How a Funeral Home is Healing the Painful History of Turkish Christians

An Orthodox cemetery in Istanbul is trying to negotiate Turkey's complicated Muslim-Christian relationship.

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An Orthodox woman prays during Christmas mass at Fener Greek Orthodox Patriarchate in Istanbul / Reuters

More than 40 years ago, Kirkor Çapan, an ethnic Armenian, and his father set up what today is one of the last Christian funeral homes still operating in Istanbul. But the funeral parlor is not a religious island unto itself. With so few Christians left in Turkey, the stonemasons and carpenters working with Çapan are Muslim Turks.

"There are no more non-Muslim master craftsmen in my profession," commented stonemason Senol Ekinci, one of Çapan's craftsmen, who has been carving Christian and Jewish tombstones for 35 years.

Standing in the Greek-Orthodox cemetery in the Istanbul neighborhood of Sisli, where he is responsible for the graves' maintenance and renovation, Ekinci explained what drew him to work on non-Muslim tombstones. "These graves here are a bit more elaborate; they require more work and craftsmanship. Turkish tombstones do not necessitate as much effort," Ekinci said. He is particularly proud of making the tombstone for the grave of Lefter Küçükandonyadis, a Turkish football legend of Greek descent who died this year.

Opportunities to work on such tombstones are shrinking. The Turkish government claims that 99 percent of the country's 79.7 million inhabitants are Muslim; and according to official statistics, the country's Christian population has diminished by nearly half since 1965, when it stood at 207,000. The US Department of State's annual Freedom of Religion report puts the numbers of Christians living now in Turkey at approximately 115,000; only 2,500 of which are Greek Orthodox, and 20,000 Armenian Apostolic.

While Çapan serves all Christian denominations, most of his customers are ethnic Armenians. He also has set up a separate funeral home that is now the only Greek Orthodox funeral home left in Istanbul.

While Istanbul's Greek population was exempted from the 1923 population exchange with Greece, changes in tax status, the 1955 anti-Greek pogroms and the dispute over Cyprus in the 1960s prompted thousands to leave. Nonetheless, the community's influence lingers on.

Ekinci learned his profession from his father, who in turn learned from a Greek master stonemason. He uses five different alphabets on his tombstones -- Greek, Russian Cyrillic, Armenian, Hebrew and Latin. "I learned Greek in the graveyard, from my colleagues," he said. "It's very hard, especially the grammar, but I finally managed."

Ekinci claims that his friends and family never criticized his choice to craft non-Muslim tombstones. "There used to be a lot of pressure on non-Muslims, but things have much improved in the last 10 years," he said.

He attributes the change to the controversial Ergenekon trial of senior military officers and civilians accused of plotting to overthrow the government of the Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party. "There was much more anti-Christian propaganda before many of the main suspects were arrested, more aggression," he said. "We sense a difference."

Çapan agrees that Christians now feel safer in Turkey. "Turkey has come a long way in this matter," he said.

Despite such affirmations, most of Istanbul's Christian cemeteries are still surrounded by high walls. To enter, visitors have to ring a doorbell: desecration of non-Muslim graves is still an issue, even if the frequency of such incidents has decreased. "Before, we did not allow any strangers to stroll through the vicinities," Ekinci explained. "And, yesterday, the patriarch [Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew] came to visit, accompanied only by his driver. Before, he would have had to come with bodyguards."

While the Turkish government in the past confiscated many buildings owned by non-Muslims, few cemeteries were affected. One notable exception was the Armenian Surp Agop Cemetery, on the grounds of today's Divan and Hyatt Regency Hotels, which was leveled by the Istanbul city government in 1939.

Currently, Çapan is coping with uncertainty. Urban renewal plans for the formerly Greek neighborhood of Tarlabaşi mean that Çapan risks losing the garage where he parks his hearse and stores coffins and other supplies. Most churches and Christian graveyards are close to his office, and he fears that moving to the outskirts would increase his costs substantially.

Another business concern persists -- a government ban on cremations. "Our requests have been ignored for years," Çapan said. "They say that 'It's against our religion. It's not possible in Islam.' But the ones asking for cremation are not Muslims."

The Eastern Orthodox Church also forbids cremation, arguing that it contradicts the central dogma of resurrection, but Çapan claims that demand runs high among foreign tourists whose relatives or friends die in Turkey, and would run "much higher still if the Turkish government would finally legalize the cremation procedure here."

Both Çapan and Ekinci lament the small numbers of Christians left in Istanbul, and not only because of their bottom line. "On religious holidays, many families came to the cemetery and visited the graves," Ekinci recalled. "Now, most of them call from abroad and ask us to take care of everything, if at all. There used to be at least three priests coming to the cemetery every day. Now if there is one, we are surprised."

But as any resident can attest, change in Istanbul is constant. Noting the Greeks now migrating to Turkey for work, Ekinci wagers that the city's Christian cemeteries might not always be bereft of regular visitors. "With the economic crisis in Greece," he said, "this might change again."

This article originally appeared at EurasiaNet.org, an Atlantic partner site.

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Constanze Letsch is a freelance writer based in Istanbul.

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