The expropriation decision made by the cabinet in Sur province of Diyarbakir caused disquiet. Stating that the cabinet should correct this decision, Archbishop Aram Ateşyan said that they demanded a meeting with Minister of Environment Sarı. Lawyer of Surg Giragos Church Ali Elbeyoğlu said, “The execution of this decision shouldn't be under the initiative of the government. We will appeal this decision. The decision of the cabinet should be corrected by the cabinet itself.”
Surp Giragos Church, the largest Armenian church in Middle East, is among the places in Sur province of Diyarbakir that are expropriated by the decision of the cabinet. With the same decision, Syriac, Chaldean and Protestant churches are also expropriated. After the debates about the expropriation decision, the government made a statement saying that the churches cannot be expropriated. Church foundations are appealing the decision. The experts think that the decision must be corrected.
While clashes and curfews continue in Diyarbakir, the cabinet took an urgent expropriation decision. Surp Giragos Church, the largest Armenian church in Middle East, is among the places in Sur province of Diyarbakir that are expropriated by the decision of the cabinet. Left to its own fate for years, the church was finally restored and opened to worship in 2011. With the same decision, Syriac, Chaldean and Protestant churches are also expropriated.
According to the cabinet decision published in Official Journal on March 25, an “urgent expropriation” decision is taken concerning 6.300 plots of land in Sur province. With this decision, many places in Abdaldede, Alipaşa, Cemal Yılmaz, Camikebir, Cevatpaşa, Dabanoğlu, Hasırlı, İnönü, İskenderpaşa, Lalebey, Malikahmet, Özdemir, Süleymangazi, Savaş, Şemhane and Ziyagökalp neighborhoods and two neighborhoods in Yenişehir province are expropriated.
The cabinet's decision is based on Article 27 of the Expropriation Law and it is also decided that the Ministry of Environment and Urban Planning will carry out the expropriation.
Surp Giragos Church, Surp Sarkis Chaldean Church, Armenian Catholic Church, St. Mary Syriac Church and Protestant Church are among the places that are expropriated. Some of the churches are belong to the foundations of the congregants and some of them belong to the General Directorate for Foundations and the Ministry of Culture and Tourism.
In Sur, there are almost 7742 plots of land. With this decision, almost 80% of the province is expropriated.
After it is revealed that there are churches among the expropriated places, the decision was also brought to the parliament's agenda. On March 29, the Minister of Environment and Urban Planning Fatmagül Demet Sarı attended the meeting of Planning and Budget Sub-commission. Garo Paylan, HDP member of the sub-commission, asked about the expropriation of the churches and mosques. Minister Sarı spoke as the following:
“We made a decision of urgent expropriation, like we did in all of our urban transformation projects. However, as you said, urgent expropriation doesn't mean expropriation of the entire region at once. Our purpose is to come to an agreement with our citizens. The expropriation decision was made as a last resort; we would carry that decision out, if we couldn't manage to come to an agreement with the citizens.”
Minister Sarı also stated that the transformation in Sur will be carried out in accordance with the zoning plan that was approved in 2012. Yusuf Beyazıt, AKP member of the sub-commission, also said that the registered assets cannot be expropriated.
“The decision must be corrected”
The decision caused disquiet among Armenian, Syriac and Chaldean communities in İstanbul and Diyarbakir. Stating that the cabinet should correct this decision, Archbishop Aram Ateşyan said that they demanded a meeting with Minister of Environment Sarı.
Diyarbakir Surp Giragos Armenian Church Foundation Chair Ergun Ayık said that lawyers started to work for Surp Giragos Church and other properties belonging to the foundation and they will initiate the necessary legal process.
Lawyer of Diyarbakir Surp Giragos Armenian Church Foundation Ali Elbeyoğlu stated that the decision of the cabinet should be corrected by the cabinet itself and said: “The execution of this decision shouldn't be under the initiative of the government. We will appeal this decision.”
St. Mary Syriac Church Foundation Chair Can Şakarar also said that they are making preparations for appealing the decision.
Diyarbakir Protestant Church is also expropriated. The construction of the church was completed in early 2000s and it is in the scope of the expropriation with 3 lands around it. The church is not registered. Protestant Church will also appeal the decision.
Speaking to Agos, Diyarbakir Metropolitan Municipality Cultural Heritage Director Nevin Soylukaya stated that all churches and properties belonging to the foundations are expropriated. Soylukaya also said that some properties belonging to the municipality are also expropriated and they will initiate legal action. She also urged the owners of the expropriated properties to take legal action.
The first lawsuit
The first legal action against urgent expropriation is taken by Diyarbakir Bar Association.
