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Old and New Articles Looking at the ever changing circumstances of Turkey’s Christians

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TURKEY: THE ORTHODOX CHURCH OF PROPHET ELIAS IN IZMIR TO BE DEMOLISHED

 A historic monument of Christianity is being sacrificed on the altar of modernization. The Orthodox Church of Prophet Elias in Izmir (Smyrna) in Turkey, one of the few Christian churches in the region, is set to be demolished under the threat of plans for creating a new highway.

Greek Culture and Sports Minister, Panos Panagiotopoulos after hearing the news of the upcoming demolition of one of the last surviving Greek Orthodox Churches, addressed a letter to his Turkish counterpart asking for the preservation of this great monument.

Profitis Ilias (named after the Prophet Elias/Elijah, a revered figure for both Christians and Muslims) is a three-aisled basilica commissioned in 1846 by the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople Anthimus VI. Its dimensions are 10 by 19 meters and it has a quadrilateral rooftop.
However, according to archaeologists and Achilleas Chatziconstantinou, a Greek geographer and researcher of the historical topography of Izmir, today the church lies totally abandoned and dilapidated.

  Fire in Istanbul

TURKEY: FIRE BESIDE GREEK CHURCH IN ISTANBUL KILLS ONE, INJURES TWO

 One person died and two were injured when a sudden fire broke out in a building which is attached to the Greek Church of Aya Nikola in Sarıyer, the northernmost district of Istanbul, Turkey.

The fire in the annex of the Greek Orthodox Church, located on Sait Halim Paşa Street in Yeniköy, broke out at around 10pm Thursday the 17th of October.
Many firefighters from all over the city and the suburbs of Istanbul immediately came to aid, frantically trying to avoid the fire spreading to other buildings.
Eighty-three-year old Pandeli Kayadelen lost his life in the fire, while Katina Kayadelen (78) and Maria Müller were injured and taken to İstinye State Hospital
Turkish Police are investigating the cause of the fire.

St. Stefanos (Yeşilköy) Church

TURKEY: ST.STEFANOS ORTHODOX CHURCH IN ISTANBUL WILL BE REBUILT

 The municipal council of Istanbul has decided to give the permission to rebuild the St. Stefanos (Yeşilköy) Church, the first time the Turkish Republic has allowed an Orthodox religious institution to be renovated.

The church is under the aegis of the Arab-Orthodox community which had asked many times for their own place for prayer.

According to the Turkish newspaper STAR, the temple’s rebuilding can be initiated after taking the formal approval of the Council on Monuments. Churches in Istanbul date back to 1923, when the Turkish state was founded, and until recent years restoration of historic churches and monuments was forbidden.

Turkey is still bidding to become a member of the European Union, whose officials have told government officials to be more tolerant on religious issues, although it still prohibits opening the closed Halki Seminary.

Church of the Holy Wisdom (Hagia Sophia)

TURKEY: A WONDER OF THE WORLD IS IN MIDDLE OF RELIGIOUS CONTROVERSY

 A tourist takes a photo in September 2008 in Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia of a fresco depicting the Virgin Mary with child. Initially built as a church, the cathedral was converted into a mosque when Constantinople fell to the Ottomans in 1453 and turned into a museum in 1935.

A senior Turkish minister’s call to turn Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia from a museum back into a mosque is stoking a dispute between Turkey’s Islamist-rooted government and the country’s Orthodox Christian community.

“We do hope that the Turkish government will reconsider and have to think very seriously,” warned Metropolitan Genadios of Sassima, a senior official in the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, one of the world’s 14 autocephalous Orthodox Christian communities.

For over 900 years, Hagia Sophia (“Holy Wisdom” in Greek), built in 537, was Christendom’s most important church. But when Constantinople (as Istanbul was then called), fell to the Ottomans in 1453, it became a mosque, and for nearly 500 years it ranked among the Ottoman Empire’s grandest places of worship. In 1935, the founders of Turkey’s secular republic sought transformed Hagia Sophia into a museum.

