Turkish newspapers have recently reported that plans are underway to restore the historic Greek Hagios Georgios Church, referred to as "Aya Yorgi" in Turkish. The church will be converted into a museum and a cultural site.
Osmaneli Mayor Munur Sahin said that the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I, also visited the region, and said:
"We re-evaluated the situation of the church. This place will never be opened to worship again. It will serve as a museum and a cultural venue. We obtained the necessary permits; we will bring movable cultural artifacts from around Osmaneli and keep them here."
The restoration project, approved by the Council of Monuments, is set to be finished in two years. The church lies in ruins -- largely because the congregants were either murdered or forcibly deported during and after the 1914-1923 Greek genocide.
The historic Greek Hagios Georgios Church in Bilecik, Turkey. (Image source: Dik Gazete video screenshot)
When one talks about Christians in Turkey, one tends to think of them as migrants who moved to the area after Muslims took over or as if Muslims have always been the majority there.
The truth is Bilecik and the rest of Asia Minor, which today has a tiny, dwindling Christian minority, used to be majority-Christian lands, the great Christian-Byzantine Empire. The demographics and culture of those territories have over centuries been completely changed as a result of invasions, deportations and massacres.
The early Ottoman policy: Conquest and Co-operation
In 1071, Seljuk Turks invaded and began to conquer Anatolian territories. "Starting as far back as 1071," wrote journalist Kerry Kolasa-Sikiaridi, "Turks began their settlements in Anatolia, and shortly after, dominated the vast majority of the region, excluding the Marmara Sea and some areas surrounding the sea. At that time, the indigenous population of Anatolia spoke and wrote in Greek and were Greek Orthodox. The Turks referred to all Orthodox Christian communities in the Ottoman as the 'Roman community,' and labeled the people 'Rum,' meaning Roman, a term which is used until this day."
The Ottoman state achieved tremendous military success as a fighting machine. The scholars Ebru Boyar and Kate Fleet explain in their book A Social History of Ottoman Istanbul that the policy of the early Ottoman state was far more sophisticated than utter war and conquest, as
The authors describe in the sophistication of Osman Bey in his dealings with the Byzantines:
While his brother Gunduz adopted the somewhat unsubtle approach of total destruction of the enemy, proposing that they should attack and destroy the area, Osman disagreed. 'This', he told his brother, 'is a bad idea,' for plundering and devastating the region around Karacahisar, their latest conquest, would simply ensure that the town would not thrive and develop. Therefore, Osman argued, 'the first thing which should be done is to get on well with our neighbors and be their friends.'
In accordance with this policy, Osman had very good relations with the local Byzantines when he came to the throne (according to the Ottoman historian Asikpasazade), and a long-standing friendship with the Byzantine ruler of Bilecik, to whom he gave presents of fine carpets and rugs, cheese and clotted cream.
No doubt more pragmatic than sincere, such relations were very useful for the survival of a small state in a hostile environment, and the policy of 'dissimulation' was praised by Asikpasazade:
Cheat your enemy that you may in the end win
If you find an opportunity, do not draw back from taking his head
Feed him on good food and let him drink sweet wine
Let this weaken him while you grow strong
But do not be careless, think that he can cheat you
If in the end you suffer, regret will be useless.
This ability both to conquer and to co-habit was one of the reasons for Ottoman success.
All of those insidious and patient strategies bore fruit. In 1299, the Ottoman leader, Osman, captured the Byzantine city of Bilecik, the first of many Byzantine territories to fall in the coming decades. The Hagios Georgios Church is also in Bilecik's Osmaneli district.
Throughout decades, the Ottoman conquest of Byzantine towns continued – until the fall of Constantinople, which brought the collapse of the Byzantine Empire. In 1453, after a bloody military campaign, Ottoman Turks invaded and captured Constantinople (now Istanbul), the capital of the Christian Byzantine empire since 330 AD.
Persecution of Orthodox Greeks in Turkey
The Greek communities of Anatolia were exposed to genocide between 1914 and 1923, and a forcible population exchange campaign between Turkey and Greece, in which many of the survivors were expelled from Turkey in 1923.
