What happened to two churches in Bursa?

Privately-owned Armenian Catholic Church and French Church which belongs to General Directorate for Foundations (VGM) has similar fates, but what is currently happening to them is different.

In the recent weeks, news reports about two churches in Bursa drew attention. One of them is an Armenian Church which is put up for sale on a website... The other one is the French Church, which is used by Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant communities; it drew attention with the reports of evacuation. With the first development, people became concerned by the Christian cultural heritage in Bursa and began to think about the future of other Christians in the city. I spent a day in Bursa for discussing these issues with different people, including former mayors, prominent historians of the city, journalists, religious officials and real estate agents. 

Two developments

When I was in Bursa, I spent most of my time in Osmangazi which looks like a “polished” province with renovation projects. It is known that the Metropolitan Municipality not only renovates the old buildings, but also wants to revive the Ottoman culture. It can be said that the municipality is “successful” in a sense; Muradiye Social Complex, Ulucami neighborhood, Kapalı Çarşı and Hanlar Bölgesi (kervanserai district) are very “remarkable” with their renovated look. As part of the master plan prepared in 2016, this year is planned to be the urban renewal year for Bursa. However, two churches in this region, which entered UNESCO World Heritage List with the structures reflecting the Ottoman culture, weren't honored with such an interest. Privately-owned Armenian Catholic Church and French Church which belongs to General Directorate for Foundations (VGM) has similar fates, but what is currently happening to them is different. 

Şehir Medya, a local newspaper in Bursa, published a report with this headline: “300-years-old Armenian Orthodox Church in Bursa is on sale online”. “Church for sale” ads are nothing new for Turkey, but they still qualify as news. Every church for sale has a story that needs to be revealed. First thing I did in Bursa was to visit this church and walk around in the region. Then, I spoke to Hakim Real Estate Agency which is the sales representative of the church. 

Sale for 1.5 million dollars

The church is privately-owned. Real estate consultant Tayfun Özenginler says that the price of the church is 1.5 million dollars. This church has been on sale for 5 years and he is disturbed by the media coverage about this issue. He says, “People are coming and asking about the church all day long; we cannot deal with our business.” The church has 1-2 potential buyers. The church is located in Setbaşı district which is a  lively part of the city. There are cafes around the church and the non-Muslims in Bursa prefer to reside in this district. The municipality considers the environmental planning of this district important. According to Özenginler, Setbaşı is the Cihangir of Bursa: “That is why even the structures in ruins are expensive.” He said that the inheritor lives in the US and they will help if someone wants to buy the church and he abstains from revealing the name of the inheritor. However, Raif Kaplanoğlu, a local researcher who studies on the history of Bursa, gives the details about the family that owns the church. 

Before I went to Bursa, I spoke to several historians and many of them referred me to Kaplanoğlu. He wrote several books on the history of Bursa and he contributes to periodicals like “Bursa Çalışmaları” (Bursa studies). Kaplanoğlu said that the owner of the church is Salih Kiracıbaşı who is the first chair of Bursa Sports Team. He also added that his son-in-law Hadi Neşet Türkmen, who was the former deputy chairman of Turkish Football Federation and Fenerbahçe spokesman had a share. And the church was put up for sale after Türkmen died in 2012. 

Protestant Church Pastor İsmail Kulakçıoğlu accompanied me when I visited the church. He said that when the church was put up for sale, some people contacted him for selling the church to Protestant community in Bursa for 1 million dollars. Then, it turned out that those people are defrauders. 

