Overcoming religious prejudice in Van
A small church in Van works to expand understanding and tolerance between Muslims and Christians, while providing a place of worship for refugees facing persecution in their homelands.
By Emiko Jozuka for SES Türkiye in Van -- 17/05/12
Tucked away in a small side street in Turkey's southeastern city of Van is an inconspicuous Protestant Church that looks like any other house. But unknown to many locals, Christians have been gathering there for the past eight years.
The unassuming Church of Van brings together a small congregation of worshippers. [Emiko Jozuka /SES Türkiye]
Established by an Iranian pastor so that Christian refugees from Iran could gather together and pray, over the years The Church of Van has brought together a small congregation of Afghan, Iranian, Kurdish and Turkish Christians.
Up until the early 20th century, Van was home to many Christian Armenians, but according to a Turkish-Kurdish pastor at the church, few people in the region have any current exposure to Christianity.
"People don't have the opportunity to find out about Christianity here, but they have a right to learn about it and make a choice," Pastor Vahit Yilmaz told SES Türkiye.
Born into a Muslim family, Yilmaz was an atheist as a youth and came across Christianity at a later stage in life. Choosing to convert to the religion in Istanbul, he returned to his hometown eight years ago.
The path to religious freedom has not always been smooth for The Church of Van and its congregation. Members applied for the church to be officially recognised as a place of worship only to be denied -- and almost closed down -- by the then ruling AK Party local council. Van Church was only granted a legal status in 2011 under the pro-Kurdish BDP local council.
In the politically tense southeast, state authorities have been known to direct accusations of wrongful political involvement against individuals and organisations out of mistrust, and according to Yilmaz, churches in the region are also on the receiving end of such claims.
"When a new church is established in Turkey, some intelligence administrations think that it has been set up for political purposes, but this isn't the case. The authorities have a prejudiced view of us and we've been trying to bring down these misconceptions for years. Politics is of no interest to us, we just want to practice our religion. Furthermore, the Bible teaches us to be respectful to the authorities, whoever they are," he remarked.
However, escaping from neighbouring Iran, Christian refugees find in Van and Turkey a place where they may practice their faith without the fear of persecution or imprisonment.
According to Iranian refugee Hengameh G., who didn't want to provide her last name for fear of persecution in Iran, in Turkey pressure to conform comes not from the Turkish state, but the general public.
"In Iran the secret police would follow us as soon as we left our homes, and most Christians practiced their faith in secret. Here the Turkish state doesn't interfere with one's religion, but the people look at me oddly in the streets when I wear my cross or carry my bible. Everything is the reverse in Iran. It is the state that exerts pressure over its citizens, not the people on each other," explained Hengameh.
Yet, despite the occasional violent attacks against Christians that have occurred in Turkey in past years, Christians in Van have been able to practice their faith in relative peace.
President of the Van Human Right's Organisation, Omer Isik, told SES Türkiye that no violent incidents or complaints had been reported in Van. "The Christian community is made up mostly of refugees and is small here in Van; therefore their presence isn't so noted by the people," he said.
A local imam in Van, Asim Gulaçar, explained that the essence of Islam is for people to live together in peace.
"According to Islam, we must accept all Christians and Jews. Those who can't accept this cannot be considered Muslim. Islam opens its doors to all peoples and global religions. We don't dislike Christians for being Christians, or Jews for being Jews. It is those who behave wrongly that we disapprove of," he explained.
"People are required to live together. Those who behave with hostility to people of other religions are doing so out of ignorance. People who don't understand this should read the Koran," he concluded.