Faith saves Crimean memorial: Hugh Pope reports from Istanbul on the reconsecration of an Anglican outpost

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The Independent Online
A BRITISH monument in Istanbul to the 18,000 troops who died in the Crimean War was reconsecrated yesterday after an unorthodox campaign by a slightly eccentric Irish priest.

Father Ian Sherwood, Istanbul's Anglican chaplain, has spent four years battling to have the Crimean Memorial Church, also known as Christ Church, declared sacred again. It will now serve the mostly Muslim city of 10 million.

The Gothic church is the only memorial of its type to Britons who died in the Crimea. It was built in 1868 on land granted by the Ottoman sultan and financed by collections from British churches, private subscriptions and a gift from Queen Victoria. The minaret-like belfry still overlooks the Bosporus waterway, the coast of Asia Minor and the barracks in old Scutari where Florence Nightingale tended the wounded from the Crimean battlefields.

Designed by George Street, the architect of London's Law Courts, the church is hemmed in by a small mosque and crumbling grey tenements. It is a miraculous survivor on a steep hill in Pera, old Constantinople's European quarter. Until the arrival of Dublin-born Father Sherwood, 35, the church had been filling up with junk and pigeon droppings. Vandalised by local children, it symbolised British decline, Anglican retrenchment and a shrinking congregation in Istanbul. The church was deconsecrated in 1976 and its altar smashed. Pews and chairs were sold, tiles were torn up from the crypt floor and valuable books dating back to the 16th century disappeared.

All that remained were age- darkened British banners hanging over the nave: a shell-pocked standard from the Crimea, the last Union flag to fly over British- occupied Istanbul in 1923 and an ensign from the escort vessel that took the last Ottoman sultan into exile in 1924.

'The building was left to die a death,' said Roger Lawrence, a British doctor in Istanbul. Dr Lawrence led dozens of residents who cleared out the first piles of rubbish in April 1990 for the 75th anniversary of the allies' Gallipoli campaign against Turkey, whose victims are remembered by an oak chancel screen in the church.

'The bishop and the Foreign Office were telling me to hand it over to the Istanbul municipality,' said Father Sherwood. 'But the very first time I prayed in the crypt, I had an amazing vision of the future and how it would be. I wanted to restore it.'

Undaunted by the prospect of massive costs, Father Sherwood was driven on by the fact that, because of security measures, non- British worshippers were often locked out of Istanbul's only remaining Anglican place of worship, a chapel in the garden of the consulate-general.

Fate intervened on Father Sherwood's side. During the Gulf war, he found himself the chief protector of 30 Sri Lankan Tamil refugees from Kuwait, including Hindus, Catholics and Muslims. All were stuck in Istanbul with no money, no papers, no work and no proper roof over their heads.

'They came for a party in our deconsecrated church,' Father Sherwood said. 'At the end they asked me to make a speech. I said, well, come and live in the crypt. While they were fixing up the crypt, they started on the house (the adjacent parsonage). We had a little money left for gutters on the church. They kept on going.'

George Anthonepillai, 26, who has now become the sexton and Tamil model for Christ Victorious on a cross above the chancel, says: 'Father Sherwood helped us with food and let us stay free. We helped him. Most of the boys would have done the same in return for help from any religion.' Other Tamils still living in a dormitory in the crypt have become crucifers, incense-swinging acolytes bearing flaming torches during masses in the almost monastic atmosphere cultivated by Father Sherwood.

The church and parsonage are now back in operation for an outlay of less than pounds 35,000, and continuing work is being financed by tourists, the local community and Christians in other countries.

A few converts have been received into the church. They were baptised in a huge font built for sailor converts from the nearby docks in the 19th century.

In the devoutly Muslim neighbourhood, a certain amount of resentment was invevitable. Father Sherwood defuses this by farming out carpentry and ironwork to local shops and allowing children and their mothers to play in the church garden. An Anglican church in the Aegean city of Izmir was recently defaced by vandals, but there have been no such attacks on the Crimean church.

Despite his success in getting around official opposition to his plans, Father Sherwood has had to leave the imperial British banners, which once dominated the nave, rolled up behind the organ.

'We'll hang them in the vestry,' he said. 'It's not appropriate to have such nationalistic symbols on display here any more.'

(Photograph omitted)