satirist” — as reason to renovate the church, turning it into the “World’s Masters of Humor Art House” and the hub of a greater “humor village.” The government has not yet announced a reopening date for the venue.
“Restoration” of the church cost about half a million dollars and ended in 2017, but Turkish officials did nothing with the venue until now and did not allow Christians to pray in it.
It is not clear at press time how many Christians live in the area; the Stockholm Center noted an estimated 5,000 Armenians lived in the vicinity around the church historically, prior to the 1915 genocide. PanArmenian.net, a news site that caters to the Armenian community, noted in its report on the Holy Trinity church that, prior to the genocide, “there were four other Armenian educational institutions in the district. Among them, the Surp Stepanos School was famous in all provinces for its superior education quality.”
International Christian Concern, a faith-based human rights organization, condemned the Turkish government on Thursday for its repurposing of the house of worship.
“The 1915 genocide nearly eliminated the Armenian Christian population from Turkey. Since then, Turkey has taken control over most of the abandoned churches and other Armenian cultural sites,” the group said in a statement. “Turkey does not acknowledge the genocide, and has not made any attempts to restore these churches back to their original Christian community.”
“Instead, Turkey either converts these churches into mosques or restores their buildings into faith tourism sites. When pursuing the later option, Turkey uses it as an example to the international arena about how they care for religious freedom,” the statement concluded, adding that turning churches into tourism sites complicates Christians’ ability to worship there.
The Armenian Genocide is estimated to have killed 1.5 million of the 2 million Armenians estimated to have been alive at the time.
Erdogan has repeatedly denied the genocide happened and his officials have taken several recent opportunities to threaten the descendants of the few Armenians Turkey did not kill during that atrocity. In July, for example, the Turkish government — a U.S. ally through NATO — offered Azerbaijan advanced military technology to attack Armenia.
“Our armed unmanned aerial vehicles, ammunition and missiles with our experience, technology, and capabilities are at Azerbaijan’s service,” İsmail Demir, the head of Presidency of Defense Industries, a government-related entity, said in July.
Demir made his offer after the Azeri defense ministry threatened to bomb Armenia’s Metsamor Nuclear Power Plant, a Soviet relic widely considered the world’s most dangerous nuclear plant.
“The Armenian side must not forget that our army’s state-of-the-art missile systems allow us to strike the Metsamor nuclear plant with precision, which could lead to a great catastrophe for Armenia,” Vagif Dargahli, a Defense Ministry spokesman, said the same week Turkey offered Azerbaijan missiles.
In September, fighting erupted in Nagorno-Karabakh. The region, which Armenians refer to as Artsakh, is a historic, indigenous Armenian territory given to the Azeri Soviet Socialist Republic under Joseph Stalin. While technically within Azerbaijan’s borders, it had been ruled by an ethnic Armenian separatist government since the fall of the Soviet Union. The state of Armenia does not recognize Artsakh as a sovereign state.
Both sides claimed the other triggered the fighting this year. The Artsakh government, and the Armenian government, accused the Azeris of committing several human rights violations in battle, including beheading civilians and targeting maternity hospitals. Turkey offered military aid to Azerbaijan but did not formally send Turkish troops to the region. Armenian government officials estimated, however, that Turkey sent as many as 4,000 Syrian mercenary jihadists into Nagorno-Karabakh to attack the Christian-majority ethnic Armenians there.
The fighting ended with a peace treaty that gave Azerbaijan not just control of Nagorno-Karabakh, but power over sovereign Armenian territory, prompting widespread protests in the Armenian capital, Yerevan.
The Azeris organized a “victory parade” following the peace deal, inviting Erdogan. Speaking at the event, Erdogan threatened the Armenian people once more.
“Azerbaijan’s saving its lands from occupation does not mean that the struggle is over,” Erdogan said. “The struggle carried out in the political and military areas will continue from now on many other fronts.”