Turkey: Church Vandalized, Pastor Threatened

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Landlord demands eviction as two-year campaign against Black Sea church continues.

ISTANBUL (Compass Direct News) -- Assailants on Turkey’s Black Sea coast vandalized a Protestant church this weekend, days after nationalists from the region murdered a well-known Armenian journalist.

Attackers shattered the Agape Protestant Church’s windows and spray-painted its street sign early Sunday morning (January 28) in the city of Samsun, Pastor Orhan Picaklar told Compass.

Located in a region infamous for producing the nationalist killers of Armenian journalist Hrant Dink 11 days ago and an Italian Catholic priest last year, the congregation has suffered a dozen stoning attacks and weekly e-mail threats during the past two years.

“I was shocked, because, though we’ve been stoned before, it was never this big of an attack,” Picaklar said. “When I arrived at 5 a.m., there were about 20 police on the premises, including Samsun’s deputy police chief.”

According to Picaklar, approximately 30 heavy rocks had been thrown through church windows, some of them smashing interior windows and denting walls.

The pastor said a note was left inside the church but that police refused to show him what was written on it, claiming that it “wasn’t important.”

Samsun’s police chief later refused to include the note in the official investigation, stating that it had “nothing to do with this case,” Picaklar said.

“How could a paper thrown into our building not have anything to do with our case?” the pastor commented.

Samsun’s chief of security, present at the initial investigation, refused to comment on the incident when contacted by Compass.

Several Turkish national dailies mentioned the attack yesterday after The Associated Press covered the incident, but local papers that previously had published negative articles against the church failed to report the vandalism.

‘I Will Kill You, Orhan’

Picaklar received two death threats by e-mail on the day of the attack, one signed by the Turkish Vengeance Brigade.

“I will kill you Orhan, you have very little time left,” read one e-mail, which cursed the congregation as “Christian pigs” who would “burn in Hell.”

“I’ve received so many of these in the last three years that I don’t even pay attention to them, I just delete them,” Picaklar told Compass. “But in recent days I’ve started to take them seriously.”

The murder of Armenian writer and thinker Hrant Dink, gunned down by a young nationalist from the Black Sea city of Trabzon on January 19, has created concern over growing militant nationalism in Turkey.

The event has also fueled debate over the responsibility of the state to protect individuals targeted by violent elements in society.

“After these events, both Dink’s death and this church attack, the police are planning to provide us with security,” Picaklar said.

“In Samsun,” a legal advisor from Turkey’s Alliance of Protestant Churches (APC) told Compass, “the church may not have asked for protection, but it was threatened and stoned 10 times, so the police had the responsibility to protect it.”

In a similar case in the city of Odemis, a Protestant church opened a case against the Ministry of Interior in December for failing to protect its building during repeated attacks.

The Samsun congregation’s biggest problem may now be finding a place to meet.

Broken window

Sunday’s attack has convinced the church’s landlord that the congregation must leave, the pastor said. The church only moved into the building from its former location three weeks ago.

“I think people don’t want to work with us because of the rock throwing attacks,” Picaklar said. “Where are we supposed to worship this winter, on the street?”

“Legally, the government doesn’t have to provide its citizens with a place of worship,” an APC legal adviser told Compass. “But as a social state, it’s something it should provide [for churches]. Mosques are built by the Religious Affairs Directorate.”

Turkey’s officially secular government funds and constructs most of the country’s mosques. The state pays the salaries of Muslim clerics and provides mosques with free water and utilities.

History of Harassment

Regular vandalism, negative media and e-mail threats against the Agape church increased soon after the mayor of the city’s Atakum municipality, Adem Bektas, stated in November 2004 that he would never allow a church to be built there.

A revision of Turkey’s laws allowed the Samsun congregation to register officially as an association in November 2005 but did little to diminish social stigma attached to the church.

Four days before the church attack, the Black Sea online site Kuzeyhaber published a column praising efforts to stop the spread of Christianity in Samsun.

“I am aware of the struggle you have been waging against the churches and priests [in Samsun],” stated a letter allegedly from one “prophet Jesus” addressed to columnist Kenan Erzurumlu on January 24. “Blessed are you for being on His path,” the column said in praise of Erzurumlu.

The last previous attack on the church came last October, when police managed to catch one rock thrower whose confession led to the arrest of 11 young men. But after taking their statements, officials released the culprits on grounds that they were underage, Picaklar said.

A date for the first court hearing against the young men has yet to be set.

Copyright © 2007 Compass Direct