Turkey on Thursday reopened a restored century-old synagogue built during the Ottoman Empire but shuttered for several decades, saying it should become a symbol for the coexistence of different religious communities on Turkish territory.
A special ceremony held at the Buyuk Sinagog (the Great Synagogue) in the northwestern city of Edirne was attended by top officials including Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc, as well as leaders of the Turkish-Jewish community.
The synagogue — which served the Jewish community in Edirne until 1983 and a few years later suffered a roof collapse — was reopened as an active place of worship after a five-year, $2.5-million restoration project.
The project saw the synagogue’s lead-clad domes and stately interior as well as its precious Torah rolls restored.
Leading the first service in the restored synagogue — built in 1907 under Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hamid II — was Rabbi David Azuz, state-run Anatolia news agency reported.
He also led the last prayer service before the synagogue was closed to worship.
The project is seen as part of efforts under the 12-year domination of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to lift restrictions on Turkey’s small but historically significant non-Muslim religious minorities.
Authorities insist the restoration of the synagogue shows their tolerance towards Turkey’s Jewish community of some 20,000, many of whom trace their ancestry back to Jews who started to take refuge in the Ottoman Empire in the 15th century following their expulsion from Spain.
The building, said to be the largest synagogue in the Balkans and one of the largest in Europe, was modeled on the Great Synagogue in Vienna that was destroyed in Nazi pogroms.
‘Respect all religions’
“This is of great importance in terms of showing how far religious freedoms have come in our country,” Arinc said after the ceremony.
“Turkey is a state ruled by law as much as it’s a secular country. A secular nation has to respect all religions and ensure freedom of worship for all faiths,” he added, according to Turkish media.
The office of the Turkish prime minister also said in a statement: “The faithful restoration and reopening of the Great Synagogue stands as another example of the culture of peaceful coexistence on Anatolian soil.”
But the reopening comes after a wave of anti-Israel sentiment in predominantly Muslim Turkey which reached its peak after Erdogan declared in July that the Jewish state had “surpassed Hitler in barbarism” following Israel’s attacks on Gaza.
Dursun Ali Sahin, the governor of Edirne, drew ire in November after suggesting that the synagogue be turned into a museum as a reprisal for Israel’s policies over the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem.
Sahin, who was present at the inauguration ceremony, apologized after an outcry from the Jewish community and the work on the synagogue resumed after a brief delay.
Arinc also caused a furor in 2013 when he voiced hope that the Hagia Sophia — the famed ancient Byzantine church turned mosque in Istanbul that is now a museum — be converted back into a mosque.
The Jewish community played an important role in particular in finance during the Ottoman Empire and peaked at around 200,000 at the start of the 20th century.
However its numbers have declined steadily since the foundation of the modern Turkish Republic in 1923 and the community now numbers well under 20,000, most of whom live in Istanbul.