The iconic building continues to carry important political significance. “The Islamists have always aspired for it to be a mosque,” while Turkish secularists want it to remain “a neutral place,” and Christians see it as a church, noted İştar Gözaydin, a professor of law and politics at Istanbul’s Doğuş University, and an expert on the relationship between the state and religion.
Until Turkey’s governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in 2003, the chances of Hagia Sophia reverting to a mosque were slim to none. But with the country’s Islamic heritage now experiencing a revival after decades of government-imposed secularism,  the prospect is not entirely unlikely.
On a November 16 trip to Hagia Sophia, Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç, who oversees policy toward historical buildings that once belonged to religious minorities, declared to television reporters that “[t]he days of a mosque being a museum are over.”

With the country heading into an 18-month election-cycle in 2014, politics are believed to have motivated Arınc’s statements. In campaign speeches for next March’s municipal elections, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is drawing heavily on the country’s Ottoman past. The message is aimed at both religious and nationalist voters, key AKP constituencies.

The strategy could well prove a vote-winner.
“God willing, it will be a mosque,” said one teenager, leaving Hagia Sophia recently. “Fatih Sultan Mehmet wanted this. When he conquered Istanbul, the first thing he did was to convert it into a mosque. That’s why it should be a mosque again.”

Deputy Prime Minister Arınc has the reputation of a political maverick, a man prone to making incendiary statements that are not always followed up on by the government. But the fact that Arınc’s name also has been linked to the mosque-makeover of two other church-museums also named Hagia Sophia (in Iznik and Trabzon) means that even the mention of a similar fate for Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia has sparked alarm among the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Istanbul.

“We are surprised and not surprised with this statement,” said Metropolitan Genadios of Sassima, in reference to Arınc’s comments. “I don’t want to believe our Turkish authorities said this in a concrete way or that they realized the consequences of this decision to open Hagia Sophia as a place of worship [for Muslims]. Hagia Sophia, for Christians and [the] Orthodox . . . represents for us a monument of Christianity.”

The Orthodox Church has powerful international allies, and a visit to Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew often features on the itineraries of visiting foreign leaders and ministers.
In the coming months and years, some observers believe the status of Hagia Sophia will become part of a wider controversy between Greece and Turkey over religious freedom.

The Turkish government is increasingly challenging Athens over what it sees as restrictions put on the religious practices of Greece’s tiny Turkish minority, believed to make up most of the country’s miniscule Muslim minority of roughly 100,000 people. Ankara has retaliated by refusing to reopen the Halki, a Greek Orthodox seminary near Istanbul, which was expected to reopen as part of a broad democratization package announced in October.
Greece, which sees Byzantium as part of its cultural heritage, declared last month that statements “about converting Byzantine Christian churches into mosques are offending the religious feelings of millions of Christians.”

Officials in Ankara scoff at such statements as hypocritical. “Athens is in no position to question us, considering Athens is the only capital in Europe that does not have a mosque, even though there is a large Muslim community [in Athens],” said foreign ministry spokesperson Levent Gümrükçü.
Amid diplomatic rancor and Turkey’s own charged political atmosphere, Hagia Sophia’s fate is far from clear. “We now live in unpredictable times,” sighed Metropolitan Genadios.

Hagia Sophia of Iznik

THE CHURCH THAT POLITICS TURNED INTO A MOSQUE

  February 8, 2012

By Susanne Gusten

ISTANBUL — As worshipers knelt to face the Qiblah for noon prayers in the Hagia Sophia of Iznik last week, a caretaker beckoned to a couple of tourists tiptoeing around behind them.

“Look,” he whispered, pointing to a faded fresco on the wall, as the imam intoned the prayer and the worshipers faced Mecca. “It’s Jesus, Mary and John the Baptist.”

The caretaker, Nurettin Bulut, a Culture Ministry employee, has been showing visitors around the ancient church in northwestern Turkey for three years, pointing out its Byzantine mosaics and relating its history as the venue of the seventh Ecumenical Council of Christendom and, later, as an Ottoman mosque.

Until three months ago, he was showing them around a museum, with a sign saying “St. Sophia Museum” posted outside, a ticket booth charging 3 lira, or $1.70, per visitor, and a strict ban on prayer enforced inside, just like in its eponymous sister church-turned-mosque-turned-museum in Istanbul.

