Lawyer Calls Turkish Christians’ Trial a ‘Scandal’

Evidence still absent in case for ‘insulting Turkishness and Islam.’

SILIVRI, Turkey, October 16 (CDN) — After three prosecution witnesses testified yesterday that they didn’t even know two Christians on trial for “insulting Turkishness and Islam,” a defense lawyer called the trial a “scandal.”

Speaking after yesterday’s hearing in the drawn-out trial, defense attorney Haydar Polat said the case’s initial acceptance by a state prosecutor in northwestern Turkey was based only on a written accusation from the local gendarmerie headquarters unaccompanied by any documentation.

“It’s a scandal,” Polat said. “It was a plot, a planned one, but a very unsuccessful plot, as there is no evidence.”

Turkish Christians Hakan Tastan and Turan Topal were arrested in October 2006; after a two-day investigation they were charged with allegedly slandering Turkishness and Islam while talking about their faith with three young men in Silivri, an hour’s drive west of Istanbul.

Even the three prosecution witnesses who appeared to testify at Thursday’s (Oct. 15) hearing failed to produce any evidence whatsoever against Tastan and Topal, who could be jailed for up to two years if convicted on three separate charges.

Yesterday’s three witnesses, all employed as office personnel for various court departments in Istanbul, testified that they had never met or heard of the two Christians on trial. The two court employees who had requested New Testaments testified that they had initiated the request themselves.

The first witness, a bailiff in a Petty Offenses Court in Istanbul for the past 28 years, declared he did not know the defendants or anyone else in the courtroom.

But he admitted that he had responded to a newspaper ad about 10 years ago to request a free New Testament. After telephoning the number to give his address, he said, the book arrived in the mail and is still in his home.

He also said he had never heard of the church mentioned in the indictment, although he had once gone to a wedding in a church in Istanbul’s Balikpazari district, where a large Armenian Orthodox church is located.

“This is the extent of what I know about this subject,” he concluded.

Fidgeting nervously, a second witness stated, “I am not at all acquainted with the defendants, nor do I know any of these participants. I was not a witness to any one of the matters in the indictment. I just go back and forth to my work at the Istanbul State Prosecutors’ office.”

The third person to testify reiterated that he also had no acquaintance with the defendants or anyone in the courtroom. But he stated under questioning that he had entered a website on the Internet some five or six years ago that offered a free New Testament.

“I don’t know or remember the website’s name or contents,” the witness said, “but after checking the box I was asked for some of my identity details, birth date, job, cell phone – I don’t remember exactly what.”

Noting that many shops and markets asked for the same kind of information, the witness said, “I don’t see any harm in that,” adding that he would not be an open person if he tried to hide all his personal details.

For the next hearing set for Jan. 28, 2010, the court has repeated its summons to three more prosecution witnesses who failed to appear yesterday: a woman employed in Istanbul’s security police headquarters and two armed forces personnel whose whereabouts had not yet been confirmed by the population bureau.

Case ‘Demands Acquittal’

Polat said after the hearing that even though the Justice Ministry gave permission in February for the case to continue under Turkey’s controversial Article 301, a loosely-defined law that criminalizes insulting the Turkish nation, “in my opinion the documents gathered in the file demand an acquittal.”

“There is no information, no document, no details, nothing,” Polat said. “There is just a video, showing the named people together, but what they are saying cannot be heard. It was shot in an open area, not a secret place, and there is no indication it was under any pressure.”

But prosecution lawyer Murat Inan told Compass, “Of course there is evidence. That’s why the Justice Ministry continued the case. This is a large ‘orgut’ [a term connoting an illegal and armed organization], and they need to be stopped from doing this propaganda here.”

At the close of the hearing, Inan told the court that there were missing issues concerning the judicial legality and activities of the “Bible research center” linked with the defendants that needed to be examined and exposed.

Turkish press were conspicuously absent at yesterday’s hearing, and except for one representative of the Turkish Protestant churches, there were no observers present.

