Whiffs of incense from the thurible Father Coşkun İspir Teymur swings drift through the Greek Orthodox Church in the southern province of Mersin as it begins to overflow with the faithful.
It is Christmas Eve, and the church – nestled among oak, palm and cedar trees at the heart of the province – is bustling with members of a small and little-known community of Christians in the city.
Children are running among the statues of a baby Jesus, the Virgin Mary and Joseph almost their size outside the church, excited to be receiving gifts after the mass.
The congregation – made up of people of all ages – is eager to be celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ in-person after a two-year pause due to COVID-19 restrictions that scaled back celebrations.
Teymur, who holds the prayers in Arabic, with a few Greek and Turkish verses in between, at the Christmas Eve Mass, prays for world peace.
Like every year pre-pandemic, the church on Dec. 24 welcomed its community – whose members are overwhelmingly Arab Orthodox Christians from Mersin and many of whose origins trace back to the nearby border province of Hatay and its Samandağ district.
The overall Christian population in Mersin stands fewer than 3,000. Some 1,500 of them are Orthodox and 1,300 are Catholic, according to the church’s figures. And a few among the total population are Armenian and Levantine.
“The number of Mersin’s Orthodox Christians rarely change. Although elderly people are dying [of old age], there is equally the same number of newborns catching up to the rate,” a church official said.
The church was opened in the mid 1800’s to cater to the already present Christian locals, as well as Greeks from Central Anatolia and Greek Orthodox Arabs migrating from Syria and Lebanon. Throughout the later years, the city became home to Christians arriving from Samandağ to work in the citrus industry.
But Christianity in what is today Mersin stretches back thousands of years. A 30-minute drive from the church is the district of Tarsus, where Paul the Apostle was born.
The church is also welcoming newcomers: Russians working at the construction of Turkey’s first nuclear power plant – Akkuyu — in Mersin’s Gülnar district. They are joining the kaleidoscopic population of the city.
Elsewhere in Mersin, Christmas was also celebrated at the Latin Catholic Church. Christmas Eve Masses were also held in Hatay, the southeastern province of Mardin, the western province of İzmir and Istanbul.
Hurriyet Daily News