But in October, the Hagia Sophia of Iznik was closed to the public for several days of construction work by the Directorate General of Foundations, a department of the prime minister’s office in Ankara which manages historical buildings around the country.

When it reopened in early November, a raised wooden platform had been set into the nave and covered with carpets, and green-and-gold plaques with Koran suras had been affixed to the Ottoman mihrab, or prayer niche.

The museum sign was replaced with a new one reading “Mosque of Ayasofya,” the Turkish spelling of Hagia Sophia, and loudspeakers were hoisted on the Ottoman-era minaret. And with dawn prayer on Nov. 6, the first day of Eid al-Adha, the Hagia Sophia was reopened for service as a mosque.

The response from residents has been less than enthusiastic. On a recent weekday, only 18 men answered the call to noon prayer, huddling in a corner of the carpeted platform with the imam to perform their devotions.

Outside, local residents voiced bitterness over the conversion of the landmark, which sits on the main crossroad at the center of the historical town.

“It’s completely unnecessary,” said Emin Acar, a local farmer enjoying the winter sun outside a teahouse within view of the Hagia Sophia.

“We have plenty of mosques here,” Mr. Acar said, in remarks echoed by shoppers and strollers up and down the main street. “What we need are tourists, but they won’t be coming anymore.”

The town, whose income depends largely on surrounding olive groves, had also begun to trade on its eminent place in the history of Christianity to attract faith tourism from the West.

It was here in ancient Nicaea, as the town was then called, that bishops from all over the Roman Empire gathered to craft the Christian creed at the first Ecumenical Council in the year 325.

Four and a half centuries later, the seventh and last of the Ecumenical Councils still recognized by most churches in the world today met in the Hagia Sophia of Nicaea in the year 787 to denounce iconoclasm, opening the door to a millennium of Christian religious art.

The site was converted into a mosque by the Ottoman conquerors of Iznik in the 14th century, but fell into disrepair and was abandoned long before the Turkish Republic was founded in 1923.

Restored by district authorities and the foundations directorate in 2007, the Hagia Sophia became in the past few years the focal point of Christian tourism to Iznik. Last year, 40,000 foreign tourists visited the town, according to its chamber of commerce.

“They came for the Hagia Sophia, but they won’t be coming anymore,” said Ilknur Gunes, who sells her hand-made jewelry a block from the ex-church. “If someone converted a historical mosque I wanted to see into a church, I wouldn’t want to go anymore, either. Historical sites should be kept as museums.”

Emerging from the Hagia Sophia, a German tourist, Claus Stoll from Stuttgart, said he did not mind the conversion, “as long as the building is preserved.” Turkish tourists were more skeptical.

“It’s not a good place for a mosque,” said Gokturk Tutuncu, on an outing with his family from Istanbul.

“It should have remained a museum,” Nilgun Tuna, visiting from Istanbul, said. “We should protect our historical heritage, and that includes the Christian heritage.”

One young man from Istanbul, who declined to give his name, was in favor of the conversion. “And high time too,” he said. “Next, I want to see it happen in the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul.”

In the Iznik City Hall, across the street from the Hagia Sophia, Deputy Mayor Kenan Zengin of the Nationalist Action Party shook his head when asked about the conversion. “We had nothing to do with the decision,” Mr. Zengin said. “In fact, we were not even asked.”

While the conversion was technically decided by the Directorate General of Foundations, the political decision was made by Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc, local officials said.

“We first heard of it when Mr. Arinc visited Iznik” in late September, Mahmut Dede, chairman of the local chamber of commerce, said in his office behind the Hagia Sophia, adding that the business community had initially been upset about the plan and publicly protested it. But after a chat with the local chairman of the ruling Justice and Development Party, known as A.K.P., to which Mr. Arinc belongs, “We said, okay, if a deputy prime minister sees fit to do so, then let’s wait and see,” Mr. Dede said. “And now we are waiting to see what happens to Iznik” when the tourism season begins in April.

Mr. Arinc acknowledged his role in the decision last year on Olay TV, a station in Bursa Province, to which Iznik belongs and which he represents in Parliament.

“This is the happiest day of my term in office, because I have contributed to such a good work,” he said according to a transcript posted on his personal Web site.

