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 

Iran Arrests, Coerces Christians over Christmas Season

Authorities threaten to take ailing daughter from parents.

ISTANBUL, January 6 (CDN) — A wave of arrests hit Iranian house churches during the Christmas season, leaving at least five Christian converts in detention across northern Iran, including the mother of an ailing 10-year-old girl.

Security officers with an arrest warrant from the Mashhad Revolutionary Court entered the home of Christian Hamideh Najafi in Mashhad on Dec. 16. After searching her home and confiscating personal belongings, including books and compact discs, police took her to an undisclosed location, according to Farsi Christian News Network (FCNN).

FCNN reported that on Dec. 30 the Mashhad Revolutionary Court sentenced Najafi to three months of house arrest and ordered that her daughter, who suffers from a kidney condition, be placed under foster care. Because of the seriousness of the girl’s illness, however, she was left in the custody of her parents – on the condition that they cease believing in Christ and stop speaking publicly of their faith, FCNN reported.

Najafi was denied access to a lawyer during this court hearing, according to FCNN.

During interrogation, officers told Najafi to return to Islam and to disclose names of Christian evangelists. FCNN reported that on some occasions the security officers summoned her husband, blindfolded him and threatened to beat him in front of his wife if she would not sign a confession that she was “mentally and psychologically unfit and disturbed.”

The Dec. 30 court hearing was quickly arranged after she was coerced into signing this confession, FCNN reported, and on those grounds her child was initially ordered to be taken from her. Najafi’s daughter suffers from a severe kidney and bladder condition.

There were no formal charges against Najafi, but she stands accused of contacting a foreign Christian television network, which court officials labeled as a “political” crime, according to FCNN.

Advocacy group Middle East Concern reported that sources believe authorities forced Najafi’s sister to file a complaint against her on these grounds.

The officers who came to arrest Najafi said that portraits of Jesus hanging on her wall would be enough to convict her in court, reported FCNN. 

Arrests and Harassment

Compass has confirmed that authorities disrupted Christmas celebrations of two house groups in the Tehran area on Dec. 21 and Dec. 29, leaving four in prison. Other members attending the special services were also questioned.

In Shiraz, last week at least eight Christians arrested and released over a year ago were called in for questioning about their activities in the past year. They were all released after a few hours.

In Rasht, Pastor Yousef Nadarkhani is still in prison after being arrested on Oct. 13. Nadarkhani is married and has two children under the age of 10.

A source told Compass that another Christian identified as Shaheen, who had been in prison since July 31 when a special meeting of 24 Christians was raided in Fashan, north of Tehran, was released in November. He was the last of the six believers arrested at that meeting to be released.

Apart from arrests, Iranian Christians continue to endure discrimination. A source told Compass that one Christian was denied renewal of his truck driving license last week. When he asked why, authorities told him he was an enemy of the state.

The Christian had been arrested three years earlier because of his faith.

Report from Compass Direct News 

Iranian Christian was arrested and took to unknown place

Farsi Christian News Network (FCNN), reports that at 8 am on December 16, 2009, several security officers entered the home of Hamideh Najafi, a Christian lady who resides in the city of Mashhad, and not only searched her home thoroughly, but also arrested and took her away to an unknown location.

According to this news three security officers, two female and one male, who carried an order for arrest from the Revolutionary Court of Mashhad, entered the home of this lady and after searching the her home seized her personal belongings along with books, CDs, and hand painted portraits of Jesus Christ that were hanging on her walls. According to these officers the existence of these pictures will be sufficient evidence that would convict her in court.

Even though Mashhad is the birthplace of Ayatollah Khamenei, the supreme leader of the Islamic Republic, and is considered one of the holiest centers of the Shiite faith (Ghom being the other center in Iran) and also a center of pilgrimage and theological schools, in the recent years there have been significant growth of the underground home based churches.

Mashhad is an ultra-religious city where Rev. Hossein Soodmand, one of the recent Martyrs of the church in Iran was executed on December 3, 1990 at the Mashhad prison and was buried in a trash dump site outside of the city.

According to FCNN, after 10 days of her arrest there has been no telephone contact or visitation granted to the family of Hamideh.

Despite the worries about her well-being and the location of her detention, coupled with her husband’s frantic efforts to contact the Revolutionary Court of Mashhad in order to have information as to the nature of the charges against Hamideh, unfortunately as of now the officials have refused to provide any answers or information. When her husband finally decided to retain a lawyer in order to investigate his wife’s condition, the court officials notified him that the accusations were political in nature and she would be charged for contacting foreign Christian television networks.

This incident is based on the yet-to-be-defined laws of the Islamic Republic of Iran regarding what constitutes a political crime and calling a religious television program does not constitute a political crime.

Its is probable that Hamideh Najafi is currently being held at a detention center on the Vakil Abbad Blvd., next to the Mashhad prison, in order to be fully interrogated and confessions be obtained for future court trial.

She has a 10 years old daughter that is currently suffering from a severe kidney and bladder infection that only her mother is capable of nursing her. According to news received this little girl’s condition, due to missing her mother and being away from her, is not well at all and during the last 10 days, she has not been able to attend school.

The Committee of Christian Activists of the Human Rights in Iran, not only expresses its serious concerns regarding the condition of this Christian woman and the baseless accusations of political crimes that have been filed against her, but it is equally worried about the physical and psychological condition of the 10 years old daughter of Hamideh Najafi who needs her mother, and demands an immediate investigation and speedy freedom of this Christian lady.

Report from the Christian Telegraph 


A leading Chinese Christian human rights organization says a prominent House Church leader has been re-arrested, and that another Chinese believer will stand trial this week, reports Michael Ireland, chief correspondent, ASSIST News Service.

