The Wall Street Journal
November 26, 2004
In Muslim Turkey, A Minister's Quest: Starting a Church
Religious Restrictions Begin To Ease as Nation Seeks Entry in European
Coffeehouse and Prayer Hall
By HUGH POPE
Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
November 26, 2004; Page A1
ANTALYA, Turkey -- Strolling through the jasmine-scented alleys of
this Mediterranean port city in 1997, Rev. James Bultema stumbled on
an abandoned stone chapel. Instantly, he envisioned it restored and
reconsecrated. Here was the home he was seeking for his budding
"I walked in, stood there and imagined how beautiful it could be,"
says the Presbyterian pastor from Muskegon, Mich.
Little did the 42-year-old minister realize that trying to turn the
dilapidated chapel into one of Turkey's first new Christian churches
in eight decades would entail years of effort and become a touchstone
in the nation's bid to join the European Union. Rev. Bultema's
continuing struggle illustrates the uneasiness in both Turkey and
Europe over the prospect of the country entering the EU. Next month,
EU leaders will decide whether to begin negotiations with Turkey on
its application to join.
Some European leaders point to demographic trends and worry that
Turkey, which has 70 million people, will outnumber the population of
Germany within a decade or two. If Turkey gains EU membership, that
could make the most-populous member of the EU a predominately Muslim
As Turkey seeks to join the EU, it has loosened strict restrictions
that have been in place since the 1920s when it set itself up as a
secular state. Until this year, no new non-Muslim group has been able
to own a religious building or construct a new one. Christian and
Jewish congregations that existed before 1920 were allowed to
continue, but still need permission even to add a coat of paint to
their places of worship. Muslim congregations also have been tightly
regulated and the state still owns all mosques.
Fewer than 100,000 Christians now live in Turkey. But many places in
Turkey played pivotal roles in the history of Christianity. St. Paul
and St. Barnabas passed through the old port of Antalya -- called
Attalia in the Bible -- as apostles who first spread Christianity
here. Istanbul, Turkey's business center, was the capital of the
Christian world when the city was known as Constantinople.
Even after the capture of Constantinople by Ottoman Turkish Muslims in
1453, Christian communities prospered for centuries. But relations
deteriorated sharply before and during World War I, as Western powers
collaborated with Christian and other minorities to bring down the
An international 1923 treaty called for an exchange of populations
between Greece and Turkey -- sending 1.5 million ethnic Greek
Christians out of Turkey to Greece. One million Turkish Muslims were
deported in the other direction.
The same treaty founded the republic of Turkey. But the Turks remained
suspicious of non-Muslim minorities, levying high taxes unfairly on
them in the 1940s, and forcing some to leave the country with
discriminatory passport laws in the 1960s.
In Antalya, the abandoned chapel was nationalized in 1949. Two years
later, the Turkish government sold it to a local man, whose family
used the chapel as a depot for cotton, sesame and pistachios.
Turkey opened its economy to the world in the 1980s, bringing big
changes. It applied to join the EU in 1987. Seizing on the new spirit,
Mustafa Erbas, grandson of the original Turkish owner of the chapel,
thought about turning it into a tavern for tourists. But he couldn't
get necessary approvals, he says.
So Mr. Erbas, a Muslim, was delighted when Rev. Bultema showed up
offering to buy the empty chapel and turn it back into a church. The
two became friends as they teamed up to try to overcome obstacles to
the sale. "If we're really going into Europe, they should have fixed
this business by now," says the 73-year-old Mr. Erbas.
Rev. Bultema, whose grandfather founded a church in Michigan, moved
with his wife to Istanbul in 1990. Turkey attracted him, he says,
because he was fascinated by the life of St. Paul, who was born there.
Upon arrival, Rev. Bultema started studying Turkish, while continuing
church studies. In 1993, he became a fully ordained minister of the
2.5 million-member Presbyterian Church (USA). He took a post as
part-time pastor for a Presbyterian congregation in Istanbul -- which
had long met beyond the reach of Turkish law, on the grounds of the
consulate-general of the Netherlands.
In 1996, he moved to Antalya, answering an ad for a full-time pastor
from an expatriate group. "One day, I decided I wanted to go to
church," recalls Carolyn Bulca, a former U.S. military contract worker
and member of the group. "I asked my Turkish friends where there was
one, but they could only point to ruins. I said 'Hey, if you can have
mosques in Europe, how come there's no church here?' "
Rev. Bultema started out with an Easter service in a hotel. His
congregation grew into the dozens, including everyone from Russian
prostitutes to African migrants, he says. Soon, he says he noticed
plainclothes Turkish police sitting in on his services -- and later
asking him to find somewhere else to hold them. A police spokesman
says he doesn't recall any complaints being filed. "We're civilized
here," he says. Rev. Bultema says the governor of Antalya province
requested photocopies of the passports of his congregation. The
governor declined to comment.
When Rev. Bultema went to the mayor's planning office to ask about
building his own church, "they just laughed," he says. "They said a
church would never happen." The mayor at the time, Hasan Subasi, says
national laws made it difficult for his office to do much for Rev.
Bultema's group, although "we wanted to help them."
Islamist groups, Turkish right-wingers and secular leftist
nationalists have all pressured the Turkish government for rules
limiting proselytizing and on land purchases by foreigners. Americans
are particularly suspect these days, some say.
"It's a defensive reflex," said Nizamettin Sagir, chief of the
National Action Party in Antalya, which often takes anti-foreigner
stands. "Call me a conspiracy theorist, but I think America is being
run by a Christian sect that has cast a hungry eye on our region. It's
like a new crusade."