Mr. Arinc said that, unlike the Hagia Sophia of Istanbul, the Iznik site had never been formally registered as a museum at the foundation of the republic, and thus remained by rights a mosque even though it had been not used as such for a century.

He added that his office had turned down an earlier request from the Culture Ministry to take over the administration of the Hagia Sophia. “We told them that it is a mosque and that it cannot be used for any other purpose,” he said.

His stance seemed to put him at odds with Culture Minister Ertugrul Gunay, who has been at pains to foster the Christian heritage of Anatolia as a means of attracting faith tourism. “As the venue of two Ecumenical Councils, Iznik really has the potential to draw a lot of interest from all over the world,” Mr. Gunay said last year. “So we are trying to promote Iznik and to restore it.”

As of this week, three months after the conversion to a mosque, the Hagia Sophia was still listed as a museum on the Culture Ministry’s Web site.

While these clashing approaches would seem to put the two ministers on a collision course, analysts say it is all part of the A.K.P.’s political strategy.

“Even though it is generally seen simply as a conservative party, the A.K.P. in fact unites very different currents and views under its roof,” Adil Gur, a political analyst and owner of the A&G polling company, said by telephone this week.

Within the cabinet, for example, Mr. Gunay represents a social democratic tradition, while Mr. Arinc speaks for the pious wing of the party, Mr. Gur said. He also mentioned Interior Minister Idris Naim Sahin of the party’s nationalist wing and Egemen Bagis, the liberal and pro-Western minister for E.U. affairs, are further examples of the party’s internal diversity.

The leaders of these diverging currents occasionally make “strong statements” for the benefit of their respective followers, Mr. Gur said. “At first glance, this can sometimes give the impression of fissures or infighting within the party, but it is in fact not so,” he added. “It is just the way the A.K.P. keeps all the diverging currents together in one party.”

Outside the Iznik mosque, Fahri Ugur, a taxi driver, shrugged and ordered another tea from the corner store. “We had just begun to make a few pennies from tourism,” he said. “Now we can forget that again.”

Turkey Bible Attack

TURKISH MILITARY LINKED TO CHRISTIAN MURDERS

 Turkish police officers stand guard as the coffin of Tilmann Geske is carried out from a hospital in Malatya, central Turkey, in this photo dated Friday, April 20, 2007.

Nearly six years into the court trial over the murder of three Christians in southeastern Turkey, documents have emerged confirming that secret military units were involved in those assassinations and others.

Malatya’s 3rd Criminal Court is forcing prosecutors and the military to turn over previously secret documents, throwing light on a shadowy network believed to be behind several decades of assassination and coup plots in Turkey.

