Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has taken control of six churches in the war-torn southeastern city of Diyarbakir in his latest move to squash freedom of speech and religious movement.
The state-sanctioned seizure is just the latest in a number of worrying developments to come out of increasingly hardline Turkey, which is in advanced talks with the EU over visa-free travel for its 80 million citizens.
Included in the seizures are Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox churches, one of which is over 1,700 years old.
They have now effectively become state property – meaning they are run by the government – in a country with a dire human rights record where about 98 percent of the population is Muslim.
The order to seize the churches was made on March 25 by Erdogan’s council of ministers, according to the website World Watch Monitor.
They claim it was made on the grounds that authorities intend to rebuild and restore the historical centre of the city, which has been partially destroyed by 10 months of urban conflict between government forces and militants from the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK).
But the seizures have outraged worshippers at the churches, who fear a government coup against their religion are now threatening to take legal action against the decision.
Ahmet Guvener, pastor of Diyarbakir Protestant Church, said: “The government didn’t take over these pieces of property in order to protect them. They did so to acquire them.”
And the Diyarbakir Bar Association – which represents Christians worshipping at one of the churches, has now officially filed an appeal the government’s action.
In a statement the group said: “Among the expropriated plots, there are structures belonging to public institutions … and places of worship and residences considered as historical and cultural heritage.
“This decision, which seems to be made by the request of the Ministry of Environment and Urban Planning without any reason or justification, is unacceptable within the limits of constitutional order.”
Local government officials are also thought to be critical of the decision, claiming that the seizures lack legal justification and will cause cultural damage to the town.
In response ministers have insisted the order to take control of the churches was not religiously motivated, pointing out that they have also occupied a number of historic mosques in the city.
But, unlike Christian churches which are maintained by the generosity of their congregations, all mosques in Turkey are state-backed and funded, meaning their futures are secure.
Reacting to the seizure Victoria Coates, who is foreign policy advisor to US Presidential hopeful Ted Cruz, said the seizure fits into a pattern in the Middle East, where Christians are systematically displaced and persecuted.
She told PJ Media: “What’s happening in southern Turkey is all too typical in the Middle East today, as ancient Christian communities are displaced and persecuted by sectarian violence.
“The government of Turkey should move swiftly to return these churches to their rightful owners, and not take advantage of the situation to seize them permanently.”
Erdogan has courted open controversy in recent months with the seizure of opposition newspaper Zaman, which has unsurprisingly since toed a sycophantic pro-government line.
His apparently anti-democratic moves have provoked outrage in Europe, where politicians have been left bowing and scraping at his feet in a desperate bid to resolve the migrant chaos.
As part of a deal designed to stem the flow of people entering the continent EU leaders have promised to open up Europe to 80 million Turks and to accelerate talks on the country joining the 28-nation bloc.