Stymied, Rev. Bultema took the advice of a sympathetic municipal
official and set up a tourism company as a legal framework for his
ministry. Having a business helped him skirt restrictions on
establishing new religious associations.
The pastor bought a house next to the old chapel, and opened it in
1999 as a coffeehouse and prayer hall called the St. Paul Center.
Antalya's mayor and other officials attended the opening, eager to
promote the city's image as friendly to tourists. Rev. Bultema used
income from the coffeehouse to support his church, while a group of
American Presbyterian churches began to pay his salary.
The next year, officials invited Rev. Bultema to say a prayer at the
opening of the "faith tourism" season. That business takes Christians
to sites such as an amphitheater where St. Paul preached and a church
once headed by St. Nicholas, the Greek Orthodox bishop who inspired
the legend of Santa Claus.
Rev. Bultema's accountant, Faik Gokpinar -- a member of the ruling AK
Party, largely made up of conservative Muslims -- says he was won over
by Rev. Bultema's fluent Turkish and modest manner. "I explain to my
friends that this is not a group of dangerous missionaries," Mr.
Gokpinar said, driving through a city packed with hotels, restaurants
and foreign tourists brought in by 250 flights a day in peak season.
"I point out that we cannot live in isolation -- if we did, we'd have
to stop tourism, stop smoking Marlboro cigarettes and so on."
In 2000, Rev. Bultema and Mr. Erbas agreed on a price of $70,000. Rev.
Bultema set about raising the funds, mostly from Americans. But in
2001, minutes before Mr. Erbas and Rev. Bultema were to sign the sales
contract, the chief of the title deeds office came before them and
uttered a single word: "Problem."
The Ministry of Commerce ruled that a tourism business, such as the
one Rev. Bultema set up, couldn't buy a church.
In 2002, Rev. Bultema says Antalya dignitaries declined his offer to
again help kick off faith-tourism season. A local paper published a
story falsely saying he had been expelled from the country for
proselytizing. At times, he felt fate itself was against him. During a
rainstorm, a half-ton stone cornice on top of the chapel fell off and
crushed his car.
Meanwhile, Turkey's bid to join the EU was shifting into higher gear.
In November 2002, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's party came to
power. Although an Islamist in his youth, Mr. Erdogan was determined
to push for European prosperity and more religious freedoms in
Turkey's rigidly secular state. He gave a pro-European faction of
Turkish bureaucrats a free hand to liberalize the system.
Sjoerd Gosses, the Dutch ambassador to Turkey and an outspoken
proponent of efforts to improve Turkey's human-rights record, found
out about Rev. Bultema's quest, after visiting the St. Paul Center in
2002. He knew Turkey's bid to join Europe was sensitive in his own
country. The Netherlands has wrestled with a wave of immigration, much
of it from Muslim countries. Many Dutch worry Turkey's entrance into
Europe could unleash even more immigration.
"If there is discrimination, Turkey can't get into Europe," says Mr.
Gosses. "We have allowed 300 mosques to be built in Holland in the
past 20 years. I want to see one church built" in Turkey.
Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende, visiting Turkey in 2003,
asked Turkey's Prime Minister Mr. Erdogan about religious freedom. Mr.
Erdogan bristled, according to participants in the meeting. But he
knew the Netherlands would hold the EU presidency in the second half
of 2004, the lead up to the EU decision on Turkey. "You shall have
your church!" he told the Dutch Prime Minister, according to people at
Mr. Erdogan says he delivered on his promise a month later with a
project to build a church, synagogue and mosque, about an hour's drive
from Antalya. Their concrete shells now stand half-finished in a clump
of fir trees near some beach hotels. The architect says the buildings
will be completed once more money is raised.
"Soon we will open all three of them together," says Mr. Erdogan, in
an interview. "Let everyone come and pray; the Muslim, the Christian,
Mr. Erdogan's government has made changes in an effort to encourage
more religious freedoms. Last year, for example, the government
substituted the words "place of worship" for "mosque" in the nation's
building law. This change allows all religious denominations to build
places to hold services. In the past, new mosques could be built, but
ownership had to be turned over to the Turkish treasury.
"It was like installing a Microsoft patch," said Murat Sungar, a
jazz-playing diplomat who heads efforts to harmonize Turkish laws with
In Antalya, two other Christian groups have sprung up, offering
services in different languages. A group of German-speaking retirees
formed their own association, and rented a house to hold services. "In
theory, we are content. Let's see what happens in practice," says
Father Rainer Korten, a Catholic who heads the German-speaking group.
Another congregation, of Turkish-speaking converts, uses the prayer
hall at the St. Paul Center.
Rev. Bultema's English-speaking congregation, of about 80, continues
to hold out for the right to buy the chapel. In August, Rev. Bultema
and his lawyer drove to the whitewashed offices of the new registry of
associations in Antalya. They came to establish the St. Paul's Church
Association, the group that would purchase the chapel.
Several new officials welcomed them. They sat in the same office where
government censors in the late 1990s went through Rev. Bultema's
shipments of religious literature. "I used to be so intimidated by all
this. But I think it's getting fairer," he whispered. In minutes, the
St. Paul's Church Association was approved, with a flourish of
signing, stamping and sealing.
A month later, Rev. Bultema was back in the same office -- to learn
that a Turkish association couldn't accept donations from abroad. That
meant he couldn't receive the money he had raised from abroad to buy
the church. "It's pretty confusing," says Rev. Bultema, who is
continuing his effort. "Sometimes I just shake my head."
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