ChinaAid says in two media releases made available to the Press, that at 6 a.m. on March 21, 2009, more than a dozen police officers arrested and interrogated Pastor “Bike” Zhang Mingxuan, head of the more than 250,000-member Chinese House Church Alliance.

ChinaAid says officers confiscated three cell phones, bank cards and more than 150,000 yuan from one of the accounts, before forcefully searching him and threatening him with death.

In its media release, ChinaAid says: “Three hours later, Beijing authorities turned Pastor Bike over to three police officers from Pastor Bike’s hometown in Nanyang city, Henan province. Police then escorted Pastor Bike back to Nanyang by train, and where he was questioned by local police. Beijing authorities later returned the bank cards and cell phones, but kept the 150,000 yuan.”

The following is Pastor Bike’s statement regarding the arrest and the events leading up to the arrest, made available to Western media:

Complaints by Pastor Bike Zhang: Illegally Arrested and Property Confiscated by Beijing PSB

“I (Pastor Bike Zhang Mingxuan) was informed about the apartment contract dispute case by Chaoyang District Court, Beijing [Pastor Bike and his family were illegally forced from their apartment in October 2008 by the apartment owner who was being pressured from government authorities.]. We (my younger son and friends) arrived at Yanjiao town, Hebei province at 10 p.m. on March 16, 2009.

“At 8:00 a.m. on the 17th, Beijing PSB officer Jianfeng Liang, who arrested me before the Olympic Games, called and wanted to have a friendly visit with me. I knew he was pretending. He insisted that he needed to see me that day. We met in a restaurant in Beiguan, Tongzhou at noon.

“From March 17 to 19, we stayed in Yanjiao town, Hebei. On March 20, I was at Brother Wu’s home to baptize his sister-in-law. Due to the lateness of the hour [when the baptism was over] and the heavy traffic, I decided to stay at Brother Wu’s home that night.

“At 6 a.m. on March 21, more than a dozen policemen and local leaders arrived from Yongle town, Tongzhou district. They pulled up in three cars and stopped by Wu’s house. They arrested and interrogated me, and confiscated my three cell phones and bank cards. They harshly interrogated me, and forced me to their office in Yongle town. The plainclothes officers did not show their IDs. They searched me all over my body. They abused me and threatened to kill me. They forcibly confiscated my three mobile phones and bank cards (a Communication Bank card; a Pacific Bank Card which had 150,000 yuan in deposits). They said they were temporarily seizing it. At 9 a.m., they told me that my friends from my hometown wanted to see me. I met three policemen who came from Nanyang city in Henan Province. They had already arrived at Beijing on the 20th. Beijing authorities handed me over to the three policemen. At that time I responded to them. The PSB of Beijing had already premeditated to attack me through Officer Jianfeng Liang.

“The three policemen and I rode back to Nanyang by train (number k183). We arrived at Nanyang city at 6:00 am. They arranged for me to stay at Wenqun hotel. A PSB officer asked about all my travels over the past days, and told me the reason they wanted to know is because Beijing officers requested the information. I was released at 5:00pm. They returned my cell phones and my blank bank cards. They said the debit card (which had 150,000 Yuan deposits) was being held by the PSB of Beijing.”

Pastor Bike states: “I am not against the law as a citizen.

“The police arrested me and detained my property illegally. They deprived me of my human rights as a citizen, freedom and right of residence. They arrested me several times during the Olympic Games. They beat my son. After the Olympic Games, they promised to allow my family to live in Beijing, but they lied. This is arbitrary deprivation of civil rights. I implore people of conscience in the international community, as well as Christians worldwide to pray for the Chinese public security authorities in Beijing, that they would realize their offense. Please pray that our Lord Jesus Christ would change their hearts, that they would stop persecuting house churches. Pray for the revival of China in true faith, and for the reality of harmonious policy by the Central Government.”

Meanwhile, in another high-profile case, ChinaAid says that Shi Weihan, who has been in prison since March 19, 2008 for printing and distributing Christian books and Bibles without government permission, will stand trial at the People’s Court of Haidan District, Beijing on April 9 at 9 a.m. local time.

In its media release on this case, ChinaAid says: “Over the past months, several scheduled court appearances have been postponed. Shi Weihan’s official charge is for ‘illegal business practices,’ however, a judge has held, at least twice, that there is not sufficient evidence to convict him on this charge. Nevertheless, police have continued to hold Shi Weihan in order collect additional evidence to gain a conviction.”

ChinaAid reports that sources report that Shi Weihan did sign a confession stating that he had printed books and Bibles without government permission, but that they had been given away as gifts, not sold. Therefore, his actions did not constitute “illegal business practices.”

According to ChinaAid sources, in the confession Shi Weihan stated that his reason for printing the books was that many churches and Christians lacked Bibles and Christian literature, which made them vulnerable to cults. Sources say Shi Weihan also stated that he had observed the change that occurred wherever the books and Bibles were available; how people’s lives were transformed and that they became better citizens. Because of that, Shi Weihan maintained that what he had done was with honorable motives and was also good for China.

ChinaAid sources reported, “Shi’s character and good influence on the other prisoners has apparently been noted by prison officials, and he reportedly has had some favor in that setting, although the conditions have been difficult and his health has suffered. … pray that … the judge recognizes what the officials in the prison have [recognized] — that Shi Weihan is a man of great mercy and compassion, that he is a blessing to China ….”

Currently, Shi Weihan’s wife is bearing much of the burden for the family. According to friends, her main concern is caring for their two daughters and continuing the house church work. Authorities continue to pressure the family. ChinaAid calls all Christians and concerned individuals in the international community to speak out on behalf of Shi Weihan and request his immediate release.

Report from the Christian Telegraph