Converts accused of ‘insulting Turkishness’ fear ruling sets dangerous precedent.

ISTANBUL, March 27 (Compass Direct News) – Fearing that a court-ordered fine of two Turkish Christians here for “illegal collection of funds” would set a precedent crippling to churches, their lawyer plans to take the case to a European court.

Hakan Tastan and Turan Topal each paid the fine of 600 Turkish lira (US$360) to a civil court in the Beyoglu district of Istanbul yesterday. The verdict cannot be appealed within the Turkish legal system, but their lawyer said he is considering taking the case to the European Court of Human Rights.

The ruling refers to the men receiving church offerings without official permission from local civil authorities. Nearly all Protestant fellowships in Turkey are registered as associations, with very few having status as a recognized religious body, and a strict application of the law would limit the scope of churches collecting funds.

Although the punishment is a relatively small fine, their lawyer told Compass there is now a precedent that authorities could use to harass any church for collecting tithes and offerings.

“For now, this court decision is an individual decision, but we fear in the future this could be carried out against all churches,” said defense attorney Haydar Polat.

Umut Sahin, spokesman for the Alliance of Protestant Churches of Turkey, concurred that the case was worrisome for the country’s small Protestant community and could set a disturbing precedent to be against other congregations.

When originally charged, the two men were summoned to police headquarters just before church services by three plainclothes policemen waiting for Tastan at his church. Tastan and Topal were given a “penalty” sheet from security police that ordered each to pay the fine for breaking a civil law.

The court decision to fine them, enacted on Nov. 11, 2008 but not delivered until March 13, denied their request to drop the penalty. The two men claimed they were only collecting money from their co-religionists.

Judge Hakim Tastan ruled at the First Magistrate Court that the two men were guilty of violating section 29 of Civil Administrative Code 2860, which forbids the collection of money without official permission from local district authorities.

In light of the charge of “insulting Turkishness,” the two men believe the smaller accusation of collecting money illegally is merely part of a wider effort by the state to harass and discredit Turkish Christians.

“They are doing this to bother and intimidate us, possibly to pressure us to leave the country,” Tastan told Compass. “They have the intention to hinder church establishment and the spread of the gospel.”

Tastan has spoken publicly over his strong sense of pride in his Turkish identity and frustration with state institutions biased against religious minorities.

“This case is proof that Turkey’s legal system regarding human rights isn’t acting in a just and suitable way,” he said.


Difficult Circumstances

The civil court case was the second set of longstanding charges against the two men. The first involves Turkey’s notorious Article 301, a loosely-defined law that criminalizes insulting “the Turkish nation.”

On Feb. 24 a Silivri court received the go-ahead from the Ministry of Justice to try the men under Article 301. The crux of the first case – originally leveled against them in 2007 by ultranationalist lawyer Kemal Kerincsiz, now indicted in a national conspiracy to overthrow the government – focused on the two men’s missionary efforts as defaming Islam.

Due to lack of proof and no-shows by the prosecution team’s witnesses, the converts from Islam believe they will be acquitted in their next hearing on May 28.

Turkey has come under recent criticism over its handling of religious minority rights by a Council of Europe report, accusing the country of “wrong interpretation” of the Lausanne Treaty as a pretext for refusing to implement minority rights, according to the Hurriyet Daily News.

The 1923 treaty, penned between Turkey and European powers following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, only recognizes Greeks, Jews and Armenians as minority populations in Turkey.

More troublesome, Turkey’s basis of rights for its non-Muslim minorities is built upon reciprocity with Greece’s treatment of its Muslim minorities. This basis pushes both nations to a “lowest-common denominator” understanding of minority rights, rather than a concept of universal freedoms, the report said.  

Report from Compass Direct News


Second attack within one week follows threats from Muslim nationalists.

ISTANBUL, February 17 (Compass Direct News) – Following threats from Muslim nationalists, a Turkish Bible Society bookshop in the southern city of Adana was vandalized for the second time in a week on Thursday (Feb. 12).

Security camera footage shows two youths attacking the storefront of the Soz Kitapevi bookshop, kicking and smashing glass in both the window and the door. The door frame was also damaged.

Bookshop employee Dogan Simsek discovered the damage when he arrived to open the shop. He described security footage of the attack, which took place at 8:19 a.m., to Compass.

“They came at it like a target,” he said. “They attacked in a very cold-blooded manner, and then they walked away as if nothing had happened.”

The security camera did not clearly capture the faces of either youth, and police are still attempting to identify the perpetrators.

During the first attack on Feb. 7, the glass of the front door was smashed and the security camera mangled. Both have since been repaired.

Simsek told the Turkish national daily Milliyet that these are the first such incidents he has witnessed in the 10 years he has worked there.

“We sit and drink tea with our neighbors and those around us; there are no problems in that regard,” said Simsek, though he did acknowledge that local opinion is not all favorable. “This is a Muslim neighborhood, and many have told us not to sell these books.”

