Christians in Turkey Acquitted of ‘Insulting Turkishness’

But court heavily fines them for dubious conviction of collecting personal data.

ISTANBUL, October 19 (CDN) — After four years of legal battle in a Turkish court, a judge acquitted two Christians of insulting Turkey and its people by spreading Christianity, but not without slapping them with a hefty fine for a spurious charge.

Four years ago this month, Turan Topal, 50, and Hakan Tastan, 41, started a legal battle after gendarmerie officers produced false witnesses to accuse them of spreading their faith and allegedly “insulting Turkishness, the military and Islam.”

At the Silivri court an hour west of Istanbul, Judge Hayrettin Sevim on Thursday (Oct. 14) acquitted the defendants of two charges that they had insulted the Turkish state (Article 301) and that they had insulted its people (Article 216) by spreading Christianity. Sevim cited lack of evidence.

He found them guilty, however, of collecting information on citizens without permission (Article 135) and sentenced them to seven months of imprisonment each. The court ruled that the two men could each pay a 4,500 lira (US$3,170) fine instead of serving time, said their lawyer Haydar Polat.

Tastan expressed mixed feelings about the verdicts.

“For both Turan and I, being found innocent from the accusation that we insulted the Turkish people was the most important thing for us, because we’ve always said we’re proud to be Turks,” Tastan said by telephone. “But it is unjust that they are sentencing us for collecting people’s information.”

At the time of their arrests, Topal and Tastan were volunteers with The Bible Research Center, which has since acquired official association status and is now called The Association for Propagating Knowledge of the Bible. The two men had used contact information that individuals interested in Christianity had volunteered to provide on the association’s website.

Administrators of the association stated openly to local authorities that their goal was to disseminate information about Christianity.

The two men and their lawyer said they will be ready to appeal the unjust decision of the court when they have seen the official statement, which the court should issue within a month. Polat said the appeal process will take over a year.

“Why should we have to continue the legal battle and appeal this?” asked Tastan. “We are not responsible for the information that was collected. So why are they fining us for this? So, we continue our legal adventure.”

Still, he expressed qualified happiness.

“We are free from the charges that we have insulted the Turkish state and the people of Turkey and we’re glad for that, but we are sorry about the court’s sentence,” Tastan said. “We’re happy on one hand, and sorry on the other.”

The court hearing lasted just a few minutes, said Polat.

“The judges came to the court hearing ready with their decision,” Polat said. “Their file was complete, and there was neither other evidence nor witnesses.”

Polat was hesitant to comment on whether the decision to convict the men of collecting private data without permission was because they are Christians. He did underline, however, that the court’s decision to fine the men was unjust, and that they plan to appeal it after the court issues an official written verdict.

“This was the court’s decision,” said Polat, “but we believe this is not fair. This decision is inconsistent with the law.”


Christianity on Trial

The initial charges in 2006 against Tastan and Topal were based on “a warning telephone call to the gendarme” claiming that some Christian missionaries were trying to form illegal groups in local schools and making insults against Turkishness, the military and Islam.

In March 2009 the Turkish Ministry of Justice issued a statement claiming that approval to try the two men’s case under the controversial Article 301came in response to the “original” statement by three young men that Topal and Tastan were conducting missionary activities in an effort to show that Islam was a primitive and fictitious religion that results in terrorism, and to portray Turks as a “cursed people.”

Two of the three witnesses, however, stated in court that they didn’t even know Topal and Tastan. The third witness never appeared in court. Prosecutors were unable to produce any evidence indicating the defendants described Islam in these terms. At the same time, they questioned their right to speak openly about Christianity with others.

Polat and his legal partners had based their defense on the premise that Turkey’s constitution grants all citizens freedom to choose, be educated in and communicate their religion, making missionary activities legal.

“This is the point that really needs to be understood,” Polat told Compass last year. “In Turkey, constitutionally speaking, it is not a crime to be a Christian or to disseminate the Christian faith. However, in reality there have been problems.”

The lawyer and the defendants said that prosecuting lawyers gave political dimensions to the case by rendering baseless accusations in a nationalistic light, claiming that missionary activities were carried out by imperialistic countries intending to harm Turkey.

Tastan and Topal became Christians more than 15 years ago and changed their religious identity from Muslim to Christian on their official ID cards.

Initially accompanied by heavy media hype, the case had been led by ultranationalist attorney Kemal Kerincsiz and a team of six other lawyers. Kerincsiz had filed or inspired dozens of Article 301 court cases against writers and intellectuals he accused of insulting the Turkish nation and Islam.

