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(RNS/ENI) Turkey’s government has agreed to extend indefinite permission for Christian worship at an historic church in Tarsus, the birthplace of St. Paul, says the head of the country’s Roman Catholic bishops’ conference.
“I’m confident the church in Tarsus could soon change from being a museum to a center of spiritual pilgrimage,” said Bishop Luigi Padovese, speaking after the close of worldwide commemorations to mark the 2,000th anniversary of the birth of St Paul.
The Web site for a German-based Catholic charity, Aid to the Church in Need, quoted Padovese saying “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.”
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.
Padovese said the Turkish government had already given 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, which ended in June.
“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 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. It is currently also used under a government license for regular services by fee-paying Christian visitors.
Turkey’s 32,000-member Catholic Church asked Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to permanently return the building, which was a focus for Christian culture until the regime of Kemal Ataturk in the 1920s.
Padovese said he believed the government is now ready to classify Tarsus as a Christian pilgrimage site, but said European Christians must 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.
By Jonathan Luxmoore
Religion News Service
Copyright 2009 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.

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