The bookshop has received threats from both Muslim hardliners and nationalists. Last November, a man entered the shop and began making accusations that the Soz Kitapevi bookshop was in league with the CIA, saying, “You work with them killing people in Muslim countries, harming Muslim countries.”


Systemic Prejudice

The attacks are another example of the animosity that Turkish Christians have faced recently, especially the small Protestant community. The Alliance of Protestant Churches of Turkey released its annual Rights Violations Summary last month, detailing some of the abuses faced by Protestant congregations in 2008.

The report makes it clear that violent attacks, threats and accusations are symptoms arising from an anti-Christian milieu of distrust and misinformation that the Turkish state allows to exist.

The report cites both negative portrayal in the media and state bodies or officials that “have created a ‘crime’ entitled ‘missionary activities,’ identifying it with a certain faith community” as being primarily responsible for the enmity felt towards Christians.

It urges the government to develop effective media watchdog mechanisms to ensure the absence of intolerant or inflammatory programs, and that the state help make the public aware of the rights of Turkish citizens of all faiths.

Report from Compass Direct News


Assailant influenced by TV series defaming Christian missionaries.

ISTANBUL, January 12 (Compass Direct News) – A judge in Turkey sentenced a 19-year-old Muslim to four-and-a-half years in prison on Jan. 5 for stabbing a Catholic priest in the coastal city of Izmir in December 2007.

Ramazan Bay, then 17, had met with Father Adriano Franchini, a 65-year-old Italian and long-term resident of Turkey, after expressing an interest in Christianity following mass at St. Anthony church. During their conversation, Bay became irritated and pulled out a knife, stabbing the priest in the stomach.

Fr. Franchini was hospitalized but released the next day as his wounds were not critical.

Bay, originally from Balikesir 90 miles north of Izmir, reportedly said he was influenced by an episode of the TV serial drama “Kurtlar Vadisi” (“Valley of the Wolves”). The series caricatures Christian missionaries as political “infiltrators” who pay poor families to convert to Christianity.

“Valley of the Wolves” also played a role in a foiled attack on another Christian leader in December 2007. Murat Tabuk reportedly admitted under police interrogation that the popular ultra-nationalist show had inspired him to plan the murder of Antalya pastor Ramazan Arkan. The plan was thwarted, with the pastor receiving armed police protection and Antalya’s anti-terrorism police bureau ordering plainclothes guards to accompany him.

Together with 20 other Protestant church leaders, Arkan on Dec. 3, 2007 filed a formal complaint with the Istanbul State Prosecutor’s office protesting “Valley of the Wolves” for “presenting them as a terrorist group and broadcasting scenes making them an open target.”

The series has portrayed Christians as selling body parts, being involved in mafia activities and prostitution and working as enemies of society in order to spread the Christian faith.

“The result has been innumerable, direct threats, attacks against places of worship and eventually, the live slaughter of three innocent Christians in Malatya,” the complaint stated.

The Protestant leaders demanded that Show TV and the producers of “Valley of the Wolves” be prosecuted under sections 115, 214, 215, 216 and 288 of the Turkish penal code for spreading false information and inciting violence against Christians.

The past three years saw six separate attacks on priests working across the country, the most serious of which resulted in the death of Father Andreas Santoro in Trabzon. As with Fr. Franchini, many of the attacks were coupled with accusations of subversion and “proselytizing.”

Although a secular republic, Turkey has a strong nationalistic identity of which Islam is an integral part.

Television shows such as “Valley of the Wolves” may not be the norm, but the recent publication of a state high school textbook in which “missionary activity” is also characterized as destructive and dangerous has raised questions about Turkey’s commitment to addressing prejudice and discrimination.

“While there is a general attitude [of antipathy], I think that the state feeds into it and propagates it,” said a spokesperson for the Alliance of Protestant Churches of Turkey (TEK). “If the State took a more accepting and more tolerant attitude I think the general attitude would change too.”

At the end of 2007 TEK issued a summery of the human rights violations that their members had suffered that year. As part of a concluding appeal they urged the state to stop an “indoctrination campaign” aimed at vilifying the Christian community.

TEK will soon release its rights violations summery for 2008, and it is likely that a similar plea will be made.

“There is police protection, and they have caught some people,” the TEK spokesperson said. “There is an active part of the state trying to prevent things, but the way it is done very much depends on the situation and how at that moment the government is feeling as far as putting across a diplomatic and political statement. There is hypocrisy in it.”

A survey carried out in 2005 by the Pew Global Attitudes Project also suggested a distinctly negative attitude towards Christians among Turks, with 63 percent describing their view of Christians as “unfavorable,” the highest rate among countries surveyed.

Niyazi Oktem, professor of law at Bilgi University and president of a prominent inter-faith organization in Turkey called the Intercultural Dialogue Platform, said that while the government could do more to secure religious freedom, he would not characterize Turkish sentiment towards Christians as negative.

“I can say that general Turkish feeling towards the Christian religion is not hostile,” said Oktem. “There could be, of course, some exceptions, but this is also the case in Christian countries towards Islam.”

Report from Compass Direct News