Turkish Pastor Acquitted of Criminal Charges

Thursday, May 13, 2004

Diyarbakir prosecutor cites precedence of European agreements.

by Barbara G. Baker

DIYARBAKIR, Turkey, May 13 (Compass) -- In what the mass-circulation Hurriyet newspaper called a “jet acquittal,” a criminal court in southeastern Turkey dropped all charges yesterday against a Protestant pastor accused of opening an “illegal” church.

Pastor Ahmet Guvener was fully acquitted in the opening hearing of his case before Diyarbakir’s Third Criminal Court.

The quick resolution of the case, based on the state prosecutor’s recommendation, surprised both Guvener and his lawyer. According to advocate Abdul Kadir Pekdemir, such a criminal case typically extends for a year or more of hearings before a verdict is issued.

More than a dozen observers at the May 12 hearing included representatives from the U.S. Consulate in Adana, the Dutch section of Amnesty International, the Alliance of Protestant Churches of Turkey and the Diyarbakir Bar Association.

At the request of presiding Judge Necla Ipek, Guvener reviewed the circumstances of building a place of worship for the Diyarbakir Evangelical Church, a Protestant congregation that grew out of house-church meetings begun in his home 10 years ago.

Guvener declared that the purpose of the new three-story building had been clear from the initial blueprints approved in 2001, and that it had openly functioned as a church since completion in April 2003.

In his opening statement for the defense, Pakdemir pointed to the strong guarantees of religious freedom contained in the constitution and laws of Turkey, as well as its signature on European human rights agreements. Under these legally binding statutes, he argued, the state is also responsible to guarantee its citizens the right to establish places of worship.

But when the judge asked State Prosecutor Vahdettin Taskiran to present the government’s case against Guvener, he promptly declared that no sufficient grounds existed to bring any charges against the pastor. Instead, Taskiran stressed that under recent reforms passed in the Turkish Parliament, international agreements now take precedence over national laws.

In accordance with human rights agreements signed with the European Union, the prosecutor said, Turkish citizens have the right both individually and in community to conduct public or private worship, as well as to teach and propagate their faith and practices.

Moments later, Judge Ipek declared Guvener acquitted and the case closed.

“Some of our authorities have approached this case emotionally,” Pekdemir commented to reporters outside the courthouse after the hearing. “My client and his congregation did not have a place to conduct their worship. This case violated the basic principles of the republic.”

“Our prayers have been answered,” a smiling Guvener told the Turkish press afterwards.

“It’s a great step forward for Turkey,” he later told Compass, “for Christians here, for religious freedom, for democracy.”

“This has tremendous ramifications for southeast Turkey,” a member of Guvener’s congregation agreed. “It specifies that we as Protestant Christians have the freedom to be Christians, and that it’s perfectly legal for us to establish a place of worship, teach our disciples and spread our faith.”

“It is an advantageous decision,” an Izmir pastor who attended the hearing noted. “This gives strong legal precedence to many other pending cases against Protestant churches who are being accused of opening ‘illegal’ churches here.”

Like most of the other Protestant congregations formed over the past two decades in Turkey, the Diyarbakir church members are converts to Christianity from Muslim backgrounds.

Dozens of these churches across Turkey have opened court cases to prevent closure of their worship services by an Interior Ministry order in the fall of 2001, declaring their places of worship in violation of municipal zoning laws. Although the order was revoked last September, amendments to the law on opening new places of worship appear to be more restrictive than before.

In a blunt letter about Guvener’s case sent to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on May 6, the U.S. Commission of Security and Cooperation in Europe had declared the pastor’s charges to be “disingenuous and surpassing mere harassment.”

Warning that closure of the Diyarbakir church would contravene Turkey’s signed international commitments, the commission also criticized “severe limitations” inserted in last July’s revision of the law regarding new places of worship. Amendments to Law No. 4928 empower civil administrators to determine whether there is a need in any given area to justify a new place of worship.

“This severe limitation also contravenes Turkey’s OSCE (Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe) commitments, as governments have agreed to facilitate, not frustrate, the practice of religious freedom by granting state recognition and respecting the right of religious communities to establish and freely maintain places of worship,” the letter stated.

The last hurdle for Guvener’s church to obtain official status hinges on its petition filed five months ago for zoning permission, which must be approved by the local Council for Protection of Cultural and Natural Sites. Once that has been granted, the church can apply to the municipality and governor’s office for recognition as a legal place of worship.