12/07/2005, 00.00
TURKEY
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Church of St Nicholas open to local mufti, but closed for mass on the Feast Day of Saint Nicholas

by Mavi Zambak
Although the church belongs to the Orthodox Patriarchate, the authorities have turned it into a museum where the Eucharist cannot be celebrated. The local mufti can however use it for his Santa Claus association.

Demre (AsiaNews) – In a warm and fertile land where a turquoise sea gently splashes against a beautiful shoreline rises a small Turkish town, Demre, which would have been lost to history were it not for the fact that it once was the Episcopal See of Saint Nicholas, the same Saint Nicholas whose venerated mortal remains now lay in the Cathedral of Bari (southern Italy), the same Saint Nicholas known to the many as Saint Nick, Old Saint Nick, Father Christmas, Kris Kringle, Santa Claus, Santy, or simply Santa—whose home is usually given as either the North Pole in the United States (Alaska), northern Canada, Korvatunturi in Finnish Lapland, Dalecarlia in Sweden, or Greenland, depending on the tradition and country—, the same old, bearded man who on Christmas Night travels the world in his red and white costume bringing gifts to children.

According to one tradition in fact, the practice of gift-giving comes directly from Saint Nicholas, bishop of Myra, who put three bags of gold in stockings left to dry belonging to three young women, who had no dowry, so that their father may not sell them into prostitution.

A recently renovated church in Demre is dedicated to the same Saint Nicholas, a church, according to tradition, that was built in the 4th century, when the town was called Myra and Saint Nicholas was its bishop.

Despite complaints, the church has now become a museum open to the local mufti and his Santa Claus Association but closed to the Eucharist by a decision of the local authorities. Gone is also the statue of the Saint.

The Saint, who was buried in the church until a group of merchants from Bari spirited his remains away in 1087, had fame as a thaumaturge, drawing pilgrims and believers from around the region.

According to ancient chronicles, pilgrims came to the shrine, poured oil into the tomb and collected it after it was sanctified by contact with the Saint's bones so that it could be used on the sick.

Today, although the building is the property of the Greek Orthodox Church (but known to local Turks as the Santa Claus Church), it is used as a museum. The Saint's sarcophagus may be empty but tourists are charged a fee to visit the burial chapel

And it is this church, the church of the bishop of Myra, famous for his generosity and piety that has become a bone of contention and a source of conflict.

The statue of Saint Nicholas, a bag full of gifts over his shoulder, surrounded by children, which was a gift of the Russian Orthodox Church, no longer stands in the square in front of the building. It has been replaced since last spring by order of the town's mayor, Suleyman Topcu, with a modern and multicoloured painting of Santa Claus.

Furthermore, for the past two years, the Eucharistic celebration has been banned on the Feast Day of Saint Nicholas.

Yesterday, the Feast Day of Saint Nicholas, Orthodox Christians had to meet in a private home for mass despite repeated formal requests by Patriarch Bartholomew I they be allowed to use the church.

The church-turned-museum was instead made available to the city's mufti who had organised a "prayer for peace" during which, and this takes the cake, the local Turkish Santa Claus association handed out its annual Santa Claus Peace Prize to Jeannine Gramick, an American Catholic nun, who was being acknowledged for her ardent defence of gay and lesbian rights, Turkish newspaper Radical reported.

In her acceptance speech, the 63-year-old nun asked for forgiveness for the Pope and believers who do not respect homosexuals.

Local Christians were left dumbfounded and baffled over what the Turkish state is trying to achieve with such impudent and contradictory actions.

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