(Istanbul)  An unused 19th century cemetery tucked away behind high walls in an Istanbul suburb and surrounded by a park and playground is about to make history. 

A Christian community tracing its roots back to the earliest time of the religion and still speaking Aramaic, the language of Jesus Christ, has just received permission to use the cemetery to build Turkey’s first new church since the foundation of the republic almost a hundred years ago. 

“We have been working for seven years to get a construction site and a building permission, and now we have cleared all hurdles at last,” community leader Sait Susin said in a recent interview in his office just several hundred meters away from the cemetery in Yesilkoy, a western suburb of Istanbul. “Construction will start as soon as the weather allows it, most probably in March.” 

Turkey, a Muslim nation of more than 80 million people with a tiny Christian community of less than a half per cent of the total population, is facing criticism from the EU and the US for a crack-down on government critics and restrictions for minorities like the country’s Kurdish community. 

But Christian leaders in Turkey say their rights are protected. “We’re proud of living under the Turkish flag in this land,” Yusuf Cetin, the Syriac Orthodox Church’s Metropolitan for Istanbul and the capital Ankara, said when he received the building permit for the Yesilkoy church earlier this month, according to the Anadolu news agency.

Susin, whose official title is President of the Beyoglu Virgin Mary Syriac Orthodox Church Foundation, said in the interview that Turkey’s Christians and Jews had gained an unprecedented degree of freedom under the 16 year old government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), a group rooted in political Islam. “Many people abroad don’t know this,” Susin said. “We can have our own schools and now we can build the church. We could not even dream of things like this in the 1990s.” 

With the start of construction work for the Yesilkoy church approaching, Susin is raising money in his community for the $4 million project that will include a church building with a capacity of 650 worshippers, a community center and a car park. The money for the church will have to come entirely from the congregation of roughly 17,000 Syriac Christians in Istanbul. 

A hundred years ago, Yesilkoy, then known as San Stefano, was a center of Christian life just outside Constantinople, as Istanbul was called at the time. Waves of forced migration, mostly in the 1950s and 1960s, have changed the picture radically. The Greek Orthodox community in Istanbul, which had more than 100,000 members in the early 20th century, is reduced to less than 3,000 people and fighting for survival. The largest Christian community left in Istanbul is the Armenian one with around 60,000 people in a city of 15 million. 

As a result, many of the roughly 200 churches in the city are empty. But they are of little use to the Syriacs, whose members fled persecution and conflict in their south-eastern Anatolian heartland to settle in Istanbul and countries like Germany, which has 100,000 Syriacs today. Most Istanbul Syriacs live in Yesilkoy, far away from the empty churches downtown. 

“Up until know, we have only one church in Istanbul, but that is not enough,” Susin said. “We have been celebrating mass in churches of other Christian community, but they are bursting at the seams when we come, because we are many and almost everyone goes to church on Sunday.” 

So Susin and his colleagues took their plan for a new church in Yesilkoy to Turkey’s authorities. “We have seen much support from them, from the government in Ankara down to the municipality.” 

When Turkish authorities assigned the park and the unused cemetery as a building site in 2015, Susin hoped for a quick start to the construction process. 

But the Syriacs had to wait several years more, because Catholic representatives in Istanbul raised objections and took the municipality to court for handing the cemetery to the Syriacs. 

Turkish law says unused cemeteries become state property 50 years after communities stop using them, so authorities saw no problem in turning the 19th century property into a church. But the Catholic Church, arguing it was still the legal owner of the site, stopped the project in Yesilkoy with an injunction. 

Behind the scenes, Syriacs like Susin were working to solve the problem. “Our patriarch asked the pope to intervene,” Susin said. Syriacs even enlisted the help of Bartholomew I, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople and spiritual leader of the Orthodox Church, who also appealed to the Vatican. “We lost three years with this. Turkish government ministers started joking that Christians were blocking a church project that had been approved by Muslims,” Susin said. 

In November 2017, Paul Russell, the Vatican ambassador to Turkey, informed the municipality that Pope Francis had given the green light for the Yesilkoy church, according to Turkish news reports at the time. 

The decision by the Vatican to withdraw its injunction paved the way for the start of the construction process despite the ongoing court case, but it came with strings attached, Susin said. 

“We donated €200,000 to the Catholics, and we have agreed to pay them a much higher sum if they win their court case against the municipality,” Susin said. He declined to say how much more his community would have pay in that case.