ISTANBUL CHURCH CELEBRATES
(from Turkish Daily News) by DAMARIS KREMIDA
This weekend, the oldest known international Protestant community of Istanbul and the region, The Union Church of Istanbul, is celebrating 150 years of history in the chapel of the Dutch Consulate, built in 1711.
In the 1800s Istanbul saw an influx of Protestants from different backgrounds, countries, and denominational colorings: There were Evangelicals, Baptists, Dutch Reformed and others to satisfy the different theological palettes of foreigners who had landed in the Ottoman Empire’s center of activity. One group of English-speaking protestants that included one of the initial founders of Robert College, Cyrus Hamlin, established a church that met in homes in 1840. The church is now both the oldest known international – and interdenominational – Protestant church of its kind registered and still running in the region according to the archives of the Association of International Churches in Europe, the Middle East and Africa.
“It was always intended to be an international, interdenominational church that provided a place of worship for the English-speaking people of Istanbul,” said its current pastor, Benjamin van Rensburg.
In the fall of 1857, the then Dutch Minister Resident Julius J.A. Count Van Zuylen van Nijevelt, himself a staunch Protestant, invited the church to meet in the chapel adjacent to the consulate off Taksim’s İstiklal Street. The chapel had been built in 1711 to serve as a church for the Dutch community and as a fire resistant warehouse for the wooden fire-prone stores of Pera (now Beyoğlu). By 1857 it had fallen into disrepair since the Dutch parish had dwindled and no longer met there.
Today the church has 260 attendees – including children – from 40 different countries. “The worship at the church reflects the cultural richness of the church. It is amazing how many people from different continents contribute to make it a unique experience,” said van Rensburg.
The relationship of the Union Church and the Dutch Consulate over the last 150 years has been special, said both van Rensburg – a South African who commemorates Queen Beatrix in church prayers – and Dutch Consul Marco Hennis.
“It is a proof of an excellent co-existence,” said Hennis. “The fact that the church already is in use for such a long period of time without interruption shows the feeling of mutual respect of two communities; on one side the community of the embassy – and later on the consulate general that represents the Kingdom of the Netherlands – and on the other side the community of the protestant Church.”
A book, written by Elain van Rensburg, on the history of the church and the area of Pera was published on the occasion of the 150th anniversary and includes archive photos and documents. The book has anecdotes of the friendship between Florence Nightingale and Hamlin who during the Crimean war provided her hospital with thousands of loaves of bread daily. The Greek and Armenian protestant communities also met in the chapel for services at different times on Sunday mornings.
“The church sees it as a responsibility to serve the needs of the community and this has been the case through the centuries,” said Benjamin van Rensburg. The Union Church belongs to a network of catholic, orthodox and protestant parishes that aids asylum seekers while the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is processing their cases.