Case against two converts drags on; media already passed sentenced on Christianity.

ISTANBUL, November 12 (Compass Direct News) – Two years into a trial for “insulting Turkishness” that has been light on evidence and heavy on mud-slinging at Turkey’s Protestant community, a court proceeding last week brought no progress.

Another witness for the prosecution failed to appear in the trial of Turkish Christians Turan Topal and Hakan Tastan, charged with “insulting Turkishness” and spreading Christianity through illegal methods. Moreover, a Justice Ministry answer to the court about the viability of charges under Turkey’s controversial Article 301 had yet to arrive at the court last week.

In the last hearing in June, Silivri Criminal Court Judge Mehmet Ali Ozcan ordered a review of the two Christian converts’ alleged violations of the controversial article of the Turkish penal code on “insulting Turkishness.” But the court is still waiting for the Justice Ministry to decide whether they can be tried under Article 301 of the penal code.

The judge set the next hearing for Feb. 24, 2009 while the court awaits a response on whether the Christians can be charged under the controversial article.

Topal and Tastan are still charged with reviling Islam (Article 216) and compiling information files on private citizens (Article 135).

In what critics called “cosmetic” revisions of Article 301, the Turkish government amended it in May to require Justice Ministry permission to file such cases. Put into effect on May 8, the changes also redefined the vague offense of “insulting Turkishness” to read “insulting the Turkish nation.”

While the court awaited a decision on Article 301, in the hearing on Nov. 4 it did free the defendants from forced attendance at future hearings. This, according to defense lawyer Haydar Polat, was the only progress made by the court; he added that a witness or evidence would have been better. For lack of these, he said, the prosecution has needlessly dragged out the case.

“In both cases [against them], the only acceptable progress is the testimony of a witness,” said Polat. “Then again, the fact that the defendants are free from having to attend every trial is in a sense progress too.”


Lame Witnesses

The initial charges prepared by the Silivri state prosecutor 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.

Despite a court summons sent to the Silivri and Istanbul gendarme headquarters requesting six named gendarme soldiers to testify as prosecution witnesses in the case, none have stepped forward to testify.

“They will be called in the next hearing as well,” Polat told Compass.

At the June 24 hearing, two teenage witnesses for the prosecution declared they did not know the defendants and had never seen them before facing them in the courtroom. Several witnesses have failed to show up on various trial dates, and last week another witness called by prosecution, Fatih Kose, did not appear.

“There is no lack of witnesses, but as far as we are concerned, these characters’ accounts are irrelevant to the truth and full of contradictions,” said Polat. “I mean there is no believable and persuasive argument, nor a coherent witness.”

Last week a police officer from the precinct where Topal and Tastan were allegedly seen doing missionary activities was summoned to court to testify. He told the court that he indeed worked in the precinct but knew nothing about the activities of the two Christians.

Eleven months ago, the appointed prosecutor himself had demanded that the court acquit the two Christians, declaring there was “not a single concrete, credible piece of evidence” to support the accusations against them. This prosecutor was removed from the case, and two months later the judge hearing the case withdrew over prosecution complaints that he was not impartial.

Two key figures pressing the Article 301 charges and promoting sensational media coverage of the Silivri trial proceedings are now jailed themselves, unable to attend the hearings.

Both ultranationalist lawyer Kemal Kerincsiz and spokesperson Sevgi Erenerol of the Turkish Orthodox Church – a Turkish nationalist denomination with no significant following – are accused of playing leading roles in Ergenekon, an ultranationalist cabal of retired generals, politicians, journalists and mafia members under investigation for conspiracy.

Since mid-January, 47 people have been jailed and face trial for involvement in the alleged crime network, said to have orchestrated numerous killings and violence as part of a nationalist plot to overthrow the Turkish government by 2009.

Asked about the chances of closing the case that has made no progress for two years due to lack of evidence against the defendants, Polat said he was hopeful his clients would find justice in the Turkish legal labyrinth.

“As lawyers, we believe that both of our clients will be acquitted,” he said. “Come February we expect that the Justice Ministry will not approve the opening of a public case on the basis of ‘insulting Turkishness.’”


Slandering Christians

The trial of Topal and Tastan has included its share of mud-slinging at Turkish Protestants, estimated at 3,000 to 3,500 people in a country of 70 million, deepening the nation’s prejudices against them.

This legal battle has been less about guilt or innocence and more about tainting the community’s image, according to a member of the legal committee of the Alliance of Protestant Churches in Turkey.

The Christian Turk from the legal committee told Compass that in 2006, when the charges against Topal and Tastan first came to light, there were news reports for days claiming that Christians tricked children in elementary schools, paid people to come to church and gave women away for sex, among other absurd assertions.

“The goal was to create disinformation, and they succeeded at portraying Christians in a negative light,” he said.

The source said that this was the primary goal of ultranationalist lawyer Kerincsiz’s team, which he believes is behind the cases brought against Topal and Tastan as well as the delay in the outcome.

“On the first day of the hearings, when the case opened, I told those around me that nothing would come of this case,” he said.

The legal committee member said media created a psychological war against Turkish Christians. Other members of the Protestant community believe another goal was to deter any evangelism or outreach by Turkish Christians.

“It was to discourage the whole Christian community and quash them and discourage evangelism,” said another source.