Because of Kerincsiz’s high-level national profile, the first few hearings drew several hundred young nationalist protestors surrounding the Silivri courthouse, under the eye of dozens of armed police. But the case has attracted almost no press attention since Kerincsiz was jailed in January 2008 as a suspect in the overarching conspiracy trials over Ergenekon, a “deep state” operation to destabilize the government led by a cabal of retired generals, politicians and other key figures. The lawyer is accused of an active role in the alleged Ergenekon plot to discredit and overthrow Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party government.

Ergenekon has been implicated in the cases of murdered priest Andreas Santoro, Armenian editor Hrant Dink, and the three Christians in Malatya: Necati Aydin, Ugur Yuksel and Tilmann Geske.

In a separate case, in March of 2009 Tastan and Topal were charged with “illegal collection of funds.” Each paid a fine of 600 Turkish lira (US$360) to a civil court in Istanbul. The verdict could not be appealed in the Turkish legal courts. This ruling referred to the men receiving church offerings without official permission from local authorities.

Report from Compass Direct News

New Evidence Stalls Murder Trial in Malatya, Turkey

Defense lawyers’ absence also prolongs case that court wants closed.

MALATYA, Turkey, April 21 (CDN) — On the eve of three-year commemorations of the murders of three Christians in southeast Turkey, defense lawyers’ absence and new evidence kept a Malatya court from concluding the case here on Thursday (April 15).

Two defense lawyers excused themselves from the hearing, rendering the judges unable to issue a verdict to the five defendants charged with the murders of three Christians in Malatya on April 18, 2007. Turkish Christians Necati Aydin and Ugur Yuksel and German Christian Tilmann Geske, who worked at a publishing house that distributed Christian material in this southeastern Turkish city, were found murdered three years ago.

At Thursday’s hearing, prosecuting lawyers presented a 28-page detailed request that the Malatya case be joined to a plot called Cage Plan, believed to be part of Ergenekon, a “deep state” operation to destabilize the government led by a cabal of retired generals, politicians and other key figures.

The Cage Plan centers on a compact disc found a year ago in the house of a retired naval officer. The plan, to be carried out by 41 named naval officers, termed as “operations” the murders of the three Christians in Malatya, the 2006 assassination of Catholic priest Andreas Santoro and the 2007 slaying of Hrant Dink, Armenian editor-in-chief of the weekly Agos. The aim of the Cage Plan was to destabilize the government by showing its inability to protect Turkey’s minority groups.

Last week newspapers reported that the Cage Plan, aimed at Turkey’s non-Muslim minorities, not only contained a list of names of Protestant Christians who would be targeted, but also named some of their children.

Judges will announce a decision on whether to combine the Malatya murders with the Cage Plan at the next hearing, scheduled for May 14. Hearings for the Cage Plan are expected to begin on June 15.

“If you ask me, unfortunately at this exact moment we are exactly where we started,” said prosecuting lawyer Orhan Kemal Cengiz. “I’m not talking about public awareness. In terms of public awareness, of course our contribution is something substantial. But in terms of evidence and exposing the real network, we couldn’t get anywhere.”

Judges also decided to call a new witness in May. Burak Dogru, a convict serving time in Sivas, wrote a letter to the court accusing suspect Varol Bulent Aral of organizing the murders and offering him money to kill the three Christians.

“When I refused the offer, he told me to forget what I knew, otherwise I would not see the sunlight again,” he wrote in his letter, reported the Hurriyet Daily News.

In the last court hearing two months ago, the court rejected the prosecuting attorney team’s appeal that the Malatya murders be joined to the Ergenekon file, despite a police report showing links between the two cases.

Cengiz said he believes that the Malatya prosecutor is missing an opportunity to collect more evidence that could connect the Malatya murders to the Ergenekon case.

“The Ergenekon prosecutor is drowning in the files,” said Cengiz. “This [Malatya] prosecutor has enough time and resources because he is in a position to have direct contact with first-hand evidence. But I think he is intimidated and is just trying to get rid of the case as soon as possible. This case is a hot potato for the prosecutor, and he just wants to throw it away as soon as possible.”

In February’s hearing, prosecutors detailed accusations against the five young men accused of slaughtering the Christians – Emre Gunaydin, Salih Gürler, Cuma Ozdemir, Hamit Ceker and Abuzer Yildirim – and demanded three consecutive life sentences for each of them if convicted. The five men are charged with murder, being part of a terrorist organization, holding citizens against their will and stealing.

