TURKEY: Turkey’s Cultural Heritage Cudgel

By Dr. Elizabeth H. Prodromou

  • Cultural Heritage and Turkey’s Religious Minorities
  • Cultural Heritage and International Law
  • Cultural Heritage as Essential to Turkey’s Ancient Christian Communities
  • Undermining Religious Heritage via Commercialization 
  • Conclusion

Religious Freedom Institute/ HRWF (10.06.2024) – From 26 to 29 May, the Archons of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of America, Australia, Canada and Europe organized their 4th International Conference on Religious Freedom in Athens, with a special focus on the situation in Turkey. See “The EU and the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, a fortress under siege.”

One of the panelists was Dr. Elizabeth H. Prodromou (*) who had published an interesting research paper a few years ago titled “Turkey’s Cultural Heritage Cudgel” that carefully analyzed President Erdogan’s strategy of suffocation and erasure of Christian minorities in Turkey. With the recent transformation of one more historical church in a mosque in Istanbul – The Church of Saint Savior in Chora, built in the fourth century – HRWF thinks that it is worth contextualizing this new attempt to delete the historical presence of Christianity in Turkey by republishing her 2020 article.

Cultural Heritage and Turkey’s Religious Minorities

There is another significant factor that adds to Turkey’s disregard for its human rights commitments and security obligations. Specifically, the Turkish state’s cultural heritage policy has been deployed as a cudgel against the country’s ancient Christian communities, specifically, and against other religious and ethnic minorities, more generally. Ankara’s cultural heritage policies have been consequential in degrading the institutional religious freedom of religious minority communities, and have been decried by international cultural heritage experts as a domestic and foreign policy propaganda tool for state-regime aggrandizement.

Turkey’s more recent cultural heritage decisions draw from the wellspring of the founding conditions of the Turkish Republic in 1923. The new statemakers, led by the Republic’s first President, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, mobilized a cross-disciplinary cadre of state-supported, professional intellectuals dedicated to creating a new national identity project, expressed in the Turkish Historical Thesis. The consequent  cultural heritage policies (and an associated property rights regime) used legal mechanisms informed by the homogenizing, anti-pluralist logic that had driven the just-completed, violent phase of the genocide against Turkey’s Anatolian Christian communities.[i] The nationalist identity project erased, appropriated, and destroyed the relics of Turkey’s past of which “ethnic Turks had little to do with…prior to the appearance of Turkic peoples pushing west and south from the steppe regions of Central Asia.”[ii]

Within the parameters of a neo-Ottoman framework for controlling religious diversity in 21st-century Turkey, the current Islamist-Erdoganist government of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) has continued the cultural heritage policies of its secularist-Kemalist predecessor. The core marker of continuity has been the acquisition, repackaging, and repurposing of the cultural and religious heritage of the Greek, Armenian, and Syriac Christian communities who inhabited Asia Minor long before the Turks’ arrival to those lands. Reinforcing the continuity and reach of this policy, Ankara has also been broadening the targets of the bullseye to concentric circles that encompass the country’s non-Sunni and/or non-Turkish religious and ethnic communities of Jews, Alevis, and Kurds, among others.

Cultural Heritage and International Law

The concept of cultural heritage—as well as the associated and, for some, subset concept of religious heritage—is nebulous. Yet, there is an expansive set of international legal frameworks and multilateral institutions in place. For example, the Hague Conventions and Geneva Protocols; United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO); and International Criminal Court (ICC) structures are each designed to ensure the protection of cultural and religious heritage in times of war and peace. International law and multilateral institutions make it clear that cultural and religious heritage includes movable and immovable objects, sites, and tangible/material forms, as well as intangible practices and activities, that, taken together, both preserve and respect the memory, and contribute to the sustainability, of distinct cultural and religious communities.

International principles, norms, and mechanisms for cultural and religious heritage protection and management in times of war and peace also capture the crucial significance of memory as a mechanism of the synchronic and diachronic sustainability of religious communities, whether in robust, living communities or in at-risk communities—to include facing decline and disappearance. Consequently, churches, cemevis, mosques, synagogues, libraries, schools, cemeteries, manuscripts, music, ritual objects and dress, as well as the worship, maintenance, and other practices associated therewith, are part of a holistic ecosystem for the actualization, remembrance, and transmission of cultural and religious identity in individual and collective action. In sum, cultural heritage includes both tangible and intangible features that tell a story about the past, present, and future of institutional religious freedom and religious vitality.


End notes:

[i] Benny Morris and Dror Ze’evi, The Thirty-Year Genocide: Turkey’s Destruction of Its Christian Minorities, 1894-1924 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2019); and Giles Milton, Paradise Lost: Smyrna 1922 (London: Sceptre Press, 2009).

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Tugba Tanyeri-Erdemir, “The Fate of Tanzimat-Era Churches in After the Loss of Their Congregations,” in Maximilian Hartmuth, ed., Christian Art Under Muslim Rule (Leiden, The Netherlands: Nederlands Instituut Het Nabije Olsen, 2016).

[iv] Guldi and Armitage, 15. Emphasis added.

[v] Guldi and Armitage, 16.

(*) Dr. Elizabeth H. Prodromou Kyrou is a Professor in the International Studies Program at Boston College and a Non-Resident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center. She was a diplomat on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) from 2004 to 2012 and served as a member of the U.S. Secretary of State’s Religion & Foreign Policy Working Group from 2011 to 2015. She advises organizations and institutions such as the European External Action Service (EEAS) of the European Union. Her academic research concentrates on the intersection of geopolitics, religion and human rights.

Further reading about FORB in Turkey on HRWF website