Turkish authorities may indefinitely extend permission for Christians to pray in the ancient Church of St. Paul in Tarsus, the birthplace of the Apostle. Increasing Christian visits to the city may help change the church from a museum to a center of pilgrimage, a local bishop says.
The Church of St. Paul, built in the sixth century, was seized by the Turkish government in 1943 and turned into a museum. Christian celebrations were only allowed under strict conditions and Mass-goers were required to pay the museum entry fee, Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) reports.
However, Turkish authorities granted a special license for Mass and other services to be held in the church during the just finished Year of St. Paul. Tarsus received record numbers of Christian pilgrims during the Year, which lasted from June 2008 to 2009.
Bishop Luigi Padovese, Apostolic Vicar of Anatolia, told ACN the new developments mean Christians will continue to hold services in the building, although only on a provisional basis.
“I am confident that the Church in Tarsus could soon change from being a museum to a center of spiritual pilgrimage,” Bishop Padovese told ACN. He reported 416 groups of pilgrims from up to 30 countries visited the city during the Pauline Year.
“For the first time Turkish Muslims have witnessed Christians not as tourists but as praying pilgrims,” the bishop added, reporting that their devotion made a lasting impression on the Turkish people.
“It has become clear that St. Paul will be venerated in Tarsus and that his birthplace will not just be regarded as museum by Christians,” he said.
Turkey’s 500,000 Christians make up less than one percent of the population. They frequently suffer discrimination and harassment, a problem worsened by their religion being stated on their identity cards.
The bishop called on Christians in Europe to continue to advocate for greater religious freedom in Turkey.
“In Turkey more can often be achieved from the outside than from the inside,” he said.
“A certain amount of public pressure is helpful, but only if it originates from love for Turkey and a genuine wish that religious freedom should grow in the country,” Bishop Padovese explained to ACN.
He said the future of Christians in Turkey will not be certain until they are able to open and run seminaries.
Local authorities will make the final decision about whether to continue to allow services in the Church of St. Paul. They can also make the provisional permission for ongoing services more definite.