The man charged with killing 39 people on New Year’s Eve at Istanbul’s exclusive Reina nightclub attack, Abdulkadir Masharipov, has testified before a Turkish court, saying: “My purpose was to kill Christians”.

The Uzbek national was arraigned in court 11 Feb., nearly a month after he was captured by Istanbul police 16 Jan. He told the judge interrogating him at the hearing that he was a member of the so-called Islamic State, which had claimed responsibility for the attack the following day. IS had defined the massacre as revenge for Turkish military involvement in Syria.

But Masaripov insisted that he did not consider his actions as an attack against the Turkish state, according to Hurriyet newspaper reporter Damla Guler, citing a confidential court document on 13 Feb.

Rather, the jihadist said, “I believed it was an act of revenge against the murderous actions carried out by the world’s Christians, an act of retaliation on their holiday,” Masharipov told the court. Observance of New Year’s Day is discouraged by many orthodox Muslims.

Married with two small children, Masaripov had reportedly been trained in Afghanistan and was living with his wife and family in Turkey for a year, with plans to travel on to Syria. He told interrogators that he was in frequent telephone contact with “Abu Jihad,” an IS operative in Syria, in the days and hours before he launched his single-handed attack against the Reina club.

The IS militant said he had expected to commit suicide in the attack, rather than submit to capture. Insisting he did not regret what he had done, he told the court he hoped he would be given the death penalty.

The militant’s dead victims included 12 Muslim Turkish citizens, but the rest were visiting foreigners, more than half of them Muslim Arab nationals, including seven Saudis.

There were few, if any, known Christians among the 39 killed and 65 injured in Masaripov’s seven-minute rampage just after midnight at the nightclub. Some 600 revellers were on the premises, located along the Bosphorus in Istanbul’s Ortakoy district, when the attacker sprayed them with 180 bullets and exploded two stun grenades among the crowd.

He had first shot dead the only armed police guard stationed outside, and then in the confusion afterwards, he changed clothes, walked away free and caught a taxi to leave the scene. With the help of now arrested accomplices, he avoided capture for more than two weeks until tracked down in a police raid in Istanbul’s Esenyurt district.

It’s unlikely Masaripov could have realistically planned to target Christians in his attack: less than 0.2 per cent of Turkey’s 80 million people are non-Muslims, and of that small non-Muslim slice, Christians are a small fraction. About 150,000 Turkish citizens are from ethnic Christian – Greek, Armenian and Syriac – backgrounds. In addition to a few thousand foreign Christians residing and working in the country, there are an estimated 7,000 Turkish Christian converts from Muslim backgrounds worshipping in small Protestant fellowships found mostly in larger cities. Altogether, Christians in Turkey amount to roughly 1 out of every 500 people in the country.

2016 tensions for Turkey’s Christians

In its annual Human Rights Violation Report for 2016, issued 30 Jan., Turkey’s Association of Protestant Churches noted a “marked increase” in hate speech against Christians in national, local and social media  during the past year, including attacks against Christmas celebrations.

In the context of a wave of widespread terrorism during 2016, including a serious coup attempt to overthrow the government last July, the Protestants found it necessary to make heavy security arrangements to protect their worship places. After a document from the Turkish Joint Chiefs of Staff circulated in the media last March, warning of IS threats against churches in Ankara, Turkish police authorities also significantly increased security precautions around the nation’s churches and various Christian organisations.

The report also highlighted a government crackdown on foreign Christian workers with long-term residence in Turkey, cancelling their visas and ordering their forced deportation and permanent banishment on the vague accusation of being “a threat to national security”. One of them, Rev. Andrew Brunson, was without explanation detained on 7 Oct.  for two months and then arrested on allegations of being a member of the terror organisation accused of orchestrating the deadly failed coup in July. Sent to an Izmir prison on 9 Dec., he is still incarcerated in a cell with 18 Turkish Muslims, and his lawyer continues to be refused access to the confidential legal file against him.