Diyarbakir Bar Association made a statement about expropriation and pointed out that the neighborhoods in the scope of the expropriation plan have almost 50.000 residents.
The Association stated that they applied to the Council of State for a stay of execution and annulment.
“Among the expropriated plots, there are structures belonging to public institutions, local administrations and our association; and also there are places of worship and residences that are considered as historical and cultural heritage. This decision violates the property right and is also against Turkish Constitutional Law, Expropriation Law and European Convention on Human Rights which protects the property right. This decision, which seems to be made by the request of the Ministry of Environment and Urban Planning without any reason or justification, is unacceptable within the limits of constitutional order.”
In the statement, it is also reminded that the province that is subjected to the expropriation is in the UNESCO list and should be protected.
Criticism from the experts
The experts also reacted against the urgent expropriation. Chamber of City Planners Istanbul Branch Chair Tayfun Kahraman reminded that any project must be designed by negotiating with the locals of Sur before expropriation decision and said that the current expropriation decision is made without this process.
Kahraman said, “The urgent expropriation is controversial. The churches are registered structures and they have monumental status. A different process should have been carried out for the properties of the foundations. Those properties shouldn't have been expropriated. The foundations should appeal the expropriation decision.”
Ömer Kantik, one of the lawyers of Tıbrevank Foundation, stated that the decision doesn't have any justification and the reasons for expropriating certain regions should be revealed. Kantik said, “There are some statements. We respect the well-intended efforts, but there is nothing that could comfort us legally. Being a historical or registered structure doesn't change anything. Either the cabinet will make a new decision or we appeal the current decision. This decision is unlawful anyway. This decision is not made urgently; it is made in mad rush. Thus, I think that the expropriation decision will be annulled by the court.”
Barış Kaşka, who represented the owners of the properties in the scope of Tarlabaşı urban transformation, also criticized the expropriation decision. Pointing out that the owners should appeal the decision before the legal period for appealing ends, Kaşka said: “In the course of the history of the republic, they tried to do this maybe 50 times. And AKP government is doing this for the 200th time. The urgent expropriation is necessary only when there is a concern about the public interest. However, in this case, the people are the sufferers and in addition, their properties are expropriated. And why would one expropriate the churches? The main problem here is that there are 60 days for appealing. People should appeal the decision before the legal period ends. One annulment decision in a lawsuit opened by a single owner is enough. I think that the ruling would be in favor of the owners, if they file a lawsuit.”
Opinion of the General Directorate for Foundations
General Directorate for Foundations Director Adnan Ertem made a statement to Agos about the urgent expropriation decision concerning Sur province of Diyarbakir.
“This expropriation decision is not about historical structures or civil architecture. On the contrary, this decision is made for making the historical structures more visible by demolishing the unplanned structures around them. This is an authorization which will be exercised only if there is a need to protect the historical structures. As a legal matter, expropriation of historical structures is difficult. Expropriation is thought, only when there is a possibility like submerging. Expropriation of the historical structures as part of urban planning is not a usual method. Rest assured. We only want to preserve the historical structures.”
There is no other church open to worship
Sur is the only center that have places of worship for non-Muslims. Surp Giragos Church, Surp Sarkis Chaldean Church, Armenian Catholic Church, St. Mary Syriac Church and Protestant Church are in Sur and currently closed to worship. There is no other church in Diyarbakir.
Chaldean Church belongs to Mor Petyun Chaldean Catholic Church Foundation and St. Mary Syriac Church belongs to St. Mary Syriac Church Foundation. Apart from them, in Diyarbakir, there are 6 churches that is owned by various state institutions.
Millions spent for restoration
Surg Giragos Armenian Church was left to its own fate, after its congregants left. With legal changes in foundation administration, people from Diyarbakir living in İstanbul formed a new administrative body and initiated restoration work. With the help of funding campaigns started in the US and other countries, the church was restored. About 2 million liras was spent for restoration. And it was awarded with various prestigious restoration awards.
Sur is a second-degree protected area
Walls of Diyarbakir and Hevsel Gardens were added to UNESCO World Heritage List in 2015. And Sur province is considered as a buffer zone for Walls of Diyarbakir.
Urban transformation in Sur has been debated for a long time now. In 2010, 330 structures out of 850 were demolished in Alipaşa and Lalebey neighborhoods as part of the urban transformation plan carried out by Housing Development Administration of Turkey, the Ministry and the Municipality. The locals reacted against this transformation and it was stopped by the municipality at the end of 2013.
However, in the process, Sur was declared as a risk area on December 4, 2012.