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

Muslims Resume Building on Christian Graveyard in Pakistan

Hard-line cleric defies local officials’ order to stop construction.

SARGODHA, Pakistan, September 1 (CDN) — Muslims led by a hard-line cleric on Friday (Aug. 27) resumed building on a Christian cemetery in Mandi Bhawaldin, desecrating more graves in spite of a local government order to halt construction, according to the All Pakistan Minorities Alliance (APMA).

Radical Muslim cleric Mirza Abdul Ghani had built a mosque on the Christian graveyard off New Rasool Road in Mandi Bhawaldin after allegedly occupying the land 16 years ago, when area Christians were too intimidated to object, said Salamat Zia of APMA.

“No one could object to the construction of the mosque, as it is in the constitution of Pakistan that no religious worship place could be demolished,” said Zia. “Therefore all the Christians remained silent then.”

The cleric’s alleged desecration of more of the graveyard land around the Masjid Ahle-Sunnat-Wal-Jamaat mosque began three months ago, Zia said.

“This Christian graveyard was earmarked before the Indo-Pakistan partition on Aug. 14, 1947,” Zia added, “and their forefathers were buried there.”

Zia, a local journalist and resident of the Muhalla Ghorra area in Mandi Bhawaldin, said it initially appeared that Ghani’s workers were building an addition to the mosque, as only pillars had been erected. Now Ghani’s builders have completed a basement as well as possibly some shops, with cement plaster now being applied to the new units.

On Aug. 6 Zia led a seven-member Christian delegation intending to meet with District Coordination Officer (DCO) Muhammad Amin Chaudhary, another district officer named Syed Shahbaz Hussain Naqvi and District Police Officer Dar Ali Khatak of Mandi Bhawaldin about the encroachments on the Christian graveyard and to discuss how the graves of their loved ones were being demolished and desecrated.

As DCO Chaudhary was on leave, Acting DCO Shahid Rana took their application and forwarded it to the District Officer of Revenue and Tehsil Officer of Regulations with directives to visit the site and demolish all encroachments except the Masjid Ahle-Sunnat-Wal-Jamaat mosque, Zia said.

After inspecting the site, the administrative officers issued directives to stop the illegal encroachments, and for a few days the construction was halted, he said.

“But despite the stay orders of stopping construction, the Muslim men restarted construction over the Christian graves on Aug. 27,” Zia said.  

Khalid Gill, chief organizer of APMA in Punjab Province, said that Muslim leaders threatened Christians who objected to the construction.

“They threatened that in case Christians protested against the resumption of construction they would also carry out a protest rally against Christians, and Muslim clerics said Christians would be responsible for the consequences,” Gill said.

APMA has demanded that the government allocate land for a Christian graveyard equivalent to the area allegedly occupied by the Muslims.  

Local Urdu-language dailies in Mandi Bhawaldin have publicized the alleged encroachment on the Christian graveyard.

Report from Compass Direct News

Recent Incidents of Persecution

Uttarakhand, India, April 30 (CDN) — Police arrested Pastor Jaswant Singh after extremists from the Hindu Jagrang Manch (Hindu Awareness Platform) filed a complaint against him of forceful conversion on April 25 in Rooria, Haridwar. A source told Compass that the extremists disrupted the prayer meeting of a house church service the pastor was leading, insulted the Christians’ faith and accused Pastor Singh of forcibly converting people. Police arrived and arrested Pastor Singh under Sections 107 and 10 of the Criminal Procedure Code for security and “keeping the peace,” and he was sent to Roorkie district jail. The pastor was released on bail the next day.

Karnataka – Police on April 19 detained Christians after local extremists filed a false complaint of forcible conversion against them in Hagare village in Hassan district. The Global Council of Indian Christians reported that a Christian identified only as Venkatesh invited two Christians, Guru Gowraiah and Puttuswamy Bhadraiah, to a prayer meeting at Basavaraj Pura. At about 7 p.m. a group of local extremists led by Hindu nationalists identified only as Mohan and Thammaiah disrupted the meeting, verbally abused the 20 people present and falsely accused Gowraiah and Bhadraiah of forcible conversion. Halebeedu police arrived and arrested Gowraiah and Bhadraiah. A police inspector identified only as Ramachandran M. told Compass that they were questioned and released after the complaint against them proved false.

Uttar Pradesh – Police arrested two Christians after Hindu extremists filed a complaint against them of making derogatory remarks against Hindu gods on April 15 in the Mohan area of Unnao. The Evangelical Fellowship of India reported that police arrested Budhi Ram and Vijay Phule of the Church of God as they were leading a prayer meeting. The two Christians were taken to Hassan Ganch police station and released on bail the next day. The Christians denied making any derogatory remarks against Hindu gods.

Chhattisgarh – Police on April 15 arrested four Christians in Bhilai after Hindu nationalists filed a complaint against them of forcible conversion in Bhilai. The Global Council of Indian Christians reported that a group of young members of the Brethren Assembly were distributing Christian literature when a mob of nearly 40 Hindu nationalists from the extremist Bajrang Dal and Dharam Sena attacked them. The Christians suffered cuts and bruises. Police arrived and took both parties to the police station. The All India Christian Council reported that on hearing the news of the attack, local Christian policeman G. Samuel went to help and was also hit with a false allegation of forceful conversion under Chhattisgarh’s “anti-conversion” law. The Christians were released on bail on April 22.

Karnataka – Hindu extremists on April 12 stopped a prayer meeting and accused Christians of forceful conversion in Chandapur, near Bangalore. The All India Christian Council reported that the intolerant Hindus beat the Christians, who sustained minor injuries. Police refused to file a complaint by the Christians.

