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In Muslim Turkey, A Minister’s Quest: Starting a Church

In Muslim Turkey, A Minister’s Quest: Starting a Church

Religious Restrictions Begin To Ease as Nation Seeks Entry in European Union

 By Hugh Pope


Nov. 26, 2004

ANTALYA, Turkey — Strolling through the jasmine-scented alleys of this Mediterranean port city in 1997, Rev. James Bultema stumbled on an abandoned stone chapel. Instantly, he envisioned it restored and reconsecrated. Here was the home he was seeking for his budding congregation.

“I walked in, stood there and imagined how beautiful it could be,” says the Presbyterian pastor from Muskegon, Mich.

Little did the 42-year-old minister realize that trying to turn the dilapidated chapel into one of Turkey’s first new Christian churches in eight decades would entail years of effort and become a touchstone in the nation’s bid to join the European Union. Rev. Bultema’s continuing struggle illustrates the uneasiness in both Turkey and Europe over the prospect of the country entering the EU. Next month, EU leaders will decide whether to begin negotiations with Turkey on its application to join.

Some European leaders point to demographic trends and worry that Turkey, which has 70 million people, will outnumber the population of Germany within a decade or two. If Turkey gains EU membership, that could make the most-populous member of the EU a predominately Muslim state.

As Turkey seeks to join the EU, it has loosened strict restrictions that have been in place since the 1920s when it set itself up as a secular state. Until this year, no new non-Muslim group has been able to own a religious building or construct a new one. Christian and Jewish congregations that existed before 1920 were allowed to continue, but still need permission even to add a coat of paint to their places of worship. Muslim congregations also have been tightly regulated and the state still owns all mosques.

Fewer than 100,000 Christians now live in Turkey. But many places in Turkey played pivotal roles in the history of Christianity. St. Paul and St. Barnabas passed through the old port of Antalya — called Attalia in the Bible — as apostles who first spread Christianity here. Istanbul, Turkey’s business center, was the capital of the Christian world when the city was known as Constantinople.

Even after the capture of Constantinople by Ottoman Turkish Muslims in 1453, Christian communities prospered for centuries. But relations deteriorated sharply before and during World War I, as Western powers collaborated with Christian and other minorities to bring down the Ottoman empire.

An international 1923 treaty called for an exchange of populations between Greece and Turkey — sending 1.5 million ethnic Greek Christians out of Turkey to Greece. One million Turkish Muslims were deported in the other direction.

The same treaty founded the republic of Turkey. But the Turks remained suspicious of non-Muslim minorities, levying high taxes unfairly on them in the 1940s, and forcing some to leave the country with discriminatory passport laws in the 1960s.

In Antalya, the abandoned chapel was nationalized in 1949. Two years later, the Turkish government sold it to a local man, whose family used the chapel as a depot for cotton, sesame and pistachios.

Turkey opened its economy to the world in the 1980s, bringing big changes. It applied to join the EU in 1987. Seizing on the new spirit, Mustafa Erbas, grandson of the original Turkish owner of the chapel, thought about turning it into a tavern for tourists. But he couldn’t get necessary approvals, he says.

So Mr. Erbas, a Muslim, was delighted when Rev. Bultema showed up offering to buy the empty chapel and turn it back into a church. The two became friends as they teamed up to try to overcome obstacles to the sale. “If we’re really going into Europe, they should have fixed this business by now,” says the 73-year-old Mr. Erbas.

Rev. Bultema, whose grandfather founded a church in Michigan, moved with his wife to Istanbul in 1990. Turkey attracted him, he says, because he was fascinated by the life of St. Paul, who was born there.

Upon arrival, Rev. Bultema started studying Turkish, while continuing church studies. In 1993, he became a fully ordained minister of the 2.5 million-member Presbyterian Church (USA). He took a post as part-time pastor for a Presbyterian congregation in Istanbul — which had long met beyond the reach of Turkish law, on the grounds of the consulate-general of the Netherlands.

In 1996, he moved to Antalya, answering an ad for a full-time pastor from an expatriate group. “One day, I decided I wanted to go to church,” recalls Carolyn Bulca, a former U.S. military contract worker and member of the group. “I asked my Turkish friends where there was one, but they could only point to ruins. I said ‘Hey, if you can have mosques in Europe, how come there’s no church here?’ ”

Rev. Bultema started out with an Easter service in a hotel. His congregation grew into the dozens, including everyone from Russian prostitutes to African migrants, he says. Soon, he says he noticed plainclothes Turkish police sitting in on his services — and later asking him to find somewhere else to hold them. A police spokesman says he doesn’t recall any complaints being filed. “We’re civilized here,” he says. Rev. Bultema says the governor of Antalya province requested photocopies of the passports of his congregation. The governor declined to comment.

When Rev. Bultema went to the mayor’s planning office to ask about building his own church, “they just laughed,” he says. “They said a church would never happen.” The mayor at the time, Hasan Subasi, says national laws made it difficult for his office to do much for Rev. Bultema’s group, although “we wanted to help them.”

Islamist groups, Turkish right-wingers and secular leftist nationalists have all pressured the Turkish government for rules limiting proselytizing and on land purchases by foreigners. Americans are particularly suspect these days, some say.

“It’s a defensive reflex,” said Nizamettin Sagir, chief of the National Action Party in Antalya, which often takes anti-foreigner stands. “Call me a conspiracy theorist, but I think America is being run by a Christian sect that has cast a hungry eye on our region. It’s like a new crusade.”