The member of the legal committee said he believes that eventually Topal and Tastan will be acquitted. But even if they win the court case, the damage from the publicity war on the church will not be as easy to repair.

“I think everything will stay the same, because the case won’t be reported in the news,” he said. “The issue was not about whether these two were guilty or not. When this first broke out it was in the news for days. When it is over it will barely make it to a newspaper corner, and we won’t be able to give a message for the public because we don’t wield media power. We comfortably carry our quiet voice, and we will until then.”  

Report from Compass Direct News


One pastor missing, three others reported killed in past month.

COCHABAMBA, Bolivia, November 4 – Christians in Colombia are anxious to learn the fate of pastor William Reyes, missing since Sept. 25, even as three other pastors have gone missing.

Reyes, a minister of the Light and Truth Inter-American Church and member of the Fraternity of Evangelical Pastors of Maicao (FRAMEN, Fraternidad de Ministros Evangélicos de Maicao), left a meeting in Valledupar, Cesar, at 10 a.m. that morning heading home to Maicao, La Guajira. He never arrived.

Family members and fellow ministers fear that Reyes may have been murdered by illegal armed groups operating in northern Colombia. Since March of this year, FRAMEN has received repeated threats from both the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and right-wing paramilitary units.

Abduction is another possibility. Often criminals hold their victims for weeks or months before contacting family members to demand ransom, a tactic designed to maximize the anxiety of the victim’s loved ones before proceeding with ransom negotiations.

In the past month, three other Christian pastors were reportedly killed in separate incidents across the country. According to Pedro Acosta of the Peace Commission of the Evangelical Council of Colombia (CEDECOL, Consejo Evangélico de Colombia), two ministers died in the northern Caribbean region and a third in Buenaventura on the Pacific coast.

At press time, members of the Peace Commission’s Documentation and Advocacy team, which monitors cases of political violence and human rights abuse, were traveling in those areas to verify the identities of the victims and circumstances of the killings.


Demand for Action

On Oct. 4, churches organized a public demonstration to protest the disappearance of Reyes. Thousands of marchers filled the streets of Maicao to demand his immediate return to his family. The FRAMEN-sponsored rally featured hymns, sermons and an address from Reyes’s wife, Idia.

Idia Reyes continues to work as secretary of FRAMEN while awaiting news of her husband. The couple has three children, William, 19, Luz Mery, 16, and Estefania, 9.

CEDECOL and Justapaz, a Mennonite Church-based organization that assists violence victims, launched a letter-writing campaign to draw international attention to the case and request government action to help locate Reyes.

“We are grateful for the outpouring of prayer and support from churches in Canada, the United States, Sweden and the United Kingdom,” stated an Oct. 26 open letter from Janna Hunter Bowman of Justapaz and Michael Joseph of CEDECOL’s Peace Commission. “Human rights violations of church people and of the civilian population at large are ongoing in Colombia. Last year the Justapaz Peace Commission program registered the murder of four pastors and 22 additional homicides of lay leaders and church members.”

Some of those killings may have been carried out by members of the Colombian Armed Forces, according to evidence emerging in recent weeks. Prosecutors and human rights groups have released evidence that some military units abduct and murder civilians, dress their bodies in combat fatigues and catalogue them as insurgents killed in battle.

According to an Oct. 29 report in The New York Times, soldiers commit the macabre murders for the two-fold purpose of “social cleansing” – the extrajudicial elimination of criminals, drug users and gang members – and to gain promotions and bonuses.

The scandal prompted President Alvaro Uribe to announce on Wednesday (Oct. 29) that he had dismissed more than two dozen soldiers and officers, among them three generals, implicated in the murders.

Justapaz has documented the murder of at least one evangelical Christian at the hands of Colombian soldiers. José Ulises Martínez served in a counterinsurgency unit until two years ago, but left the army “because what he had to do was not coherent with his religious convictions,” according to his brother, pastor Reinel Martínez.

Martínez was working at a steady job and serving as a leader of young adults in the Christian Crusade Church in Cúcuta on Oct. 29, 2007, when two acquaintances still on active duty convinced him to go with them to Bogotá to request a pension payment from the army. He called his girlfriend the following day to say he had arrived safely in the capital.

That was the last she or his family heard from him.

Two weeks later, Martínez’s parents reported his disappearance to the prosecutor’s office in Cúcuta. The ensuing investigation revealed that on Oct. 1, 2007, armed forces officers had presented photographs of Martinez’s body dressed in camouflage and identified as a guerrilla killed in combat. Later the family learned that Martínez was killed in Gaula, a combat zone 160 kilometers (100 miles) northeast of Bogotá.

Such atrocities threaten to mar the reputation of Colombia’s Armed Forces just as the military is making remarkable gains against the FARC and other insurgent groups. Strategic attacks against guerrilla bases eliminated key members of the FARC high command in 2008. A daring July 2 rescue of one-time presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt and 14 other high-profile FARC hostages was greeted with jubilation around the world.

Yet in Colombia’s confused and convoluted civil war, Christians are still targeted for their role in softening the resolve of both insurgent and paramilitary fighters.

“I believe preventative security measures must be taken in order to protect victims from this scourge that affects the church,” Acosta said in reference to the ongoing threats to Colombian Christians. “In comparison to information from earlier [years], the cases of violations have increased.”

Report from Compass Direct News