Turkey's Mistreatment of Christians Becoming More Brazen

Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Persecution worsening even as the country seeks entry into EU.

by Peter Lamprecht

ISTANBUL, August 30 (Compass) -- Bektas Erdogan never expected his Christian faith of 11 years to jeopardize his career as a fashion designer in Turkey.

Hired five months ago by a designer jeans company in the Beyazit district of Istanbul, Erdogan was assured by his Muslim boss that he would be evaluated on the basis of his work, not his religion.

After his first collection sold successfully in Russia, Erdogan thought the phone call he received earlier this month from his employer -- asking him to come to work on a Sunday afternoon -- boded well. Maybe there was a surprise company dinner.

But that evening at the shop, his supervisor angrily accused him of “missionary work” and “brainwashing.” With the help of two employees and a relative, he beat Erdogan for two hours. The men repeatedly struck the designer’s head and face with their fists and the butt of a pistol. Three times Erdogan’s boss attempted to shoot him, but the gun failed to fire.

“He really wanted to kill me. It wasn’t just to scare me,” said Erdogan, who told Compass that he prayed for help and meditated on Bible verses while his attackers threatened to murder him and hide his body.

His co-workers released the 32-year-old Erdogan with a swollen and bloody face around 9 p.m., warning that they would kill him later. Since then, he has received three anonymous phone calls threatening his life.

Erdogan did not report the August 7 incident to the police, fearing that his boss’ ties with local officials might make him the target of further aggression. He also felt that once the authorities learned he was a Christian, they would be unwilling to help.

He believes that his employer’s anger stemmed from shop employees’ interest in Christianity. During his last three months at the job, Erdogan said, “Almost every meal [at work] became a question-and-answer session about my religion.”

Plainclothes Police Brutality

Erdogan is not the only victim of increasingly overt, anti-Christian sentiment within Turkish society. On the same day that he was attacked, Istanbul police beat two Protestant converts in their early twenties and told them they could not be both Turks and Christians.

Umit and Murat-Can, who asked to have their last names withheld, were on their way to one of Istanbul’s 25 Turkish-speaking Protestant churches on August 7 when they saw American David Byle and his 3-year-old daughter surrounded by a small crowd of police and civilians.

Byle had been exercising the legal right to distribute Christian tracts on Istiklal Caddesi, one of Istanbul’s main pedestrian thoroughfares, when two plainclothes policemen accosted him. One of them grabbed his chin and shouted at him for distributing literature, quickly drawing a crowd of police and passersby.

When the two Christians tried to intervene on behalf of Byle, whom they recognized as a member of a local church, a scuffle broke out between Umit and one of the plainclothes policemen. According to Murat-Can, about 15 policemen forced Umit to the ground, where they kicked and hit him before handcuffing him and carrying him inside a nearby building.

“That’s when I first realized they were police,” said Umit, whose plainclothes attacker never identified himself as an officer. The policemen continued to beat Umit for three minutes before taking him to a local police station with Murat-Can, who had followed the group inside.

“They never showed us any ID or read us our rights,” Murat-Can told Compass as he described the following hour in the police station. After finding 100 Christian tracts in Murat-Can’s backpack, police accused the youths of being “missionaries” who were bent on “dividing Turkey.” Although finally releasing them without filing any formal report, they told the young men that they could not be both Turks and Christians.

In another incident last month in Eskisehir (120 miles southeast of Istanbul), three strangers in Kanli Kavak park assaulted Protestant Salih Kurtbas. They attacked him from behind at 6 p.m. as he waited for an anonymous caller who had asked to meet and discuss Christianity.

Shortly after arriving home with a bloody nose, split lip, black eyes and a swollen ear, he received an irate phone call from his attackers. They accused him of missionary activity and threatened to kill anyone associated with a local U.S. businessman whom they claimed was spreading Christian propaganda.

Eskisehir evangelicals have faced constant delays in obtaining legal permission to start the city’s first Protestant church. “We applied to the governor and haven’t received an answer, and the city government has said that the building is not up to earthquake safety standards,” Kurtbas told Compass. “Everything’s kind of gone downhill.”

Kurtbas didn’t even think of going to the police, explaining, “If they found out that I was a Christian, nothing good would have come of it.” Umit also wanted to avoid further problems with authorities, fearing that legal proceedings might hurt his brother’s chances of entering the police academy.

Fear of Court

“These sort of attacks are not shocking for me,” admitted Orhan Kemal Cengiz, legal consultant for Turkey’s Alliance of Protestant Churches (APC). “I was expecting them … but [Christians] should take this very seriously.”

With European Union (EU) accession talks looming on October 3, Turkey is attempting to improve its human rights image. A package of legal reforms passed in June reasserted freedom of religion, instituting a three-year prison sentence for anyone obstructing the expression of religious beliefs.

But the EU has remained skeptical, challenging officially 99-percent-Muslim Turkey to implement these religious freedoms among its non-Muslim minority communities. Fewer than 100,000 citizens follow the ancient Christian traditions of the Armenian, Greek and Syrian Othodox churches, which remain exclusively ethnic congregations.

By contrast, the emerging community of an estimated 3,500 Turkish Protestants challenges the centuries-old perception that to be a Turk is to be a Muslim.

Over the last 10 months, violence against Protestant Christians in Turkey has become publicly visible, prompting former U.S. Ambassador to Turkey Eric Edelman to make formal inquiries with Ankara officials in April and again in June regarding 10 incidents.

“Turkey is not aware of the gravity of the problem,” Cengiz said. “Some officials have good intentions, but I have a strong suspicion that they don’t really grasp the freedom of religion issues.”

While most Turkish Protestants remain reluctant to open court cases for fear of further persecution, others feel that the church can gain from aggressive legal action without undermining its message of love.

“I’m a big fan of opening a court case,” APC spokesperson Isa Karatas told Compass. “When we look at things from a Christian perspective, of course we need to be forgiving. But this is not an obstacle for us to pursue our rights.”

Cengiz, the legal consultant to the APC, also advises that abuse victims go to court to protect themselves. “If you do not file a case against the police, you may find yourself before a court or even in jail, in spite of the fact that you are the victim of police misconduct,” Cengiz said. Turkish law enforcers often sue abuse victims preemptively, Cengiz said, in order to shield officers from legal prosecution.

Turkish Protestant church leaders have opened seven libel cases this year against three TV stations to combat accusations aired nationally. Statements on the television programs claimed that local Christians spy for foreign governments that pay Turks to change their religion.

In the face of anti-Christian rhetoric from some government officials and the latest attacks against Protestants, many Turkish Christians admit that they are not expecting either the government or society to change overnight.

“There is a segment of the government that supports anti-Christian sentiment, but along with this section is a larger segment that opposes it,” Karatas of APC told Compass. He said that if Christians who suffered persecution for their faith “would open court cases now, I believe they would receive support from the government.”

“In theory we have a free environment,” Umit told Compass only 10 days after being beaten by the police. “I don’t think that there is a problem with the state. But the Turkish people have not yet understood democracy. They still see the state as a father. They don’t know that it’s meant to serve us. Therefore, when people working for the state say something bad about Christians, the people believe it.”

Despite ongoing death threats, Erdogan has no plans to leave the country. When asked how he felt about losing his job, enduring a severe beating and being threatened with death -- all in one evening -- he smiled. Even if his situation doesn’t improve, he said, “God tells me to rejoice, because He can bring glory to His name.”

Copyright 2005 Compass Direct