Stymied, Rev. Bultema took the advice of a sympathetic municipal official and set up a tourism company as a legal framework for his ministry. Having a business helped him skirt restrictions on establishing new religious associations.

The pastor bought a house next to the old chapel, and opened it in 1999 as a coffeehouse and prayer hall called the St. Paul Center. Antalya’s mayor and other officials attended the opening, eager to promote the city’s image as friendly to tourists. Rev. Bultema used income from the coffeehouse to support his church, while a group of American Presbyterian churches began to pay his salary.

The next year, officials invited Rev. Bultema to say a prayer at the opening of the “faith tourism” season. That business takes Christians to sites such as an amphitheater where St. Paul preached and a church once headed by St. Nicholas, the Greek Orthodox bishop who inspired the legend of Santa Claus.

Rev. Bultema’s accountant, Faik Gokpinar — a member of the ruling AK Party, largely made up of conservative Muslims — says he was won over by Rev. Bultema’s fluent Turkish and modest manner. “I explain to my friends that this is not a group of dangerous missionaries,” Mr. Gokpinar said, driving through a city packed with hotels, restaurants and foreign tourists brought in by 250 flights a day in peak season. “I point out that we cannot live in isolation — if we did, we’d have to stop tourism, stop smoking Marlboro cigarettes and so on.”

In 2000, Rev. Bultema and Mr. Erbas agreed on a price of $70,000. Rev. Bultema set about raising the funds, mostly from Americans. But in 2001, minutes before Mr. Erbas and Rev. Bultema were to sign the sales contract, the chief of the title deeds office came before them and uttered a single word: “Problem.”

The Ministry of Commerce ruled that a tourism business, such as the one Rev. Bultema set up, couldn’t buy a church.

In 2002, Rev. Bultema says Antalya dignitaries declined his offer to again help kick off faith-tourism season. A local paper published a story falsely saying he had been expelled from the country for proselytizing. At times, he felt fate itself was against him. During a rainstorm, a half-ton stone cornice on top of the chapel fell off and crushed his car.

Meanwhile, Turkey’s bid to join the EU was shifting into higher gear. In November 2002, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s party came to power. Although an Islamist in his youth, Mr. Erdogan was determined to push for European prosperity and more religious freedoms in Turkey’s rigidly secular state. He gave a pro-European faction of Turkish bureaucrats a free hand to liberalize the system.

Sjoerd Gosses, the Dutch ambassador to Turkey and an outspoken proponent of efforts to improve Turkey’s human-rights record, found out about Rev. Bultema’s quest, after visiting the St. Paul Center in 2002. He knew Turkey’s bid to join Europe was sensitive in his own country. The Netherlands has wrestled with a wave of immigration, much of it from Muslim countries. Many Dutch worry Turkey’s entrance into Europe could unleash even more immigration.

“If there is discrimination, Turkey can’t get into Europe,” says Mr. Gosses. “We have allowed 300 mosques to be built in Holland in the past 20 years. I want to see one church built” in Turkey.

Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende, visiting Turkey in 2003, asked Turkey’s Prime Minister Mr. Erdogan about religious freedom. Mr. Erdogan bristled, according to participants in the meeting. But he knew the Netherlands would hold the EU presidency in the second half of 2004, the lead up to the EU decision on Turkey. “You shall have your church!” he told the Dutch Prime Minister, according to people at the meeting.

Mr. Erdogan says he delivered on his promise a month later with a project to build a church, synagogue and mosque, about an hour’s drive from Antalya. Their concrete shells now stand half-finished in a clump of fir trees near some beach hotels. The architect says the buildings will be completed once more money is raised.

“Soon we will open all three of them together,” says Mr. Erdogan, in an interview. “Let everyone come and pray; the Muslim, the Christian, the Jew.”

Mr. Erdogan’s government has made changes in an effort to encourage more religious freedoms. Last year, for example, the government substituted the words “place of worship” for “mosque” in the nation’s building law. This change allows all religious denominations to build places to hold services. In the past, new mosques could be built, but ownership had to be turned over to the Turkish treasury.

“It was like installing a Microsoft patch,” said Murat Sungar, a jazz-playing diplomat who heads efforts to harmonize Turkish laws with the EU.

In Antalya, two other Christian groups have sprung up, offering services in different languages. A group of German-speaking retirees formed their own association, and rented a house to hold services. “In theory, we are content. Let’s see what happens in practice,” says Father Rainer Korten, a Catholic who heads the German-speaking group.

Another congregation, of Turkish-speaking converts, uses the prayer hall at the St. Paul Center.

Rev. Bultema’s English-speaking congregation, of about 80, continues to hold out for the right to buy the chapel. In August, Rev. Bultema and his lawyer drove to the whitewashed offices of the new registry of associations in Antalya. They came to establish the St. Paul’s Church Association, the group that would purchase the chapel.

Several new officials welcomed them. They sat in the same office where government censors in the late 1990s went through Rev. Bultema’s shipments of religious literature. “I used to be so intimidated by all this. But I think it’s getting fairer,” he whispered. In minutes, the St. Paul’s Church Association was approved, with a flourish of signing, stamping and sealing.

A month later, Rev. Bultema was back in the same office — to learn that a Turkish association couldn’t accept donations from abroad. That meant he couldn’t receive the money he had raised from abroad to buy the church. “It’s pretty confusing,” says Rev. Bultema, who is continuing his effort. “Sometimes I just shake my head.”