A Church .  . . or a Museum?

St. Nicholas in Demre (Myra)

Church behind palm trees
St. Nicholas Church, (Myra) Demre/Kale, Turkey
Photo: C Myers, St Nicholas Center
Sign in front of church, 2005
Photo: C Myers, St Nicholas Center
Sign in front of church, 2009
Actual translation: "Father Christmas Museum"
Photo: C Myers, St Nicholas Center
Is it a church or is it a museum? The church built to honor St. Nicholas, and the site of his original burial place, seems to have shifting identity.

For many years, until 2002, an Orthodox Divine Liturgy was held in the church on the 6th of December, St. Nicholas Day . This annual service was the only one allowed. From 2002-2007 not even that one service, nor even prayers, was permitted, even though the church belongs to the Greek Orthodox Church. Following five years of effort, the new Minister of Culture Ertugrul Günay gave Patriarch Bartholomew I permission to have an Orthodox service of Divine Liturgy on St. Nicholas Day in 2007. The Minister said, "I earnestly want every citizen in this country to be able to freely celebrate their own religion in the place seen as most important for worship."

However, just a couple of months later, Minister Günay officially changed the name from St. Nicholas Church (Aya Nicola Kilisesi) to Father Christmas Museum (Noel Baba Müzesi).

This seemingly inconsistent action came following years of urging by the Santa Claus Peace Council, a Turkish organization. The Council's Muammer Karabulut said that St. Nicholas had never been a church, "in reality it was a museum and in ruins. It has been a mistake for many years that signs for the site read 'church.' Now the mistake has been corrected." He continued, "As it is not possible to hold religious ceremonies in a museum, religious ceremonies should not be given permission in St. Nicholas Museum from now on."

The Santa Claus Peace Council then filed suit against the Minister of Culture and Tourism for allowing the December 2007 Orthodox Liturgy. The suit claimed the service was a violation of the Lausanne Treaty and a 1934 law banning wearing religious clothing.

Minister of Culture and Tourism Günay requested the lawsuit be cancelled, saying, "They held Masses there until 2001. Since then, they were no longer able to hold any Masses because of some local complaints. When they came to me asking for permission, I referred the issue to the Foreign Ministry, adding that I thought there would be no drawbacks of granting the Fener Greek Patriarchate permission to hold a Mass one day a year between certain hours on St. Nicholas' (sic) birthday, Dec. 6. And when we spoke to the Patriarchate, we said that they would be granted this permission on the condition that they would not engage in missionary activities there. They agreed to this condition. . . . The Mass was held in compliance with our conditions and is over. I don't see any problem in giving permission for this country's people to worship in places they consider to be sacred. Turkey should not be wasting time on such debates. I'm at a loss to understand what sort of harm holding a Mass on Santa Claus' birthday could bring to anyone."

Russian Orthodox priests conduct service for Russian tourists, December 19, 2009, St. Nicholas Church, Demre/Myra
Photo: The Gemini Post
Archbishop Kirill serving Divine LIturgy, Demre, Turkey
Photo: Dogan News Agency

However, the policy seems to have changed—at least as far as tourists are concerned. Beginning in December 2009, the Culture and Tourism Ministry gave permission for a special religious service, conducted by six Russian Orthodox priests and attended by 72 Russian Orthodox tourists. The tour company described it as the first step in promoting faith tourism.

What will this place be? A church where faithful Christians may gather and worship at least once a year? A museum-church hybrid allowing worship only for tourist groups? A museum with fading memory of a long-ago time when the mysteries of God were faithfully celebrated?

Tourist visits to the "Saint Nicholas Museum" are increasing. In 2013 it was the most visited site in Antalya with 528,800 visitors. The income, from the admission fee of 15 Turkish liras, was 720,000 liras—a significant boost to the local economy.

NOTE: In June 2009, Patriarch Kirill of Moscow met with Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople to discuss continuing Russian pilgrimages to ancient Byzantine Christian sites in Turkey. Such pilgrimages now happen regularly, including one in May 2011. On May 22nd, 2011, the Feast of the Translation of the Relics of St. Nicholas from Myra, Lycia, to Bari, Italy, Patriarch Kirill served Divine Liturgy in the church built to hold St. Nicholas' grave. Some 4,000 attended the Liturgy including pilgrims from Russia, members of the Russian diaspora in Turkey, and several thousand Orthodox believers vacationing in Antalya.

The St. Nicholas Church in Demre, formerly Myra, was built in the 6th century to accommodate the many pilgrims who came to visit St. Nicholas' tomb. Invaders destroyed the town and the church in the 7th and again in the 9th centuries. Restored during the 11th century, the church was gradually buried by sand and silt as the riverbed shifted. Russian Tsar Nikola sponsored restoration in the mid-to-late 1800s, but the church was nearly buried again by 1903. Restoration began again in 1989 by the Antalya Museum and Ankara University. The church is in particular peril for water damage as it is a number of feet below the current ground level.

The church reopened in May 2023, after a government funded 18-month restoration. Protective roofing was installed and the wall frescos and floor mosaics were also restored. Protective measures were taken as, being three feet below sea level, the church is threatened by rain and groundwater.

The Four Faces of Nicholas—Who is he in his hometown?
St. Nicholas Church, Myra (Demre/Kale), Photos
Divine Liturgy: Church of Saint Nicholas in Demre, 2009
Divine Liturgy, Church of St. Nicholas, Demre: More Photos
Myra in Lycia: The Church in Demre
Myra: Reflection on a first visit
An International fight over the bones of Santa Claus

"Noel Baba Church made into a museum," Hürriyet, February 5, 2008.
"Finally a mass in the church of Saint Nicholas in Myra" by Mavi Zambak, Asia News, December 5, 2007, downloaded December 6, 2007
"Greek Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew thanked the Turkish government," Today's Zaman, reported by Serbian Orthodox Church, January 2, 2008
"Christmas over, debate on Demre Mass continues" Today's Zaman, January 21, 2008
"A religious service was held on Saturday at the Church of St. Nicholas" The Gemini Post
"Antalya's museums and ancient sites like mint," Hurriyet Daily News, January 7, 2014
"Santa Claus' home church in Turkey reopens to public after restoration by gov't," by Leonardo Blair, The Christian Post, May 23, 2023

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