ISTANBUL (Turkish Daily News)—Turkey’s decision not to re-open St. Paul Church in the southern town of Tarsus to permanent worship has upset Catholics in Turkey, an Italian newspaper reported Monday.
Despite a personal request from Pope Benedict XVI and repeated requests by Christian leaders in Turkey, Ankara has decided that the church in Tarsus – the city of St. Paul’s birth – will remain a government museum.
After the end of the yearlong celebration commemorating the 2,000th anniversary of St. Paul’s birth, the Turkish government decided the building could not be used exclusively for worship, reported the Catholic News Service on its Web site on Wednesday.
Bishop Luigi Padovese, the apostolic vicar for Anatolia and president of the Catholic bishops’ conference of Turkey, told the Vatican newspaper earlier this month that the government decided to return to the practice of allowing Christians to pray in the church as long as they made reservations three days in advance and bought an admission ticket.
Bishop Padovese told L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper, that in addition to asking Christians to pay to enter the church, Turkish authorities have placed a time limit on Mass and other prayer services so they do not disrupt the normal operation of the museum.
Meeting the Turkish bishops in February during their visits to Rome, Pope Benedict expressed his hopes that the government would give Christians permanent use of the building for prayer.
Italian daily La Stampa said over the weekend that the Turkish government’s decision over the St. Paul church had disappointed Catholic leaders. “This is bad news for Turkish Catholics and another downfall for the country on its way to the European Union,” it said.
The building in the Mediterranean town, believed to be the birthplace of St. Paul, is a former Orthodox church now being run as a museum. During last year’s debate over the re-opening of the church, Roman Catholic leaders had said they would support a mosque building in Germany, if the Turkish government returns the church’s control and permits the construction of a pilgrimage center.
Writing in his diocesan newspaper in May 2008, Archbishop of Cologne Cardinal Joachim Meisner said he had written to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, urging his government to return the church as a gesture of European cooperation.
La Stamp said the visitors of the church had significantly increased due to St. Paul Year, which ended June 25. “We wish for the church-museum to become a permanent house of worship,” Monsignor Luigi Padovese said. “We know that two mosques that used to be utilized as museums were re-opened for worshippers. Without any property claim, we would like the same thing to happen for us.”
The reply to Padovese’s aspirations was negative, said the Italian daily. “The doors of the Tarsus will be re-opened, but with very tight conditions,” it said. “Besides, the doors of hope seem to be shut already.”