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Russian Orthodox Church Threatened by Istanbul Redevelopment

  • Dorian Jones

Russian Orthodox visitors take souvenir pictures following services at St. Elijah Church, Istanbul, Aug. 2, 2013.

Russian Orthodox visitors take souvenir pictures following services at St. Elijah Church, Istanbul, Aug. 2, 2013.

A few months ago, the Turkish government's plans to redevelop a park in Istanbul provoked the worst civil unrest in decades. But now an historic Russian Orthodox church once used by refugees of the Bolshevik Revolution is at the center of a new controversy over development.

Istanbul's 134-year-old St. Elijah Church is something of a novelty. Built atop a five-story building in the city's central Karakoy neighborhood, the 19th century architectural rarity reopened its doors on August 2 to offer services for the first time since 1972.

According to Hürriyet Daily News, the church, property of Turkey's White Russians, is in a state of significant disrepair and cannot host regular services until it has a permanent priest.

Nonetheless, many people attended the reopening services, which followed the commemoration day of the church's namesake, to recognize the structure's symbolic value in Russia's turbulent history.

But according to Ivan Denizenko, who heads a local Russia church charity, the timing of the reopening has to do an imminent threat facing the church.

"There was an idea to destroy this building to build a hotel," says Denizenko. "If you destroy this building and make a hotel, you can easily make $5 or $10 million. We went to see [Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I] to say we have to reopen the church, and the Patriarch said okay. We reopened the church and now we have it. The local authorities have to write down [that] it's a church and an historical building. Before it was a trade building. As a trade building you can demolish it. But if it's an historical building ... Turkish laws [say] you cannot destroy it."

While a view from church affords a magnificent vista of the old Karakoy neighborhood, it also reveals the danger facing St. Elijah. Just a few hundred meters away, some of the world's largest cruise ships are moored at port. Karakoy is no longer a hub for religious pilgrims heading to Jerusalem, but rather the point of arrival for tens of thousands of tourists, and government officials have already cut a $700 million deal to redevelop Karakoy as a high-end tourism hub replete with shopping malls, restaurants, boutiques and five-star hotels.

Analysts say that even though the St. Elijah Church has reopened, it may have limited legal protection. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is backing the redevelopment plans, arguing that sale of development rights means jobs and national prosperity.

But for Father Visarion, it's important to save St. Elijah not only for the small Christian population, but for everyone living in the city.

"It's a very basic part of the multicultural part of Constantinople, of Istanbul," he says. "I can say the majority of people who came today for service, they were the sons of people who got married here, baptized here, refugees from the White Russians from the '20's and '30's. And it's a very nice, emotional moment. But the nicest thing — again, the prayer, the voice of the church, came again to the church."

It's far from clear for how long the sounds of Orthodox hymns will resonate across Karakoy, as tenants have already received legal notices to vacate their premises.

For now, St. Elijah Church has yet to receive an eviction order.

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