Lone voices decry press’s part in responsibility for religious tensions.
by Peter Lamprecht
ISTANBUL, March 17 (Compass) – In a country where media often portray the tiny Protestant community negatively, some news organizations here took notice when Muslims threatened Christians at a book fair last week.
Normally, Turkish nationalists threatening to hang local Protestants for operating a Christian literature stall at the Bursa annual book fair wouldn’t have raised an eyebrow. But it wasn’t long before Turkish television video and newspaper commentary was running. And some of that commentary only further fanned anti-Christian sentiment.
On March 8, five teenage members of the Nationalist Party Movement (MHP) at the book fair in the northwestern city of Bursa challenged Turkish Bible Society volunteers Samir Serkek and Vahit Yildiz for selling Bibles in a “Muslim country.”
“We’ll settle with you by tying ropes around your necks,” one young man said before they left the Turkish Bible Society stall.
The five MHP youths quickly became loud and antagonistic, trying to block other people from approaching the stall. Before threatening the volunteers with hanging, one of them had yelled, “How can you sell Bibles here? This is a Muslim country!”
According to Serkek, the same group of boys then went to the book stand of Love Publications, a Christian publishing company from the western coastal city of Izmir, and gave them the same threat.
Serkek reported the disturbance to the fair’s management, which responded by heightening security around the stand.
Two days later, a group of five MHP young women approached the stall and began to shout insults at the workers for selling books that denigrated the Turkish culture and the Turkish people. “They accused us of trying to divide the country,” Serkek commented.
According to another bookstand volunteer, Sefa Gormezoz, a group of 35 MHP members, mostly young people, returned to the book fair on Saturday (March 11) at 1 p.m. and began to argue with workers at the Love Publications book stand. After 30 minutes, the group started yelling and chanting slogans such as “Turkey is Turkish and will stay Turkish,” Gormezoz said.
The group then marched to the Bible Society book stall approximately 50 meters away and chanted nationalistic slogans for 10 minutes before plainclothes policemen and security guards dispersed the group.
Television crews were on hand to film the book fair, which attracts more than 300,000 visitors over nine days. Cameras captured the group of 35 young people chanting nationalistic slogans in front of the Bible Society stall.
The demonstration was aired on national television station Show TV during evening news the following day, and several newspapers reported the event. While Serkek said that Show TV’s coverage was unbiased, right wing daily Yeni Cag spun what it incorrectly reported as free Bible distribution in a negative light.
“Missionaries who are taking over every part of Turkey have now taken up residence at book fairs,” the March 12 article’s subhead read.
In contrast, Turkish daily Radikal columnist Turker Aslan strongly criticized the nationalist protestors. “The fact that they did this all in front of the television cameras must means that they believed to the end that their actions were right, just, and appropriate,” he wrote in his March 14 article.
In the past, Turkish press and private television stations have consistently portrayed Christians in a poor light, causing recent concern that national media are partly responsible for violence against religious minorities.
Writing in the English section of Turkey’s largest daily newspaper after the murder of Catholic Priest Andrea Santoro in the Turkish city of Trabzon last month, Hurriyet columnist Ertugrul Ozkok questioned whether the “ignorant” teenager who supposedly shot Santoro was the real culprit.
“I am after the real provocateurs, [the ones] who try to make out every Christian as a possible missionary,” Ozkok wrote in the February 7 article. “I am looking at the provacateurs who use not guns but pens. Are we so blind and deaf that we will pass this incident off as being ‘a single maniac’s work?’”
Articles on Santoro’s death focused on claims that he had previously bribed children to attend mass, suspicion of his ministry to Russian prostitutes and the presence of religious literature at the back of his church.
“Certain newspapers have helped create a [societal] attitude that the priest’s murder could almost be excused if it was proven that he was distributing Christian propaganda,” Altan Oymen of Turkish daily Radikal wrote in his February 16 column.
Turkish cinema has also incorporated anti-Christian sentiment in its recent record-breaking hit, “Valley of the Wolves: Iraq,” which debuted two days before Santoro’s murder. Based on a popular Turkish television series, the film portrays actor Billy Zane as a fundamentalist Christian CIA officer carrying out “God’s mission” in Iraq while his underlings torture naked prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison, kill innocent women and children and harvest the organs of their victims.
