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Turkey’'s Christians face growing persecution

Lela Gilbert

This past spring, the Christian world was stunned by news of a triple murder in Turkey. Early accounts simply reported that three employees of a Christian publishing house had been murdered on April 18 in the central city of Malatya. Two of the victims—Necati Aydin, 36, and Ugur Yuksel, 32—were Turkish converts from Islam. The third man, Tilmann Geske, 46, was a German citizen. The three had been found with their hands and legs bound and their throats slit from ear to ear. It has since been widely reported that the murders appeared to be a deliberate observance of the Koranic instruction to “strike terror into the hearts of unbelievers” by smiting them above the neck and striking every finger (Sura 8:12). The victims’ fingertips were sliced repeatedly.

Ishan Ozbek, the Turkish pastor of the three martyrs and himself a convert from Islam, recently shared his personal account at Jerusalem’s Narkiss Street Congregation. He remains close to the martyrs’ families, and spoke of the heartbreak faced by the wives and children.

The three widows have publicly forgiven the killers, and testified on Turkish television of their personal faith in Jesus, noted Pastor Ozbek, who observed that the Christian message of mercy and grace has not been so widely and eloquently proclaimed in that region since the ministry of St. Paul. Ozbek’s widely broadcast statements bearing witness to Christian forgiveness have led to threats on his own life.

Despite increasing harassment and discrimination, the murders mark the first known martyrdom of Turkish converts from Islam since the founding of the Turkish Republic in 1923. Today, Turkey’s Christian population is roughly 70,000; there are around 26,000 Jews. These communities are both caught between radical Islam and Kemalist secular nationalism.

In recent years Istanbul’s Central Synagogue has been bombed twice by radical Muslims. Meanwhile the larger Christian minority struggles with its own incidents of abuse. The year 2007 has seen five Christians murdered in Turkey so far. In February in the Black Sea city of Trabzon, a 16-year-old Turkish youth motivated by a mixture of self-described “nationalist and Islamist” sympathies, gunned down Father Andrea Santoro as the priest knelt in prayer at his church.

Just weeks before, another Trabzon youth—Ogün Samast, a 17-year-old highschool dropout—shot dead an Armenian Christian journalist, Hrant Dink, outside his newspaper office in Istanbul.

In a more recent incident, Asia News reported that Turan Topal and Hakan Tastan, two Muslim converts to Christianity, could be sentenced to three years in prison for “insulting Turkishness.”

Turkish Christians and Jews remain uneasy about the July reelection of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, which boosted the Islamists. His victory “cracked the foundation of Turkey’s 84-year-old republic, pushing Islam into the political mainstream and reshaping the legacy of the countrys father figure, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk,” reported Bloomberg News.

Erdogan’s new term raises questions about the future of religious minorities in Turkey. Some observers fear that his reelection may be viewed as a popular mandate to lift restraints on Islam—most famously illustrated by the illegality of wearing Muslim headscarves in government offices and schools. Such restraints shaped Atatürk’s formation of modern Turkey in 1923. His strongly enforced secularism continues to dominate the Turkish military, which has ousted four governments since 1960, and continues to oppose pro-Islamist moves.

Israeli analysts are watching events in Turkey, concerned with how they might affect the close security cooperation of the two regional powers.
“It’s a new era for the country,” says Barry Rubin, editor of the journal Turkish Studies and head of the Global Research in International Affairs Center in Herzliya. “The big question is how far they want to go. Some believe they want to go all the way to Islamism; some believe they’ll stop well short.”

Ozbek concluded his message in Jerusalem with a grim prediction: “These will not be the last Christian martyrs in Turkey.”

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