The government of Turkey has agreed to extend indefinitely permission for Christian worship at an historic church in Tarsus, the birthplace of St. Paul, says the head of the country’s Roman Catholic bishops’ conference.
“I’m confident the church in Tarsus could soon change from being a museum to a centre of spiritual pilgrimage,” said Bishop Luigi Padovese, after the close of worldwide commemorations to mark the 2,000th anniversary of the birth of St. Paul.
The Bible records that St. Paul initially persecuted Christians after being raised as a Jew in Tarsus, but he underwent a conversion to Christianity after a vision on the road to Damascus.
Italian-born Bishop Padovese said that the Turkish government had already indefinitely extended its consent for Christian services in the church. This followed a record influx of 416 Christian groups from 30 countries to Tarsus during the Year of St. Paul, celebrated from June 2008 to June 2009.
“For the first time, Turkish Muslims have witnessed Christians, not as tourists, but as praying pilgrims, whose devotion has made a lasting impression on the Turkish people,” said the bishop.
The early-medieval St. Paul’s church, which appears on the U.N. World Heritage list, was confiscated by the Turkish government in 1943 for use as a state museum. At that time it was also used for regular services by fee-paying Christian visitors.
The 32,000-member Catholic Church in Turkey has requested permanent return of the building from Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The building had been a focus for Christian culture until the regime of Kemal Ataturk in the 1920s.
Bishop Padovese said he believed the government is now ready to classify the eastern town as a Christian pilgrimage site, but said that European Christians needed to continue demanding a permanent solution.
“A certain amount of public pressure is helpful, but only if it originates from love for Turkey and a genuine wish for religious freedom to grow in the country,” he stated.
Christian minorities have frequently complained of discrimination in Turkey, most of whose 70 million inhabitants are Sunni Muslims.