Tobacco store

There is misinformation in the news reports about the church. Almost all media organs covered the issue by saying that the 300-years-old Armenian Orthodox Church in Bursa is on sale. First of all, this is not an Orthodox church, it is an Armenian Catholic Church. The other Armenian church in Bursa, which didn't survive, is known as Bogosyan Armenian Gregorian Church. The Armenian Catholic Church was used as a tobacco store after 1923. Another misinformation on the reports is that the Armenian Catholic Church in Setbaşı is not 300 years old; it is Bogosyan Armenian Gregorian Church that belongs to Gregorian community which is 300 years old. I asked about the history of that church to historian İsmail Yaşayanlar from Uludağ University. In 1794, Armenians in Bursa, who was complaining about the devastated condition of their church, began to renovate Bogosyan Church, which dates back to 17th century. This process, which coincided with Ramadan, disturbed Muslims who claimed that they went beyond their purpose and tried to enlarge the church. At the time, over 1000 incited women from Bursa pulled the church down; they thought that the church is the reason why it is not raining. With the church, 6-7 neighboring houses were also burned down. The Armenian church that is on sale now was established by transforming a building into a church in 1831. Researcher Kaplanoplu said that Setbaşı is mostly populated by Armenians and Çelebi Mehmet brought 10 Armenian families from Kütahya to Bursa for making them work in Yeşil Camii (green mosque).

French Church

Last week, there was another news report which particularly interests Christians in Bursa. It was claimed that the church known as the French Church will be evacuated. After the report was spread in social media, it was said that the church will remain open for worshiping, but three communities are on a knife edge now. In order to understand what is happening, I spoke to Erdoğan Bilenser, who was the mayor in office when the restoration started.

Former Bursa Mayor Bilenser said that at that time, Catholic Armenians was in need of a place for worshiping and they came to see him with architect Hasan Sözineri. “Catholic community had already designed a project for the church and they had even covered the expenses. So, we took the responsibility of this restoration project.” Bilenser said that after the media covered the restoration, a radical Islamist group threatened them. 

In order to open the church for worshiping, a permit from the cabinet is needed, but, as you can guess, it is not that easy. At first, the church was opened to worship with the oral permission of Mehmet Ali Şahin, who was the vice prime minister in charge of the foundations at that time. The permit of the cabinet was obtained much later. Despite the oral permission, there was also an assignment problem. Since the Catholics in Bursa had no institutional identity at that time, VGM solved the problem by assigning the church to Bursa Metropolitan Municipality. According to the law, whereas VGM can assign a building either to a public benefit society or to a foundation, there is no such a restriction for the municipalities. On December 31, 2015, assignment period was ended and the municipality wanted to return the church to VGM. Protestant Church Pastor İsmail Kulakçıoğlu said, “The municipality demanded that we evacuate the church in 4 days in order to return it empty. However, after it was spread on social media, they said that we may continue worshiping here.” He also added that VGM is trying to solve this issue and the process advances positively. On the other hand, journalist Kemal Mert from Bursa Hakimiyet Newspaper differs. “If the church was used only by Protestants, it would have been evacuated by now. The fact that Catholics and Orthodox are also using that church changed the situation. I think that this situation will continue as it is for a while, but if the problem of assignment isn't solved, the communities might be left without a church.”

Signed by Fedrogotti

It is also curious how Protestant community in Bursa came to use the church, while Evrim Schools is the only legal entity of Latin Catholic community in Turkey, which initiated the opening of the church for worshiping and covered all the expenses of the project. The protocol about worshiping that was made with the municipality is also signed by Father Namık Fedrogotti who is the representative of Evrim Schools. I asked this question to architect Hasan Sözineri. He said: “Father  Namık Fedrogotti was the administrator from the Catholic community who dealt with this issue. After he passed away, Catholic community stopped taking care of the church and handed it to the Protestant community settled in Bursa. Today, church sometimes needs renovation and municipality doesn't want to deal with them.”

Protestant community in Bursa began to gather together as a home group in '90s and after giving a notice in 1994, they had been performing their rituals in an apartment until 2014. They hold a ceremony in French Church on Sundays. Catholics hold a ceremony twice a month, while Orthodox community hold a ceremony once in a month. Majorly, the Protestant community is responsible for the church. In 2015, Yalova Işık Foundation made another application for assignment, which remained inconclusive. “We wait for the religious institutions law. VGM took the responsibility for solving this issue and we are sure that the process will end in a positive way. However, the municipality should accept that we are here. They can at least help us with the renovation works.”



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Fatih Gökhan Diler