THE DEVELOPMENT OF CHRISTIANITY IN TARSUS
The famous Christian Apostle, Saul of Tarsus or better known as Paul, was born in Tarsus between 5 a.c. and 10 a.c. (the date of birth is usually cited as 8 d.c.). After his conversion from Judaism to Christianity (around 34 d.c.) he spent a few years in his birthplace vigorously diffusing Christianity. Little remains of this Roman Hellenistic city: a part of the Cardo Maximus in the center of the city and a Roman well in the Jewish zone, traditionally considered St. Paul’s well.
Jason, a relative and disciple of Paul (cfr. Rm 16,21), is traditionally considered the first bishop of Tarsus, and St. Erodione, also a relative and disciple of Paul is a fundamental figure.
More accurate historical information is available from the second half of the III century, when Eleno became head of the church: his name is mentioned a few times by Bishop Dionigi of Alexandria, deceased in 264 or 265. By the way in which he is mentioned it is likely that Eleno was a Metropolitan in Cilicia with a base in Tarso, where at the time he already had a following of suffrage episcopates (cfr. Eusebio, H.E. VI 46; VII, 5). The rest of the city was the capital, and also the political capital of the province.
Bishop Dionigi again mentions that Pope Steven did not accept communion with Eleno because he was aligned with Ciprian of Carthage, Firmiliano of Caesarea and all the bishops of Cilicia, Cappadocia and Galatia, all of which admitted heretics into the church with the intention of rechristening them (Eusebio, H.E. VII 5,4). Within the Tarso community, as well as in the rest of the region, Eleno had to affront schismatic Novation groups who preached “heroism”, in conflict with the rest of the world. During his time Valerian’s persecution (257-263) took place. Moreover, Eleno’s name appears in two Synods held in Antioch (264 and 272), where the city’s bishop, Paul of Samosata was condemned and deposed. In the second Synod, Eleno was elected president. Years later Lupo is head of the Tarso church and a participant in the Ancira Synod (Ankara today) in 314.
Diocletian’s persecution, the heretics and the apostates
Between 303 and 311 the Christian community was harshly tested by Diocletian’s persecution (the martyrs Marino of Anazarbo, Judith and Quirico; of the saints Taraco, Probo and Andronicus and probably Castor). This difficult period ended when Emperor Massimo Daia, fierce persecutor of Christianity and restorer of Paganism, was defeated in Licinio and died a fugitive in Tarsus (313). At the council of Nicea (325 d.c.) the group of bishops of Cilicia were led by Theodore of Tarsus. The fact that they were no less than nine, plus a chorbishop (a rural bishop), makes it clear that in this province Christianity had expanded considerably. In 363 the Emperor Julian the Apostate resided there. With the intention of restoring Paganism he succeeded in reopening a sanctuary dedicated to Asclepius. Nevertheless the rebirth of Paganism was short-lived and ended with the death of Julian.
Along with these external provocations, in the IV century the Christian community of Tarsus was subjected to injuries by Arian groups. Strengthened by Imperial support, these groups succeeded in deposing the local bishop, Steven, and established their own candidate. Faced with this enduring situation, in 369/370, Basilio of Caeserea expressed his concerns in a letter written to Eusebius of Samosata : “We have even lost Tarsus. This is terrible, and although it is already intolerable, it is even worse that such a city full of happiness that was able to reunite Isauri, Cilici, Cappodoci, and Siri, has become, for the foolishness of one or two men, a minister of ruin, while you hesitated, and consulted yourselves” (Lettera34). To restore peace in that church, in 372 Basilio wrote two letters: one to the priests and one to a group of people closely tied to a certain Ciriaco.
Diodoro of Tarsus
The tense situation seemed to risolve itself with the election of Diodoro as the city’s bishop (378). Diodoro was originally from Antioch, and a student of both Sylvan of Tarsus and Eusebio of Emessa. Head of a monastical community near Antioch, he subsequently became a teacher at the local theology school and could count Theodore of Monsuestia and John of Crisotomo as his students. It was one of them that opposed Julian the Apostate, and a letter written to the heretical bishop Fotino di Sirmio demonstrated their unwillingness and tenacity (cfr. Lettera 90). The determination expressed with Julian was also maintained by Diodoro and the Arians, and the reason why he was condemned to exile by Emperor Valente (372). After the Emperor’s death he was reinstated and soon after elected the bishop of Tarsus. In 381, he played a significant role in the Council of Constantinople. He died in 394.
Diodoro is considered as the founder of the Antioch exegetics school which preferred a historical interpretation of the Bible as opposed to an allegorical one, which they considered to be arbitrary and disrespectful of the sacred texts. From an academic point of view, it seems that he highly emphasized the distinction between Christ and humanity (Son of Mary) and divinity (Son of God). It is not surprising that he was subsequently considered the precursor to Nestor, and he was esteemed and highly regarded by all for the rest of his life.
