A former Greek Orthodox church which served as a cultural connection point for Muslims and Christians has been demolished by Turkish authorities.
St. Georgios Greek Orthodox Church in the city of Bursa in Turkey was a 19th century church built to serve the small Greek Orthodox community. It was converted into a mosque in 1923 and rebuilt in the 1980s. Then, in 2006, the building was converted into a cultural centre where the two communities could celebrate their shared history.
However, in 2013 the building was taken over by the Islamic General Directorate of Pious Foundations, who reportedly neglected the maintenance of the building. It eventually began to decay and collapse. The church, known as the “Hagia Sophia of Bursa” was demolished by the authorities this week.
The Nilüfer Municipality (district officials in Bursa) made several requests to reclaim the building and ask for renovation but were denied.
Nilüfer Mayor Turgay Erdem said: “We restored this place and spent about 2 million Turkish lira with today’s money. Our aim was to transform the place, which is not used as a mosque, into a cultural center and protect it. We have done our part to pass on a cultural heritage to future generations.
"However, the Foundations (group) have taken away the historical structure in a meaningless way. And left to rot. For seven years, nobody claimed this structure. Public money was wasted because of this negligence. Who will account for this? We will file a criminal complaint against those responsible.”
Erdem added that he would seek to attain ownership rights and rebuild the precious building. "We have all the details of the projects of the building, we can restore this structure from scratch if necessary," he said. "As long as it is allocated to us.”
Researcher Tugba Tanyeri-Erdemir, who previously undertook a project in the region, posted a Twitter thread lamenting the demolition.
"This hits me hard," she wrote. "This lovely church-mosque-cultural center in Bursa/Turkey was part of a research project I conducted in 2012, when I was investigating the role of religious heritage in peace-building between Turkey and Greece."
She continued: "We talk about famed historical monuments often. There are also smaller scale, humble monuments, not as old or not as remarkable, but important for memory of belonging to a place. This little church is one of many built in the 19th cent. for the local Greek-Orthodox flock.
"After the compulsory population exchange between Greece and Turkey in 1923, many of these 19th century churches in Turkey were left without their communities. Same applied to Greece as well, many mosques were left without communities.
"The restoration of this church, and several others in the area, fostered a vibrant period of tourism, where former Greek-Orthodox inhabitants of the region came in tours, joined the locals in folkloric festivals, visited their churches, sang and eat with the current residents.
"The local Turks organized tours to go to Greece, not only to visit the villages their families descendant from, but also to visit their new Greek friends. I, as a researcher, was lovingly hosted by Greek-exchange-grandmoms during my research in Thessaloniki, for instance.
"So, this simple act of restoration made a significant positive impact on building relationships between two communities who shared a common history of separation from a place. It gave both communities a sense of common belonging and empathy. It made a peaceful future possible.
"This hits me hard particularly hard today, at a time when we need peace across the Mediterranean more than ever. This collapsed building, and what it represents to me, hurts me deeply."
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan faced fierce international backlash in July after opting to convert the Istanbul's historic Byzantine-era church Hagia Sophia into a functioning mosque. Critics say it is part of a broader nationalist campaign led by Erdogan to isolate the Christian community and ensure Islam is seen as the predominant religion in Turkey.