Erdogan states that the state has to protect the right to freedom of worship for all.
It was closed for seven years. The Sveti Stefan (St. Stephen) Church was closed for the completion of a much-needed restoration. This church, which belongs to the Bulgarian Orthodox Christian community, was built in the 19th century in Istanbul, a Muslim-majority city. Now, it has reopened its doors with great fanfare in the presence of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Prime Minister Binali Yildirim, and Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov.
Evidently, it’s not only the church that has been restored, but also freedom of religion in a country in which the restriction of freedoms has been a growing problem.
Erdogan took advantage of the occasion to reaffirm that the Turkish state is responsible for ensuring that everyone, regardless of their beliefs, has the right to practice their faith freely. “We must not allow some bitter memories to stain our long history of coexistence,” he said.
This famous church, also known as the “Iron Church,” is the only church in the world built practically entirely out of prefabricated cast iron elements, and the governments of both Turkey and Bulgaria were involved in its restoration. It is situated in Balat, an historic neighborhood of Istanbul. The lion’s share of the money for the restoration—which totaled approximately 3.5 million dollars—was provided by the Turkish government.
The Turkish government explained that it has provided funds for the restoration of more than 5,000 buildings in the Middle East, North Africa, and the Balkans, and said that since 2002 it has been returning properties in Turkey to the Jews and Greeks. Aya Yorgi, in Istambul, has been returned to the Greek Orthodox community, along with Aya Nikola in Gökçeada; the church of Iskenderun has also been returned to the Syrian Catholic community.
The church of St. Stephen was built with 500 tons of cast iron from Austria in 1989. The presence of the Bulgarian Christian community in Istanbul dates back to the 18th century, and the Iron Church is a symbol of Christianity in that city in which many of the Christian landmarks were destroyed when the Ottomans took Constantinople (Istanbul) in 1453.
The church is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and although the Bulgarian community is small and cannot celebrate its liturgy there regularly, it will use the church on specified liturgical feasts; above all, the construction will be a tourist attraction and a visual reminder of the presence of Christians in Turkey.