“We may not have proved that this case is linked to Ergenekon and other shadowy networks,” said Cengiz. “But I think we convinced everyone in Turkey that this murder was not committed by [just five men]. We may not convict them, the network, before the court, but we already convicted them in the eyes of the public. I wish, of course, that we could also do that before the law. But at this stage this evidence and this file doesn’t seem to me capable of doing this.”

Graveyard Memorials

In churches and at various memorial services on Sunday (April 18), Christians around Turkey commemorated the deaths of the three slain men.

Scores of people came to the graves of Aydin in Izmir, Tilmann in Malatya and Yuksel in Elazig, an hour northeast of Malatya, to commemorate the deaths. The Malatya murders have become a milestone for the Turkish church, which is also eager for closure on the murder case and justice for those responsible.

“For the church, it’s another one of those events in life which we don’t understand but entrust it to the hands of a loving God who we believe in,” said Zekai Tanyar, chairman of the Association of Protestant Churches in Turkey. “I think one aspect is that the church in Turkey said this does not pull us away from the Lord; we continue to follow Him. It’s probably brought in sort of a depth in some ways, and it has certainly brought in awareness from the worldwide church, and therefore more prayer for Turkey.”

Tanyar said that while churches want to see closure for the sake of the families who lost their loved ones, they also want “the truth, the real culprits and mindsets behind the killings to be revealed somehow. So in a sense, our prayer is that God who is the worker of miracles will work these two contradictory expectations out; a closure and an exposure at the same time.”

Report from Compass Direct News 

Turkish Court Seeks to Link Murder of Christians to ‘Cage Plan’

Scheme to destabilize pro-Islamic government believed to be part of Ergenekon conspiracy.

ISTANBUL, December 29 (CDN) — Malatya’s Third Criminal Court on Friday (Dec. 25) took further steps to connect the murders of three Christians in southeastern Turkey to a Turkish military plan to destabilize the pro-Islamic government.

Evidence surfaced in Turkish press last month linking the murders of the three Christians in the southeastern city of Malatya with army activities to overthrow the government in a special operation called the “Operation Cage Action Plan.” The Malatya prosecutor and plaintiffs on Friday requested that the Istanbul prosecutor further probe links between the Malatya case and the Cage Plan, which included an elaborate scheme to attack Muslim-majority Turkey’s religious minorities.

They also requested that the Malatya court open to plaintiffs the currently “classified” prosecutor’s investigation into links between the Malatya murders and an alleged operation by the military and other political figures to destabilize the government known as Ergenekon.

Evidence of the Cage Plan, believed to be part of Ergenekon, centers on a compact disc found in April in the house of a retired naval officer; it was decrypted and leaked to the press last month. The plan, to be carried out by 41 named naval officers and dated March 2009, termed as “operations” the murders of the three Christians in Malatya, the 2006 assassination of Catholic priest Andreas Santoro and the 2007 slaying of Hrant Dink, Armenian editor-in-chief of the weekly Agos.

“This Cage Plan starts with a reference to the Malatya, Dink and Santoro cases and mentions them as previous ‘operations,’” said one of the plaintiff lawyers, Orhan Kemal Cengiz, adding that a connection of the murders with the Cage Plan would be difficult for any court to ignore.

Hearings for Ergenekon are ongoing in Istanbul. Istanbul prosecutors handling the Ergenekon case sent a response to the Malatya court this month in which they reported they have not been able to find a direct connection with the Malatya murders yet. The Malatya court is waiting for further investigations into possible connections with Ergenekon.

Cengiz said that although investigations are moving slowly, he is pleased with the willingness of the Malatya prosecutor to cooperate and find who is behind the murders.

“I see a good will on the part of the prosecutor,” said Cengiz. “He’s really trying to discover the possible links, and I’m glad to see his effort, and he was helpful and supportive to us. It was important.”

Turkish Christians, Necati Aydin and Ugur Yuksel and German Christian Tilmann Geske were tortured and stabbed to death in Malatya on April 18, 2007 at Zirve Publishing Co., which distributed Bibles and literature in the area.

Suspects Emre Gunaydin, Salih Gürler, Cuma Ozdemir, Hamit Ceker and Abuzer Yildirim, who were caught at the crime scene, are still held in prison in Malatya. Two other suspects, journalist Varol Bulent Aral and Huseyin Yelki, a former volunteer at Zirve, are not under arrest, but the court expects them to attend all hearings.

Aral and Yelki are believed to have crucial links with the alleged masterminds of the murder plot.

The next trial is set for Feb. 19, 2010.

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