Representing more than 150 million Christians in 114 countries, the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA) has noted a direct correlation between disinformation about religious minorities and religious persecution.
In a 2001 report to the UN, the WEA’s religious freedom watchdog Religious Liberty discussed what it termed “The Slippery Slope from Intolerance to Persecution.” The report documented situations around the world where passive and active disinformation had led to active persecution of religious minorities.
With negative media coverage fueling violence against Christians, skewed articles and slanderous television programs carry a very real threat for Turkish churches.
Turkey’s tiny Protestant minority of approximately 3,500 members has been attempting to combat rising negative media coverage over the past 18 months.
Turkish Protestants are currently pursuing seven libel cases against three television stations for exposés on Protestants that were broadcast on prime time television. The programs accused Christians of spying for foreign intelligence agencies and paying people to change their religion as well as trying to divide and destroy the nation by alienating Turks from their communities, families and culture.
Attacks against Christians in Turkey rarely received media attention until last month, when Santoro’s death made national and international headlines. Since then Turkish media have reported further attacks against priests in the western city of Izmir and the southern coastal city of Mersin.
Recent attacks against Turkey’s tiny Protestant community have gone almost unnoticed in the Turkish press. In January, church leader Kamil Kiroglu was attacked in the southern city of Adana and beaten unconscious, while in Trabzon two Protestant house church members were beaten and told to leave the city.
The 52-year-old Serkek, who pastors Istanbul’s Bahcelievler Presbyterian Grace Church, commented that he has often faced similar provocation in the past four years while attending the Bursa book fair.
“We prayed about whether or not to come this year, because last year we faced a lot of opposition,” Serkek told Compass. “Our stand is only nine square meters, one of the smallest booths, yet it attracts more attention than most of the big booths because everyone from schoolchildren to professors is interested in the Bible.”
According to Serkek, nine out of 10 people who pass the booth return to ask questions about the Bible.
“Bursa is a very conservative area,” commented Gormezoz, who was present when the demonstrations took place. “Most of the people who come to the fair have never seen a Bible before so it naturally interests them.”
Though Muslims claim to revere the New Testament as a holy book dictated by God, they hold that the modern-day version read by Christians has been distorted.
This year Bible Society volunteers decided to attend the fair and stay as low key as possible, only answering direct questions and attempting to avoid conflict.
Gormezoz said the volunteers responded to the threats in love. “We told them that we loved them and that we had nothing against them,” Gormezoz said. “We’re citizens of the Turkish Republic, we live in this land, and we are Turks.”
“It was amazing how many people came and showed their support for us after the demonstration,” Serkek said. “Every year they see the way that we get harassed and they like us a lot. They are Muslims but they don’t think that the nationalists are right [to threaten us] either.”
Fight for Rights
While the demonstration was taking place in Bursa, Turkey’s foreign minister Abdullah Gul was at a weekend European Union (EU) meeting in Austria petitioning European nations to outlaw “defamation” against all religions, The Telegraph reported from London.
Gul asked the EU to review laws that protect established religion (Christianity) and make sure that they apply to “all religions equally,” the English daily said.
Domestic debate over equal religious rights in Turkey has grown after two Turkish professors were put on trial in February for a 2004 government-sponsored report on minorities. Baskin Oran and Ibrahim Kaboglu were charged with “inciting hatred and enmity” for maintaining that religious and ethnic minorities are often discriminated against.
The report’s controversial suggestions included allowing non-Muslims to work in the police force and Foreign Ministry, positions from which they are currently barred.
Oran and Kaboglu were charged under Article 301 of the new Turkish Penal Code, which in past months has been used as a catch-all clause to try a number of journalists and writers for thought crimes, including denigration of “Turkishness” and the Turkish State. Even Prime Minister Erdogan has opened several libel cases against cartoonists who criticized him.
But for Serkek, challenging disinformation about Christians in Turkey is not primarily about avoiding persecution. “Our goal is not to complain about Turkey or to defend ourselves, because that won’t provide a solution,” he told Compass.
According to the pastor, “persecution must come,” and he hopes that in response the Turkish church will further develop the “fruit” of love. “Our goal is to pray for Turks with tears, because when they threaten and attack us they don’t understand what they are doing. That is how we can be most useful to our country.”
Copyright 2006 Compass Direct