The first seven hearings in the trial had been mobbed by dozens of TV and print journalists, focused on ultranationalist lawyer Kemal Kerincsiz, who led a seven-member legal team for the prosecution.

But since the January 2008 jailing of Kerincsiz and Sevgi Erenerol, who had accompanied him to all the Silivri trials, Turkish media interest in the case has dwindled. The two are alleged co-conspirators in the massive Ergenekon cabal accused of planning to overthrow the Turkish government.

This week the European Commission’s new “Turkey 2009 Progress Report” spelled out concerns about the problems of Turkey’s non-Muslim communities.

“Missionaries are widely perceived as a threat to the integrity of the country and to the Muslim religion,” the Oct. 14 report stated. “Further efforts are needed to create an environment conducive to full respect of freedom of religion in particular.”

In specific reference to Tastan and Topal’s case, the report noted: “A court case against two missionaries in Silivri continued; it was also expanded after the Ministry of Justice allowed judicial proceedings under Article 301 of the Criminal Code.”

The Turkish constitution guarantees freedom of religion to all its citizens, and the nation’s legal codes specifically protect missionary activities.

“I trust our laws on this. But psychologically, our judges and prosecutors are not ready to implement this yet,” Polat said. “They look at Christian missionaries from their own viewpoint; they aren’t able to look at them in a balanced way.”

Report from Compass Direct News 


Judge ignores video evidence of officers’ unwarranted, violent attack on café.

ISTANBUL January 29 (Compass Direct News) – Following a brutal raid on six Christian brothers and their café because they had opened for business during Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting, a judge on Jan. 22 sentenced them to three years in prison with hard labor for resisting arrest and assaulting authorities.

Last September, 13 police officers raided the café in Port Sa’id, a city in Egypt’s Nile delta, overturning tables, breaking chairs and smashing glasses and hookah pipes, according to the Coptic Christians’ lawyer. They beat the brothers with sticks, leaving two with broken arms and a third needing 11 stitches for a head wound.

“The police attacked these people and assaulted them unjustifiably,” said Ramses el-Nagar, the Christians’ lawyer. “Police did not want to see people eating during Ramadan. This is unfair, because whatever people’s beliefs are, the law is something else and they should not be mixed.”

There is no law in Egypt under which the brothers could be prosecuted for opening their café during Ramadan. When they tried to defend their café, the brothers, all in their 30s, were arrested on Sept. 8 and charged with resisting arrest and assaulting authorities. They were held for 30 days before being released on bail, set at 12,000 Egyptian pounds (US$2,173).

At the trial last week, defense counsel showed a video of the incident shot by an onlooker as evidence of police brutality. The footage did not sway Judge Mohammed Hassan El-Mahmody, prompting some Coptic activists to claim religious zeal and prejudice as the true motives behind the convictions.

“The police very often pressure the Copts to accept unfair situations,” said El-Nagar. “Unfortunately, with the power of the police and Egypt being a police state, we don’t have the inclination to take the police to court.”

The names of the imprisoned Christian brothers are Ashraf Morris Ghatas; Magdy Morris Ghatas; Osama Morris Ghatas; Nabil Morris Ghatas; Walid Morris Ghatas; and Hany Morris Ghatas.

Ibrahim Habib, chairman of advocacy group United Copts of Great Britain, told Compass that Egypt needs to take certain steps for progress toward justice.

“What we would like to see is the government implementing the law, showing fairness, maintaining total separation between the state and religion, and removing the second article from the Egyptian constitution,” which makes Islamic law the source of statutory law, he said. “We would like to see Egypt free and treating all citizens equally.”

El-Nagar has 30 days to appeal the decision before the Court of Cassation, a high appeals tribunal. He said he plans to do so.  

Report from Compass Direct News


Neighbors threaten his family, demand destruction of house used for church services.

JAKARTA, July 24 (Compass Direct News) – Officials in Cipayung district, East Jakarta, have ordered Pastor Chris Ambessa of the Protestant Church of Indonesia to dismantle the newly constructed second floor of his home and to cease all religious activity in the area.

