Deputy PM says there is no racism in Turkey, at opening of renovated synagogue

Deputy PM says there is no racism in Turkey, at opening of renovated synagogue

EDİRNE – Doğan News Agency
Deputy PM says there is no racism in Turkey, at opening of renovated synagogue

AA Photo

Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç has claimed that racism and anti-Semitism have never found root in in Turkey, speaking during his visit to the northwestern province of Edirne for the opening of the renovated Great Synagogue.

“Thank God, there is no anti-Semitism in Turkey. There is also no phobia [in Turkey] compared to Islamophobia in the West. There is no racism in Turkey; it has never found a base for its roots. When we look at Europe and other countries we see how far behind us they are and we feel really sorry,” said Arınç on March 26. 

He was speaking at the historic and newly-renovated Great Synagogue, where the first prayer service in 46 years was taking place. 

Early on March 26, worshippers gathered at the Great Synagogue, the subject of outcry last year after Edirne Governor Dursun Şahin vowed to turn it into a museum rather than an active house of worship, following five years of restoration work. 

Turkey’s Jewish community head, İshak İbrahimzadeh, attended the morning service conducted by Davud Azuz, who had also led the last service at the synagogue 46 years ago. 

An estimated 200 to 250 people attended the service in the synagogue, which was renovated for around $2.2 million. 

“I would like to thank those who contributed [to the re-opening of the Great Synagogue], including Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç,” Azuz said, reported by Anadolu Agency.

As Europe’s second-largest synagogue, the Great Synagogue in Edirne was built in 1907 after a large fire in the city in 1905 destroyed 13 separate synagogues. The synagogue was constructed using Vienna’s Leopoldstadter Tempel, which was later destroyed by the Nazis, as a model, but it was abandoned in 1983 due to a lack of worshippers.

The temple was transferred to Thrace University to be used as a museum after its restoration, but after criticism from the Jewish community in Turkey the building was transferred back to the General Directorate for Foundations.

Edirne Governor Şahin had raised eyebrows when he told reporters on Nov. 21, 2014 that the synagogue would be turned into a museum, in retaliation for the Israeli military raid on Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa Mosque.
He later offered an “apology,” claiming that his proposal “had no connection” to Turkish Jews.

In Edirne for the event, Arınç said the project was an important indicator of how far freedom of religion and conscience has come in Turkey.

“I remember the Jewish citizens, who died defending their city [against past invasions] for their Muslim Turkish neighbors, with the same gratitude as our martyrs,” Arınç said.

The synagogue’s bright yellow exterior is a burst of light among the dilapidated wooden houses and concrete apartment blocks in Edirne’s former Jewish quarter. Inside, painters painstakingly decorated the ceiling with thousands of stars and beams of sunlight pass through a colonnade of neat arches.

Once the Balkans’ largest Jewish temple, the Great Synagogue opened on the sultan’s decree in 1909 to serve some 20,000 Jews. 

Thousands of Jews left Edirne, situated near the Greek and Bulgarian borders, in 1934 when a racist mob attacked their property.

For centuries, Ottoman lands were a haven for Jews, welcoming the Sephardim expelled by Spain in 1492. Once here, they adopted new rituals while maintaining their traditions, most prominently the Judeo-Spanish dialect called Ladino. 

Census data shows Ladino was the mother tongue for 84 percent of Turkish Jews in 1927 before nationalist campaigns stamped it out. Today only a few elderly speak the archaic form of Castilian Spanish, one of the world’s endangered tongues. 

A “wealth tax” in the 1940s, emigration to Israel after 1947 and decades of political instability conspired to decimate a population that was 150,000 before World War One.