Two churches in cities in eastern Turkey infamous as the sites of historic killings of Christians were vandalised during the attempted coup on 15 July, adjourned until September.
During the night of 15 July, unidentified assailants broke the glass panels in the door of the Malatya Protestant Church. The pastor, Tim Stone, said he thought someone with a grudge against the church had taken advantage of the general unrest.
Meanwhile, in Trabzon, on the northern coast, around 10 people smashed the windows of the Santa Maria Catholic Church, where in 2006 a priest, Fr. Andrea Santoro, was murdered. The attackers tried to break into the church, but a group of Muslim neighbours drove them away, before contacting a priest.
During the lengthy trial for the Malatya murders, which has seen over 100 hearings, the prosecution cited evidence that the murders were linked to the assassinations of Fr. Santoro, who was killed while kneeling at the altar of his church, and an Armenian journalist, Hrant Dink, killed in January 2007 in Istanbul.
Three suspects accused of helping to orchestrate the brutal Malatya murders had in October 2014 blamed their crime on the Hizmet movement, the influential Islamic group led by Muslim scholar Fethullah Gülen, accused of masterminding the failed coup by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
Testimony from two former military officers and an Islamic university researcher claimed then that the Hizmet movement had been behind the savage torture and stabbing to death of the two Turkish converts to Christianity and a German missionary in Malatya in April 2007.
The three defendants had declared that the socio-religious group, which had once been a strong ally of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), had planned the murder plot to discredit the Turkish military and overthrow the government.
However, lawyers representing the Malatya victims’ families dismissed these defendants’ “parallel-structure” accusations at the time as political manipulation, in an attempt to deflect concrete evidence pointing at military and ultra-nationalist involvement in the murders. (Links were cited to the JITEM and TUSHAD units, allegedly formed illegally within various Turkish military forces to create disinformation and eliminate enemies of the state.)
In effect, the lawyers said in October 2014, the three suspects had been exploiting the government’s “witch-hunt” against the Hizmet movement in order to try to get themselves acquitted.
The latest attacks on churches are a painful reminder to Turkey’s Christians of their vulnerability, particularly during periods of unrest.
A group of Christian and Jewish religious leaders in Turkey issued a joint declaration condemning the coup and calling for love, peace and justice. The Association of Turkish Protestant Churches also issued a press statement condemning the coup, asking for wisdom and understanding for the country’s leaders and praying for peace.
After the attempted coup, Radio Shema, an Ankara-based Christian radio station, sent a press release, reporting that the “fatihah” (Muslim prayer for the dead) was “continuously broadcast from the mosques … The news showed the civilians in downtown Ankara chanting ‘Allahu akbar’ (God is greater), the Islamic battle cry … Huge crowds gathered at 110,000 mosques around the country on Sunday at noon to remember those who died in the attempted coup, who were ‘martyrs’; soldiers, police and innocent victims who fought to prevent [the] coup.”
But now, the station reported that life “looks normal”, although “the overall general feeling of Turks is anger; anger towards different targets or personalities about the current situation, all that happened … Now more than ever there needs to be a Christian presence here in this country. It may come with some repercussion, but we must faithfully declare God’s truths to the people here without belittling anyone. People are even more ready to seek out a new belief system and definitely need a new source of hope.”
Estimates provided in the 2013 International Religious Freedom Report suggest that Christians account for approximately 0.2% of the total Turkish population of about 75 million. The largest Christian minority group in Turkey is the Armenian Orthodox. It is estimated that there are 90,000 Armenians, 25,000 Roman Catholics, 20,000 Syrian Orthodox, 15,000 Russian Orthodox, 3,000 Iraqi Chaldeans, 2,500 Greek Orthodox and around 7,000 Protestants residing in Turkey.