The court is conducting the trial of five men accused of stabbing, torturing and then slashing the throats of Turkish Christians Necati Aydin and Ugur Yuksel and German Christian Tilmann Geske in the Malatya office of Zirve Christian Publishing on April 18, 2007.
Earlier this month, the Ankara Prosecutor’s Office handed over to the Malatya court confidential intelligence files seized from the General Staff’s Tactical Mobilization Group archives, known as the “Cosmic Room” in the Turkish media.
According to the most recent indictment in the Zirve case, the documents confirm the existence and illegal activities of secret military units involved in extrajudicial surveillance and assassinations of members of Turkey’s Christian minority communities.
“These documents have made it easier for us to see the big picture of what kind of an organization this is,” Zirve plaintiff lawyer Erdal Dogan told Taraf newspaper on Sept. 16.
In effect, the attorney said, prosecuting Malatya’s Zirve case is revealing the structures that previously orchestrated the murders of two other Christians – Italian Catholic priest Andrea Santoro at his parish in Trabzon in February 2006, and Turkish Armenian editor Hrant Dink in front of his Agos newspaper office in Istanbul in January 2007.
“The structure that committed the Zirve murders is the same structure that committed the Dink and Santoro murders,” Dogan told Hurriyet Daily News last week.
In the Zirve case, the young suspects were arrested and put on trial, but the instigators behind them obscured their own identities by destroying evidence and mounting clever disinformation campaigns, according to the newly revealed documents.
The assassinations have all been linked to the Ergenekon conspiracy, a ‘deep state’ organization embedded in various branches of the secular Turkish military. According to the Ergenekon verdicts handed down in August, the group’s express purpose was to discredit and bring down the pro-Islamic Justice and Development Party (AKP) government by targeting Christian minorities and causing civil chaos.
Under the guise of protecting “national security,” the Turkish military has until recently refused court orders to reveal intelligence documents or respond to subpoenas to testify in civilian courts. According to the Zirve prosecution indictment, the surrendered Cosmic Room documents reveal that these secret military units were spreading deliberate misinformation against perceived “enemies of the state,” including Christians.
Under the currently ruling AKP, the government signed a National Security Council decision in 2003 declaring “missionary activities” to be a threat.
Lawyers for the Zirve victims complained last year about the Justice Ministry’s abrupt removal of the Malatya prosecutors, and later a High Council prosecutor, while they were pursuing investigations into the Zirve killings. “This cannot be called a ‘routine’ procedure,” Dogan declared at the time.
Tedious but critical testimony
Since January of this year, presiding Judge Hayrettin Kisa has upped the pace of the drawn-out Malatya trial, holding almost monthly sets of week-long hearings, in line with his stated objective to finish the legal process by the end of 2013.
With a total of 14 suspected perpetrators to examine, the Malatya court has gone through tedious weeks of testimony and cross examination.
Newly submitted evidence has also been probed, including digital copies of telephone conversations and additional court files from the Ergenekon, Balyoz (Sledgehammer), JITEM and Musa Anter cases, all involving alleged death squads within the military.
Several weeks of hearings this spring focused on the testimony and cross-examination of Ilker Cinar, a suspect who testified that he had been hired by elements within the Turkish military to manipulate public opinion on behalf of the ‘deep state.’
Carrying identity papers as a journalist for the Malatya gendarmerie — a law-enforcement arm of the military — Cinar said he worked with the National Strategies and Operations Department of Turkey (TUSHAD), which he claimed was the “armed wing of Ergenekon,” set up in 1993 by another suspect, Ret. Gen. Hursit Tolan.
“Tell people that missionaries want to divide Turkey,” read one of the disclosed TUSHAD documents released in the Cosmic Room files.
Cinar testified he was involved with several of the other accused military suspects in the plan to attack the Christians at the Zirve office. He alleged that there were both black (civilian) and white (military) forces working under TUSHAD which teamed together to carry out the Malatya murders, as well as the Dink and Santoro slayings.
‘This is not the state’
At a May hearing, Cinar testified that he initially believed TUSHAD was backed by the state, but later concluded otherwise. “This formation is behind all the hideous attacks targeting minorities and Christians. This is not the state,” he declared. “If I hadn’t spoken against this, the blame would be on the five youths who were chosen as the victims [to carry out the attacks]. I am listening to the voice of my conscience,” he told the court.
To date, Tolan and former Malatya Gendarmerie Commander Mehmet Ulger have been fingered as key culprits in planning the Malatya plot. But a telephone conversation recorded the day after the murders between Cinar and university theology instructor Ruhi Polat provided evidence of Polat’s involvement.
“Write this in a corner of your head,” Polat told Cinar. “There is no return from this business. We wanted these dishonourable guys just to intimidate them [the Christians]. We said hit them, but they killed them. So you will help us, right?”
The conspirators took immediate and ongoing steps, Cinar testified, to destroy the evidence of their involvement and spread mistruths through the Turkish press – first while the prosecutors were preparing the murder indictment, and continuing throughout the years-long trial. He was threatened a year after the murders by Ulger, and then saw his own name on a death list at the Tarsus police department a few months later.
Professing to be shocked ever since the night he learned that the Malatya plot had turned into murder, Cinar eventually decided to turn state’s evidence and testify in the Zirve trial against his military and police conspirators.
The two Turkish victims were both Muslims who had converted to Christianity. The German widow and her children continue to live in Malatya. The day of the men’s deaths has since been designated a World Day of Prayer for Turkey by the local Protestant community.
An estimated 5,000 converts constitute the small Protestant Christian community in Turkey, where citizens are allowed by law to change their religious identity in a simple administrative procedure.

scales-of-justice

UN SLAMS TURKEY’S REFUSAL TO RECOGNIZE GREEK-ORTHODOX MINORITY

The Greek-Orthodox minority community of Istanbul (Community) is an autochthonous minority which status was recognized by the international Lausanne Treaty (1923). This Treaty is also the founding act establishing the state of Turkey. In Lausanne Treaty, Section B (articles 38-42) is devoted to the protection of rights of non-Muslim minorities to whom also the Community belongs.
Since this Treaty, 98% of the members of the Community were forced to leave their homeland because of the massive minority rights violations by the consequent governments of Turkey during the period 1923-2003.

