Istanbul’s Church of Santa Maria: The First-ever ISIS Attack on a Place of Worship in Türkiye

Istanbul’s Church of Santa Maria: The First-ever ISIS Attack on a Place of Worship in Türkiye
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Andrej Confalonieri

Middle East and Human Rights Researcher

Global Human Rights Defence

On Sunday, January 28th, 2024, two gunmen attacked the Church of Santa Maria in Istanbul during morning mass, killing one man. [1] Turkish Minister of Internal Affairs Ali Yerlikaya announced the capture of the two suspects, one from Tajikistan and the other from Russia, [2] without providing further details. The Islamic State (“ISIS”) claimed responsibility for the attack, asserting that they targeted “a gathering of Christian unbelievers during their polytheistic ceremony”. [3] CCTV footage revealed the gunmen entering the church, following and targeting a specific individual, and leaving calmly after fatally shooting him.  [4] The victim, a 52-year-old man about on the verge of converting to Christianity but not yet baptised, was not the intended target of the attack, according to a relative who added that the man was also mentally ill. [5] 

Turkish officials, including President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, expressed condolences and pledged to apprehend the perpetrators. The Pope also offered support, and Istanbul’s mayor Ekrem Imamoglu emphasised unity among different faiths in the community. [6] Interior Minister Yerlikaya stated that Turkish police raided approximately 30 locations, detaining over 50 individuals linked to the shooting, with 23 awaiting deportation. [7] Notably, Türkiye has a history of using terror attacks as a pretext for cracking down on various opposition groups. [8]

Previous ISIS attacks in Türkiye

In the past, ISIS has claimed responsibility for or been associated with multiple lethal incidents in Türkiye. For instance, in March 2014, members of the Islamic State clashed with security forces, resulting in the death of one police officer and a non-commissioned officer, with four soldiers injured. [9] In June 2014, ISIS captured Türkiye’s Mosul consulate, leading to the abduction of 49 citizens. [10] Subsequent attacks occurred in June 2015, with a bomb attack at a pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) rally in Diyarbakır claiming four lives and injuring many, [11] and in July 2015, when an explosion in Surç claimed at least 30 lives with nearly 100 individuals sustaining injuries. [12] In October 2015, a bomb attack at a peace rally in Ankara led to 107 fatalities and over 500 injuries. [13] 

January 2016 witnessed a suicide attack in Istanbul’s Sultanahmet Square, killing 11 people and injuring 16. [14] In March 2016, an attack at Istanbul’s İstiklal Avenue claimed five lives and injured 36. [15] June 2016 saw an attack at Istanbul’s main Atatürk International Airport, leaving at least 41 people dead and approximately 240 others wounded. [16] August of the same year witnessed over 50 individuals losing their lives in a suicide attack during a wedding ceremony near the Syrian border. [17] October 2016 saw a car bomb attack at a military station in Hakkari province, causing at least 18 casualties. [18] In December 2016, the Islamic State posted a video in which two Turkish soldiers were burned alive. [19] The following month, a crowded nightclub in Istanbul became the target of an attack, claiming the lives of at least 39 people. [20] 

While similar attacks have occurred throughout the years in Türkiye, [21] the January 28th attack marks the first time ISIS targeted a place of worship in the country. [22] This marks a distressing shift in the tactics of the Islamic State. Beyond the immediate security concerns, the incident also emphasises the ongoing challenge of maintaining unity and religious tolerance within Turkish society, which has always been characterised by its religious diversity. 

Sources and further reading

[1] Orla Guerin, Lipika Pelham, ‘Istanbul church attack: Gunmen kill one person during Sunday morning mass’ (BBC News, 28 January 2024) <> accessed 02 February 2024.

[2] Morning Star, ‘Isis suspects who attacked church in Türkiye arrested’ (Morning Star, 29 January 2024) <ürkiye-arrested> accessed 02 February 2024.

[3] Ibid

[4] Guerin, Pelham (n 1).

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Morning Star (n 2).

[8] Ibid.

[9] Daily Sabah, ‘Türkiye will not be Europe’s firefighter’ (Daily Sabah, 21 August 2016) <ürkiye-will-not-be-europes-firefighter> accessed 02 February 2024.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Al Jazeera, ‘Timeline of major attacks in Türkiye since 2015’ (Al Jazeera, 13 November 2022) <ürkiye-since-2015> accessed 02 February 2024.

[13] Daily Sabah (n 9).

[14] Ibid.

[15] ibid.

[16] Al Jazeera, ‘Timeline of major attacks’ (n 12).

[17] ibid.

[18] ibid.

[19] Al Jazeera, ‘ISIL video shows ‘Turkish soldiers burned alive’’ (Al Jazeera, 23 December 2026) <> accessed 02 February 2024.

[20] Al Jazeera, ‘Timeline of major attacks’ (n 12).

[21] Ibid.

[22] Morning Star (n 2).