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REUTERS/Umit Bektas
Turkish Christians praying 2.JPG
REUTERS/Umit Bektas
World News

Christians in Turkey pray for return to the ruins of ancient Antioch

by Reuters Journalist

The Antioch Greek Orthodox Church brought Christians together in Turkey's Antakya for centuries until last year, when an earthquake killed dozens of them and sent hundreds more fleeing.

Though it now lies in ruins, many pray it will again bring them back.

"Our churches are levelled and our bell towers are silent," Fadi Hurigil, head of the Greek Orthodox Church Foundation of Antakya, said on Tuesday at a mass held for victims of the 7.8 magnitude quake that devastated southern Turkey and northwestern Syria on Feb. 6 last year.

The deadliest disaster in modern Turkey's history, the quake killed more than 53,000 people in Turkey and nearly 6,000 in Syria, and left millions homeless. It also ravaged the rich cultural and religious heritage of Antakya, which was once called Antioch and founded in 300 BC by the Seleucid dynasty.

The ancient city, home to Jews, Christians and Muslims, changed hands over the centuries between Greeks, Romans, Arabs and Ottoman Turks.

Those gathered at the church prayed in Arabic and Turkish for the 63 people from the local Christian community who died.

Icons, crucifixes and liturgical vessels have since been recovered from the church's wreckage and entrusted to the Hatay Archeology Museum, Hurigil said. Some remain under the rubble.

"I saw the church for the first time after the earthquake and I couldn't believe my eyes (at the scale of the devastation). I was deeply affected," said Larina Balikcioglu, 18, a medical student who attended the mass.

But now the Antioch Greek Orthodox Church - which was similarly destroyed by an earthquake in 1872 but later restored by Russian architects - is set for another rebirth as a project to restore it has been approved. Construction work is awaiting the results of a soil survey.

"This city has been destroyed and rebuilt seven times. It was demolished for the eighth time, and hopefully, it will be rebuilt again," Hurigil said, referring to other earthquakes that have rattled a region sitting atop a geological fault line.

'PLEASE COME BACK'

Some 370 Greek Orthodox families were living in Antakya before the 2023 quake but only 20 remain today, he told Reuters.

Hurigil, 49, born and raised in Antakya, said 45 families had relocated to Mersin province, a three-hour drive away.

Although his own family home in the city centre was only slightly damaged by the quake, they are currently staying in their summer house in Hatay province due to poor living conditions in Antakya.

"Antakya holds a special place in the hearts of those who had to leave, as it is where they have roots and land. Giving up this city is not easy for us," he said.

David Cagan, 53, another member of the local Greek Orthodox community, said it was essential to rebuild the churches. Even before the quake, he said, Antakya's Christian community had been shrinking every year in predominantly Muslim Turkey, and the latest disaster has brought it to the brink of extinction.

"Our house of worship is what unites us, and without it, we cannot gather," he said, adding that Turkish authorities and international organisations should promote projects that would encourage people to return to Antakya.

"We are not going to leave here. The city's soul is its people. To those who left, I say: please come back."

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