In the V century, the Church of Tarsus was implicated in a Nestorian dispute within the patriarchate of Antioch which had, for a certain period, sustained the position of the antiochian priest Nestor, who later became the Bishop of Constantinople. It should be remembered that Elladio, Bishop of Tarsus and friend of Nestor, was one of the last to (reluctantly) sign Nestor’s sentence – the price to pay to restore peace between the patriarchate of Alessandria and that of Antioch. In the VI century the metropolitan seat of Tarsus had seven suffragans (Echos d’Orient, X, 145).
The Church in difficulty with Arab conquest
After the Arabs conquered Tarsus (613-965) and towards the end of the VII century, information regarding the Christian community diminished and the list of the bishops was terminated. Famous, however during this period was Teodoro di Tarsus, a missionary who became Archbishop of Canterbury in 668 (according to some sources he was also canonized). The Greek archdiocese is still acknowledged in the X century (op. cit., 98) and has remained up until today under the patriarchy of Antioch.
Devastated by the unrelenting raids of the Arab muslims, Tarsus was occupied by the Abbasids in 831, by the Egyptian Pytolomies in 882, and reclaimed by the Byzantines on August 16, 965. In 1072 the Seljuks appeared from a recent victory at Malazgirt on August 19, 1071. A quarter of a century later it was taken over again by Baldovino e Tancredo in the First Crusade (1097) and returned to the Byzantines. A Latin episcopate was consequently established. The present Church of St. Paul (officially a museum) in Syriac Byzantine style, could be situated where the cathedral once stood during this period.
The city was occupied by the Armenians circa 1132, including the principal cities of Cilicia, but was overtaken by Giovanni Comneno in 1137. The Armenians, who had retreated to the mountains, would come down and reconquer it in 1151 and in 1173, when they succeeded in creating a reign that lasted until 1375, by taking advantage of the wars between the Byzantines and the Konyan Seljuks. The Gregorian Armenians established a diocese that exists today (its Bishop Nerses di Lambro of the XII century is still famous). On January 6, 1199, in the cathedral of Tarsus, Leone III, King of Armenia, received the crown of Cardinal Corrado of Wittelsbach (who was linked to Papa Celestino) in merit as a vassal of the Sacred Roman Empire. Tarsus was plundered by the Arabs in 1266 and in 1274, and passed on to Mamelucchi in 1359. It was finally conquered by Selim I, the Turkish-Ottoman Sultan in 1515.
In the XVI century, where the first cathedral (dedicated to St. Paul) once stood, the Ulu Camii (great mosque) was constructed, incorporating diverse elements and conserving the structure in general.
After the period of The Crusades, the Latin Rite Catholic Church returned to Tarsus in 1842 with the Capuchin Friars and Father Basilio da Novara (martyrized in Antioch in 1851). The Capuchin Church of Tarsus was opened between 1844 and 1846 in a presently unidentified location. Father Giuseppe da Genova also assisted in the nearby Catholic communities of Mersin and Adana.
All of this was possible due to the support of the French Consul, a resident of Tarsus, who was responsible for these issues. He sent a detailed report on the Catholics in the area to the Congregation Propaganda Fide: no natives, only a few Catholics, residents here for business purposes. In Tarsus, 36 Catholics out of 6000 inhabitants; in Adana, 20 out of 30,000; in Mersin,
5 out of 1,000.
In any case Tarsus was the most important city of Cilicia and in southern Turkey., seat of all the Consular representatives: for this reason it was chosen as the seat of the mission, with the possibility of moving towards Adana and Mersin. From 1939, when Hatay came under Turkish administration, the Church of Tarsus was linked to the Apostolic Vicariate of Constantinople.
On September 17, 1943, the missionary station of Tarsus (convent and church) was ordered closed by the civil and military authorities of the area and on October 25 of the same year, all of the connected properties were confiscated, including the church complex. Father Paul Labaky transported the sacred furnishings to Mersin, including paintings of St. Peter and St. Paul that can still be found there today.
Even the home of the nuns and the male and female boarding schools, constructed decades earlier, were suppressed by the Turkish authorities in August 1943.
Since the 1990s, the important Symposiums on Paul of Tarsus, which saw a great participation on behalf of the public and pilgrims, have been kept in the present day museum-church.
In 1994, Monsignor Franceschini asked the nuns of the Daughters of the Church to move to Tarsus to greet and receive groups of pilgrims. They have permission to prepare the church for Mass or to participate in a moment of religious prayer.