“I’m confident the church in Tarsus could soon change from being a museum to a centre of spiritual pilgrimage,” said Bishop Luigi Padovese, speaking after the close of worldwide commemorations to mark the 2000th anniversary of the birth of St. Paul.
“A final ruling on whether services will continue here now lies with the local authorities in Tarsus itself, who can make the current provisional permission for ongoing services definitive,” a German-based Catholic charity, Aid to the Church in Need, reported Padovese as saying on its Web site.
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 after 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, but is currently also used under a government license for regular services by fee-paying Christian visitors.
The 32,000-member Catholic Church in Turkey requested Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan for the permanent return of the building, which was 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.