Necati Aydin, Ugur Yuksel and Tilmann Geske were murdered on 18 April, 2007 at the Zirve Christian publishing house in Malatya. Five men, aged 19 and 20 at the time, were arrested at the scene and charged with the murders. Their trial became increasingly complicated as a result of efforts to identify those behind the perpetrators and to link the trial to political events in Turkey. The reassignment of judges, prosecutors and other court officials also resulted in significant delays. On 10 March, 2014, the five perpetrators were released from prison and put under house arrest with electronic tags. However, they have been seen moving around freely.
Relatives of the victims expressed their disappointment in the Turkish justice system. In an interview with journalists, Geske’s widow Susanne, present with her three children at what she hoped would be the last hearing on June 30th, said: “Nine years have now passed and I haven’t seen anything. A lot of things have changed. I now only have confidence in God’s justice. I will be surprised if a fair decision will be given.”
The mother of Yuksel, Hatice, also present, said that she was very tired of coming and going over the last nine years: “I lost my child. On this holy day at least won’t they [the defendants] speak the truth? How is it that the murderers remain free?”
Other recent incidents
In April, in Diyarbakir, 250km further east of Malatya, the Turkish government expropriated the city’s handful of Christian congregations, including all its Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant churches, apparently to rebuild and restore the city’s historical centre.
The decision effectively made the Diyarbakir churches – one 1,700 years old, another built only in 2003 – state property of Turkey.
Turkey’s southeast is heavily populated by Kurds – an ethnic Muslim group also extending across Turkey’s borders into Iran, Syria and Iraq, where Kurdish militias are prominent in all the regional fighting. Fierce fighting, centring heavily on Diyarbakir, has escalated since the end of a two-year ceasefire between the Turkish armed forces and the militants of the Kurdish Workers’ Party (the PKK) in June 2015.
Last autumn, the PKK youth declared self-rule over large parts of the Diyarbakir district of Sur, digging trenches and building barricades to keep authorities out. Blanket curfews left the populace under siege for weeks at a time, causing more than 30,000 to flee the city.
Then in late March, the government announced the “urgent expropriation” of 6,300 plots of land in the Sur district. Six churches are now under state control: the Virgin Mary Syriac Orthodox Church, the Surp (Armenian for “Saint”) Sarkis Chaldean Catholic Church, the Diyarbakir Protestant Church, the Apostolic Armenian Surp Giragos Church, an Armenian Catholic church, and the Mar Petyun Chaldean Catholic Church.
In February, the local government of the north-western Turkish city of Bursa ordered that its only church, which serves four congregations, be vacated, before rescinding the order.
Ismail Kulakcioglu, the pastor of the Protestant congregation, said they were given less than a week to vacate the building. Approximately 200 Christians share the church for their Sunday worship services.
The Directorate General of Foundations originally gave oral notice to church leaders on 18 Feb. that they had only five days to leave. It eventually extended the deadline by three days, before removing the order to vacate altogether on 23 Feb.
In January, the Association of Protestant Churches released a report, detailing repeated threats and attacks against Protestant churches and their leaders.
In an interview with Al-Monitor, Pastor Ihsan Ozbek said Christians remain “anxious and distressed”, naming two major obstacles to his community’s quest for true religious freedom: the Turkish judiciary’s failure to respond to their members’ security concerns, and the government’s exclusion of Protestants from the state’s protocol dialogue with other religious minorities.
The report referenced graffiti scrawled on a church in Balikesir and an assailant insulting and striking the leader of the Batikent Bereket Church in Ankara. Another attacker shot at the Torbali Baptist Church pastor in Izmir with a hunting rifle, as he worked in the fields at his family farm. Two weeks earlier, the Friday sermon from the nearby village mosque had broadcast hate speech from its loudspeakers, well within the pastor’s hearing.
During August 2015, a campaign of vicious threats targeted 20 church leaders from 15 Protestant congregations, who received a barrage of text messages, Facebook postings and emails. Although these death threats were phrased in strident Islamic State (IS) terminology and reported to the police, none of the pastors were given protection. Soon afterwards, two would-be IS suicide bombers were arrested in Ankara, caught on security-camera footage, as they conducted surveillance of churches in the capital.