By Ceren Ozgul
The seven week Lent season (Medz Bahk, in Armenian) that precedes Easter is an important time for the native Christian communities of Turkey. For my research in the context of Grassrootsmobilise, it also created a unique opportunity for me as a researcher to observe the human aspect of the legal battle (which partially took place in the ECtHR) to keep the places of worship and other properties belonging to these diminishing populations in the hands of the non-Muslim communities.
Every year, women from quietly yet densely Armenian populated neighborhoods of Istanbul come together to make a one-day pilgrimage, seven times for the seven weeks of Medz Bahk. The goal is to visit seven churches during this fasting period and attend lunchtime prayers, Arevakal, a local tradition that transforms fasting into a communal event for these women.
Armenian women gather in pre-arranged corners in their neighborhoods to wait for the small buses that will take them to the designated church of the week (The list of churches conducting Arevakal services for the Medz Bakh period is announced on the Armenian Patriarchate’s website). Early one morning last year, I joined a group of mostly middle-aged Armenian women on one such journey to attend the prayers at the Surp Asdvadzadzin Armenian Church in Eyüp as a participant observer.
Today, Eyüp is a historic and predominantly Muslim neighborhood. The neighborhood was named after a Muslim saint, Eyüp Sultan, whose nearby shrine is the most famous and revered in the city. The Greek Orthodox Patriarchate is also located in this neighborhood, in a small corner of this locality called Fener. Also in the vicinity, there is a high school that belongs to the Greek Orthodox community, Fener Greek Orthodox High School, which was the subject of a landmark case in the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) against Turkey regarding the confiscated properties of the non-Muslim minority foundations.
The history of non-Muslim (Greek Orthodox and Armenian, Jewish, and Syriac) communities of Turkey in the last century was one of sharp decline of the population size, that was accompanied by the appropriation and decay of community properties. Central to this loss during the republican times was the seizure of the non-Muslim community foundations and their immovable properties by the Directorate General for Foundations (DGF), which is a legal entity established by the Turkish state. In the absence of a legal status for any other minority body, the minority foundations (Vakifs) organize and manage all community property, such as churches, schools, and monasteries. Thus, over the years DGF’s unlawful and arbitrary bureaucratic practices of taking over the management and assets of non-Muslim foundations were big blows for the community life. This appropriation is documented by a recent book and accompanying website and discussed legally by scholars of minority rights and religious freedom in detail (Kurban and Hatemi 2009). Many non-Muslim community foundations were seized by the DGF on the pretext that they had “ceased to serve a charitable and actual purpose” if, for example, a church did not hold any religious ceremonies and did not have any followers, or a school did not have any students. The exact number of non-Muslim communities’ properties that have been seized by the government until today is not known.
The current Armenian population lives mainly in Istanbul. Scholars report 2549 religious sites existing in 1914 in the Ottoman provinces that later came to form the Turkish Republic. Today, the number of standing Armenian Apostolic churches in Turkey is approximately 40; those still active number fewer than 30. The surviving churches and schools in Istanbul constitute the bulk of the remaining material constituency of what is left of this non-Muslim community.
The church we were set to visit that day, Surp Asdvadzadzin, was among these lucky ones; it was never confiscated. It is a small building that does not have a conspicuous presence in the narrow side street where it is located. In fact, the church’s features were almost invisible externally. From outside, only its surrounding walls and a small wooden door with a miniature cross, khach, carved in stone were visible (see photo above). On both sides of the cross, its name was written both in Armenian and in Turkish. Other than the Armenian characters, there was no other sign indicating that the church belonged to the Armenian community. By blending into its surroundings in this old and modest neighborhood, it didn’t give away clues of being one of the unique remnants of a collective presence whose only marks are buildings, but not a vibrant community living in the country. An even smaller number of remaining Armenians attend church services, a fact that explains the predominantly middle-aged female constituency of my fellow travellers. Of the 35 remaining churches, only a few are still active and accept a sizeable population on Sundays for the Badarak, the Divine Liturgy, and other important religious rituals. The remaining churches, although still in the hands of the community, no longer have a congregation. Surp Asdvadzadzin is one of these lonely churches.
Therefore, these trips during Lent also provide a context in which to worship in churches that may not be available at other times due to a lack of religious clergy and congregation. Thus, the day we visited the church was a rare occurrence for the church and the community, where church as a space for worship and church as a community of worshippers met.
This one-day pilgrimage to “un-used” churches reflects upon several challenges facing the Armenian community today, especially that of diminishing population size and appropriation that marks the contemporary engagement of Armenians with their community property. This is, first of all, a dynamic between the material and the human elements that constitute the community. Moreover, this dynamic plays itself out not only at a legal level – as exemplified by the ECtHR cases we are studying for this project – and at the material level, but also at the community level, and becomes mediated by modes of engagement with the material presence of the community; religious ritual is only one form. These legal battles for reclaiming ownership are very visible in the national and international public sphere and of great relevance to legal or other forms of mobilizations. However, the human aspects are rarely considered by the scholarly literature on the issue. Projects, such as Grassrootsmobilise, that aim to bring together legal research and ethnography, attest to this rarely-considered human side, even as brief glimpses that we are trying to share here, in these ‘notes from the field’.
 Fener Greek High School Foundation v. Turkey (Application no. 34478/97, Judgment, Strasbourg, 9 January 2007) was the first ruling regarding confiscated properties of non-Muslim minorities in the ECtHR, which created a precedent for more than 40 cases.
 2012 Beyannamesi; Marashlian, L. 1999. Finishing the Genocide: Cleansing Turkey of Armenian survivors, 1920-1923. In Remembrance and denial: the case of the Armenian genocide (ed.) R.G. Hovannisian. Detroit: Wayne State University Press.