Uncertain times for Istanbul’s Christians during Turkey’s ‘modernisation’ drive
Churches seemingly no obstacle as historical buildings make way for malls
Turkish Orthodox church in Karakoy.
In the Karakoy quarter of bustling Istanbul, Christian crosses abruptly appear on window frames along an aged red brick wall. At first glance there are few signs of a Christian presence in the area; instead the narrow streets are replete with electrical shops.
It’s not until one sees a cluster of cross-topped domes viewed from a nearby rooftop that Karakoy’s importance to Istanbul’s Christians becomes clear.
A treasure trove of chapels and churches makes Karakoy one of this ancient city’s most important Christian districts. But a government-led drive to rejuvenate the area may see this tiny population lose out.
Karakoy has long been known as a run-down market area where all the trappings of a traditional port neighbourhood can be found.
But as happens around the world, young artists and students began moving in three years ago to avail of cheap rent and were followed swiftly by artsy cafes and bars, and then property developers seeking to buy whole blocks on the cheap.
Today Karakoy finds itself finely balanced between times past and future, a place where craft shops and bars are interspaced by residential buildings fit only to be knocked.
A gaping construction space in the centre of the district illustrates the direction Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party and many business-minded Turks want this country to go: on an all-out modernisation drive. Plans to update the port through a massive renovation project are in the works.
It has been the Turkish government, led by conservative prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan that has facilitated the destruction of numerous historical if run-down buildings and districts in Istanbul to make way for malls, modern apartment complexes and money.
And Istanbul’s churches are seemingly no obstacle.
Earlier this month the Russian Orthodox chapel of St Elias was opened for Mass for the first time in 40 years. About two dozen worshippers attended the service but the unavailability of priests to keep it open means it may close again soon.
Members of the chapel’s foundation say it needs $50,000 to restore frescos and icons, and are also troubled by the potential sale of the building it occupies, deemed possible as the building is not officially listed as housing any religious sites.
Down the street, St Pantaleon’s, a Russian Orthodox monastery named after the fourth-century martyr, is located up five flights of stairs past a busy construction crew and family homes. Inside a bolted door, Russian-speaking Fr Dimitrios has been taking care of the church for 13 years.