Despite the Treaty, Turkey only recognizes the minority welfare foundations being legal bodies on individual basis which includes churches, schools,monasteries, cemeteries, an elderly care house and a hospital. From 1923 to 1962, there were “Central Administration Boards”, which members were elected by the members of the minority, and that were supervising and coordinating the foundations. However, the Turkish Government abolished in 1962, these Boards following a ruling of the “Special Minority Committee” (“Azinlikar Taali Komisyonu”) which members were appointed by the state intelligence and security services.

From 1962 to 2004, the assigned duty to this Committee was to plan and implement all anti-minority measures while the Committee had a superseding power of any legislative, executive and judicial power concerning the Community. Today, by not recognizing any legal representation to the minority Community, one has to appeal to numerous authorities in order to cope or to raise a minority problem. In order to solve this problem and taking into account the ongoing process of the structuring of a new Constitution of Turkey, the issue of recognition of minority entities should be solved.

In this regard, the Greek-Orthodox minority is requesting to the Turkish Government to cancel the illegal abolition of Central Administrative Bodies allowing their functioning and establish a competent and fair state authority to accept the complaints and requests of minorities and support the efforts to solve the problems faced by minority groups. Furthermore, a serious pending problem of the Minority is the still continuing prohibition of the operation of the Heybeliada – Chalki Theological School which remains closed from 1971 after an illegal ruling of the Turkish Government.

This prevents the education of clergyman to provide services to the Ecumenical Patriarchate, the religious Centre of more than 300 Million Orthodox Christians of the World. The School should be opened immediately.

Stoudion Monastery today

TURKEY TO TURN MONASTERY OF SAINT JOHN OF STOUDIOS INTO MOSQUE

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

The largest Byzantium monastery in Istanbul will be converted into a mosque after its restoration next year.
The Monastery of Stoudios, will be turned into a mosque and be titled İmrahor İlyas Bey Mosque. The renovation of the mosque, which forms part of the Hagia Sophia Museum, will follow the same fate as that of Hagia Sophia churches in Trabzon and İznik, which had been already turned into mosques.

“I wouldn’t like to speak as a member of a council but my personal opinion is that cultural heritage shouldn’t be reflected as an antagonistic heritage. If we reflect it like this, it will damage societies on a macro level,” said Laki Vingas, acting as representatives of the Directorate General of Foundations.

Vingas added that the issue creates grief within society, and it was not only the Greek community’s problem.
“Cultural heritage is universal heritages, meaning that they are humanity’s common heritage,” he said.

İmrahor’s conversion into a mosque came at a time debate continues as to whether to reopen Hagia Sophia as a place of worship. Most recently, Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç has expressed his hope to see the Hagia Sophia to be used as a mosque.

Vingas said: “My personal view is that when you are trying to create a new vision you should be careful not to create new problems for the future.”

The monastery of Stoudios, also known as, the monastery of the “sleepless monks” was one of the greatest monasteries of the Eastern Roman Empire, built on the seventh hill of Constantinople. Its contribution to the religious, political and cultural life of the city was significant. For centuries it was the spiritual centre of the Empire and the orthodox world. It was probably founded before 454 AD. In 1481 it was converted into a mosque. In 1782 it was burned, in 1894 it was hit by an earthquake and in 1920 it was burned again. Today, only the ruins of the monastery have been salvaged.

The unique mosaic floor of the 13th century with the geometrical shapes and the representations of animals has no protection against the damages of time and the weather. The remnants of the huge building that were spread around the temple, have been used thoughtlessly by neighbors as building materials, especially after the great fire of 1920.

Stoudion Monastery originally

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