Ambessa’s lawyer, August Pasaribu, told Compass on Monday (July 21) that he planned to submit a letter to the Cipayung civil engineering department asking it to cancel the July 3 order to dismantle the second floor of the home, since the demand was in breach of local regulations. Authorities’ order to cease area religious activity for an indefinite period followed on July 13.

Pasaribu said he also hoped to file a report with the East Jakarta police department regarding an incident on May 21, in which Ambessa’s neighbors forced him to sign a document agreeing to cease religious activity.

Ambessa, however, is still weighing the likely consequences of legal action for his family and congregation.

The pastor’s home in Pondok Rangon village has functioned as a legally recognized house church for the past 12 years.

On June 6, authorities sent a letter ordering him to cease work on the second-floor extension. Construction, however, had already been completed on May 17.

When church services continued, approximately 20 young men led by a local resident approached the Cipayung district offices on June 25, demanding that Ambessa’s house be demolished.

On May 21, a similar neighborhood group had threatened Ambessa and forced him to sign a document stating that he would cease holding church services in his home. Ambessa told Compass that he had signed the document under duress, fearing attacks on his wife and daughters.

Having established his small congregation in 1996 with the requisite permission from neighbors and civic authorities, Ambessa said he was determined to protect the right of his church members to worship freely.


A Positive Influence

The pastor began his ministry in the village in February 1995, working with young men in the village who were drinking at night and disturbing local residents.

By April 1996, the young men had given up drinking and were attending church services. The neighborhood Public Order official, a volunteer with a wide range of responsibilities from overseeing garbage collection to resolving community disputes, made a point of thanking Ambessa for his positive influence in the community.

In May 1996, local Public Order officials and the head of Cipayung district gave Ambessa permission to hold services in his rented home. Ambessa also sought and received permission from 70 neighbors to establish a house of worship, meeting the requirements of a 1969 Joint Ministerial Decree (SKB) regulating places of worship.

After purchasing the house in 2002, Ambessa decided to extend the building to cater to his growing congregation.

Officials in Cipayung, however, had created a new regulation requiring churches to apply for a special religious building permit (Ijin Mendirikan Bangunan or IMB), considerably more expensive than an ordinary building permit. Realizing the prohibitive cost and the difficulty of obtaining such a permit, and on the grounds that the building was a residential home, Ambessa decided to proceed with the extension without applying for a religious IMB.

As one Compass source noted, enforcement of building regulations is notoriously inconsistent in Indonesia. Many private homes are built or extended without building permits, and mosques are often built or extended without a religious IMB – but the law is applied more stringently to churches.


Confusion Over New Regulation

Neighbors objected to the extension based on a revision of the 1969 SKB that came into effect on March 21, 2006, officially known as Perber 60/90. Issued by the Minister of Home Affairs and the Minister of Religious Affairs, the decree spelled out conditions for the construction of new churches as opposed to existing churches.

Under the revised decree, new churches must be clearly identified as such, with a cross on the roof and a design “appropriate to a place of worship.” At least 60 immediate neighbors must approve the construction project, along with Public Order officials, the head of the village and district, and the “local community harmony forum” (Forum Kerukunan Umat Beragama), consisting of a panel of residents from different faiths.

In addition, the church must have at least 90 adult members.

The decree applied only to new church construction projects and therefore not to Ambessa’s home-based congregation, in existence since 1996. Neighbors, however, were confused about the new regulation and demanded that it be applied to Ambessa’s church.

On July 13, a contingent of local officials – including a senior police officer, the head of Pondok Rangon village and the head of Cipayung district – arrived at Ambessa’s home and asked him to cease all religious activity for an indefinite period to alleviate rising tensions.

Ambessa complied on July 15, calling a halt to church services. He then obtained a lawyer, Pasaribu, to defend both his home and his congregation’s freedom to worship as outlined in Article 29(b) of Indonesia’s constitution, which says, “The state guarantees the freedom of every citizen to hold his/her own religion and to worship according to his/her religion or faith.”

Report from Compass Direct News