Decades passed since these atrocities but the persecution of Orthodox Greeks at the hands of Turks continued. In 1992, a Greek man in Istanbul told Helsinki Watch: "The Greek community is dying, and it is not a natural death."
"The Greek community in Istanbul today is dwindling, elderly and frightened," Helsinki Watch reported.
"Their fearfulness is related to an appalling history of pogroms and expulsions that they have suffered at the hands of the Turkish government. The problems experienced by the Greek minority today include harassment by police; restrictions on freedom of expression; discrimination in education involving teachers, books and curriculum; restrictions on religious freedom; limitations on the right to control their charitable institutions; and the denial of ethnic identity."
As a result of several attacks and constant pressure, the once-flourishing Greek communities of Bilecik and the rest of Anatolia are nearly extinct.
Mihail Vasiliadis, the editor-in-chief of Apoyevmatini, the only remaining Greek newspaper in Turkey, told Gatestone:
"The Greek population in Turkey used to number around 120,000 until the 1964 expulsion. Today, the number of the people who are registered as Greek in official documents is around 4,000. But the number of those who speak Greek fluently as their native language and know the Greek culture well is just around 1600. And their average of age is 60. Our young people have left Turkey. We do not have wedding or baptism ceremonies anymore. We only have funeral ceremonies."
Glorification of Ottoman conquests
On May 28 of last year, Turkish officials including the Ministry of Energy and Natural Resources Undersecretary Fatih Donmez celebrated the 717th anniversary of the Ottoman conquest of Bilecik in a ceremony held at a cultural center in the city. Selim Yagci, the mayor of the Bilecik, stated:
"Bilecik is a city of history. The conquest of Bilecik is not a random conquest of a territory. The conquest of Bilecik means the establishment of the Ottoman state. And the establishment of the Ottoman state means the beginning of a blessed march."
The speeches of officials were followed by the chanting of the Koran, the reciting of the "adhan (Islamic prayer) of conquest," a musical show of the Ottoman military band of the municipality and another show in which a young man performing the role of an Ottoman sultan "symbolically" girded himself with a sword.
The event also marked the opening of the "project for timeline of Ottoman sultans" to be held in the city center. The mayor defined it as "a project of history, culture and education as well as of ownership and belonging" and declared that they aimed to educate people on "the lives and services of the Ottoman sultans".
"When future generations see this project, they will understand they should be proud of their ancestors and history," added the mayor.
As Turks are taught to take pride in every single thing in their history – including all of the crimes of their ancestors – they still continue committing similar crimes. There are very few Christian congregants left in the country and even their historic churches and monasteries have either been destroyed or are in ruins. Many of the remaining churches are used for sacrilegious purposes, such as stables or warehouses.
Seckin Evcim, an academic and expert of art history, wrote in his article about the Hagios Georgios:
"The church which was built between the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century, was used probably till the population exchange and left after that. During the Republic of Turkey it had been used as stable, warehouse and shelter. The building has remained till today except its roof, gynekaion (women section), stairs and floor coverings."
Most of the areas which today are within modern Greece's borders were under the Ottoman occupation from the mid-15th century until the Greek War of Independence in 1821 and the establishment of the modern Greek state in 1832. But the government of Greece does not seem to have learned anything either from the Ottoman history or the current treatment of churches under the Turkish rule. The Greek newspaper Ekathimerini recently reported:
"The Greek capital's first modern Muslim house of worship is slated for completion by the end of April, as work at the site has gotten back on track. The tender for the 887,000-euros project, financed through the Public Investment Program, was signed with a consortium of Greece's four biggest construction firms on October 10."
Haven't we all heard that Greece is broke?
Meanwhile, the Turkish Hurriyet Daily News has covered the restoration of the Bilecik church in a news report titled, "Hagios Georgios Church to serve tourism."
The intended use of a church is not to serve tourism. And what is it that makes it difficult for the Greek government to learn lessons from history?
Sadly, the cultural genocide against the Christian heritage remains ongoing in Turkey – with the willful participation of much of the society, including state authorities and whatever journalists the Turkish government has not yet placed under arrest.
Uzay Bulut, a journalist born and raised a Muslim in Turkey, is currently based in Washington D.C.