Christianity on Trial in Turkey

Zenti News | Father John Flynn | May 1, 2007

Killings and Persecution Continue

ROME, APRIL 30, 2007 (Zenit.org).- The blood of martyrs continues to be shed in Turkey. The April 18 killing of two Turks and a German at a Christian publishing house in Malatya, in eastern Turkey, renewed concerns over the fate of Christians in the country. The three victims were found with their hands and legs bound and their throats slit.

The three men worked at the Zirve publishing house, which had previously been the object of protests for allegedly distributing Bibles and proselytizing, reported the London-based Times newspaper April 19.

The same day the BBC reported that 10 people were arrested in connection with the murders. The BBC added that many commentators noted the similarity of the latest killings to the murder of a Catholic priest by a teenage gunman last year and the shooting of the Armenian journalist, also a Christian, in January. In each case the killers were young, apparently Islamist ultra-nationalists.

Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul said the killings were “an attack against Turkey’s stability, peace and tradition of tolerance,” according to the BBC.

In February, the Pope’s vicar for the Diocese of Rome, Cardinal Camillo Ruini, visited Turkey to commemorate the anniversary of the murder of Father Andrea Santoro. The Italian missionary was shot dead Feb. 5, 2006, in St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Trabzon, northeast Turkey.

Cardinal Ruini said during his homily Feb. 5 in the church where the priest had been murdered: “We have come to help promote peace among peoples and religions, respect for the beliefs of each person and love for the brother or sister present in every human person created in the image and likeness of God,” reported the Fides news agency the same day.

“We have come to promote religious freedom everywhere in the world, and to ask God to illuminate all minds and hearts to understand that only in freedom and love of neighbor can God be truly adored,” the cardinal added.

Islamic extremists

Malatya, like Trabzon, is an Islamic stronghold, observed Mechthild Brockamp in an April 19 commentary published by the German agency Deutsche Welle. He noted that journalist Hrant Dink was also killed in Malatya earlier this year, and underlined the Islamic element in the shooting of Father Santoro, which took place during fevered protests against the caricatures of Mohammed.

Each time one of these attacks occurs authorities call it an exceptional case, said Brockamp. But the number of such cases means that it is more a pattern than an exception, he observed. Brockamp called upon the government to resolve the underlying issue of religious freedom and to ensure that the Christian minority is able to practice its faith without putting their lives at risk.

These are sentiments shared by the German magazine Der Spiegel, in an article published online April 23. The latest murders reveal a deep-seated problem, the magazine argued. The article quoted Ertugrul Ozkok, editor-in-chief of the leading secular Turkish daily Hurriyet, who noted that in Germany, Turks residing there have opened up more than 3,000 mosques. He asked in an editorial: “If in our country we cannot abide even by a few churches, or a handful of missionaries, where is our civilization?”

An article published April 25 by the Christian Science Monitor cited Christian missionaries in Turkey as saying that they now have more freedom to carry out their work due to reforms enacted as part of the country’s attempt to enter into the European Union. At the same time violent attacks against Christian targets are becoming more frequent.

Last year, the article noted, several evangelical churches were firebombed, and a Protestant church leader in the city of Adana was severely beaten by a group of assailants.

The report also opined that while there is a religious dimension to the recent murders of Christians, some experts also attribute them to the influence of extreme nationalism and anti-Western xenophobia that are on the rise in Turkey.

Nevertheless, other news reports testify to the considerable difficulties Christians face when they try to practice their faith. Both Christians and intellectuals are frequent targets of legal action taken under article 301 of the penal code. The article allows people to be charged for denigrating “Turkish identity,” explained a report by Compass Direct News last Nov. 27.

Compass Direct is a Christian news service based in California, reporting on religious persecution. The report presented the case of Hakan Tastan and Turan Topal, who appeared Nov. 23 before the Silivri Criminal Court, located in northwestern Turkey.

As Muslims converted to Christianity, they were accused not only of denigrating Turkish identity, but also of reviling Islam. “We don’t use force to tell anyone about Christianity,” Tastan said to the media outside the courtroom according to Compass Direct. “But we are Christians, and if the Lord permits, we will continue to proclaim this,” he added.

Christians likened to terrorists

Compass Direct also reported that attorney Kemal Kerincsiz, who intervened for the prosecution, is notorious for his actions against intellectuals using article 301. “Christian missionaries working almost like terrorist groups are able to enter into high schools and among primary school students,” Kerincsiz told reporters. The court case against the two Christians is still underway.

Further difficulties were reported in an article published by the Boston Globe last Dec. 9. The newspaper referred to the difficulties faced by Metropolitan Apostolos, a Greek Orthodox bishop.

In 1971, the government shut down the Halki theological seminary on Heybeliada, an island in the Sea of Marmara. The school had trained generations of Orthodox leaders, but authorities closed it, along with other private religious schools. In the meantime the Greek Orthodox community in Turkey has dwindled to 3,000, from 180,000 in 1923.

In general, noted the Boston Globe, Turkey’s religious minorities including about 68,000 Armenian Orthodox, 20,000 Catholics, 23,000 Jews, and 3,000 Greek Orthodox face numerous legal restrictions.

Catholics, for example, encounter considerable difficulties when it comes to obtaining legal rights over property and work permits for clergy and nuns, explained Otmar Oehring, in an article written for the Forum 18 news service Jan. 18. The Norwegian-based Forum 18 reports on issues related to religious freedom.

Places of worship of minority communities which are allowed to maintain legally-recognized community foundations — such as the Greek Orthodox, the Armenians, the Syrian Orthodox and the Jews — are owned by these foundations, commented Oehring.

But Catholics and Protestants are not allowed to set up such foundations. Consequently, title deeds indicate that the congregations or church communities themselves own the buildings. Yet the state often refuses to recognize this. Additional legal obstacles include problems in setting up bank accounts and in publishing religious books and magazine.

At the time of Benedict XVI’s visit to Turkey at the end of last year, Vatican representatives and government officials discussed the possibility of establishing a mixed working group to resolve the Catholic Church’s problems in Turkey, according to Oehring. There has been little or no progress on the matter, however.

During his visit, the Pope held a meeting with the president of the government’s religious affairs directorate. In his address, given Nov. 28, the Pontiff called for an “authentic dialogue between Christians and Muslims, based on truth and inspired by a sincere wish to know one another better, respecting differences and recognizing what we have in common.”

The Pope also called for freedom of religion, “institutionally guaranteed and effectively respected in practice.” A call that takes on greater urgency after the recent attacks.