Kerala – Hindu extremists from the Bajrang Dal accused a Christian media team of forceful conversion and beat them on April 12 in Perambra, Calicut. The All India Christian Council reported that the extremists attacked the media team of the Assemblies of God church while they were screening films on Jesus and a documentary on cancer. After the film ended, the enraged extremists stoned the house of a pastor identified only as Ponnachen and accused him of forceful conversion. They further threatened to set the pastor and his vehicle on fire if he screens Christian films again.

Karnataka – About 50 Hindu nationalists from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh attacked a house meeting of an Indian Pentecostal Church on April 11 in Horalhalli, Kanakapur, on the outskirts of Bangalore. The All India Christian Council reported that the Hindu extremists barged into the church’s worship service and accused Pastor K. Subhash of forceful conversion, threatened to beat him and warned him against leading any future house meeting services. Officers arrested Pastor Subhash, and he was released only after the station police inspector warned him not to conduct any future house church meetings while telling the extremists not to disturb the Christians.

Karnataka – Hindu extremists accompanied by police roughed up 12 pastors and accused them of forceful conversion on April 5 in Karmoda, Kodagu. The Global Council of Indian Christians reported that the mob stormed into the Christians’ meeting in the home of a Christian identified only as Vijay and took them to Ponnampet police station. After questioning, the Christians were charged with uttering words intending to hurt the religious feelings of others, defiling a place of worship, intent to insult the beliefs of others, intention to provoke a breach of peace and criminal intimidation and sent them to Virajpet jail.

Chhattisgarh – Police arrested three Christians based on a complaint of forceful conversion by Hindu nationalists on April 4 in Durg. The Evangelical Fellowship of India (EFI) reported that police arrested Pastor Premlal Chhatriys and two Christians identified only as Umabai and Sulanbai of the Evangelical Christian Church of India. The Hindu extremists had encouraged a Hindu woman, Agasia Bai, to file the complaint as she had attended the church twice last year seeking healing for her sick daughter. In February her daughter died, and the Hindu nationalists massed at Bai’s house and forced her to write a police complaint against the Christians of forceful conversion, according to EFI. She submitted a complaint claiming that the Christians had offered her 5,000 rupees (US$112)to convert and another 5,000 rupees after conversion, and that a pastor identified only as Chhatriys had forced her to eat beef on her two visits to the church in July of last year. With area leaders’ intervention, the Christians were released on bail on April 6.

Chhattisgarh – Hindu nationalists from the Bajrang Dal and Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council) disrupted Easter Sunday worship (April 4) of a Church of North India in Parsapani, Bilaspur, and accused pastor Bhaktu Lakda and others of forceful conversion. The Evangelical Fellowship of India reported that the extremists tore Christian pictures, seized Bibles and other gospel literature and beat the Christians. The Hindu extremists were accompanied by some local residents. Police arrived and made an inquiry. 

Uttarakhand – A mob of Hindu extremists accused Pastor Vinay Tanganiya of forceful conversion and beat him on March 30 in Barkote. The general secretary of the Christian Legal Association, Tehmina Arora, told Compass that the pastor, who also runs a school, fled to Barkote police station after the Hindu extremist mob beat him, but police refused to take his complaint and threatened to beat him further. The pastor was badly bruised.

Kerala – Police on March 29 detained a pastor and an evangelist along with their family members, including a 4-month-old baby, on false charges of denigrating Hindu gods in Ambalavayal police station in Wayanand. The Global Council of Indian Christians reported that the Hindu extremists, accompanied by police officials, stopped the Christians on their way back home after the screening of a gospel film in the Madakara area and started beating them. Pastor Eassow Varghese and Baiju P. George had obtained permission from the villagers to screen the film. The villagers testified that the allegations of the Hindu extremists were baseless. Police also seized the Christians’ film projector and van. After four hours, the Christians and their family members were released without charges.

Andhra Pradesh – Hindu extremists on March 25 disrupted a prayer meeting and beat Christians for their faith in Kadim, Alidabad. The All India Christian Council reported that the extremists, led by Anjane Yulu, stormed into the prayer meeting as church members were singing. The extremists beat two pastors identified only as John and Prabudas of the Indian Evangelical Team, as well as other church members, and verbally abused them for their Christian activities. The Christians sought the help of the village head, but the intolerant Hindus continued to beat them even in his presence. Police refused to take the complaint of the Christians.

Report from Compass Direct News 

India Briefs: Recent Incidents of Persecution

Karnataka, India, November 30 (CDN) — Police on Nov. 24 detained three Christians after Hindu extremists falsely accused them of forced conversion in Raghavendra Colony, Madugere, Tumkur district. The Global Council of Indian Christians (GCIC) reported that 35 to 40 extremists barged into the rented apartment of Christians identified only as Prabhu, Steven and Shivananda, all workers for Operation Mobilization (OM). The Hindu hardliners confiscated all Bibles, compact discs and gospel tracts and burned them, and then took the Christians to the Madugere police station. Police who searched the apartment found no evidence of forcible conversion, however, and offered protection to the Christians. The next day the extremists again stormed into the apartment, dragging the three Christians outside. Nearby police took the Christians to the police station, along with the OM director, who had rushed to help them, and nearly 40 Hindu extremists followed demanding that the Christians be arrested for “conversion activities,” mistakenly believing that conversion is illegal in India. A GCIC representative told Compass the Christians were detained till midnight and released without being charged – after agreeing to vacate the apartment and immediately leave the village. 

Karnataka – Based on a false complaint by Hindu extremists, police detained five pastors on baseless charges of forceful conversion on Nov. 24 in Nangli, Kolar district. The Evangelical Fellowship of India reported that Hindu extremists stormed into the inauguration of the Friends Missionary Prayer Band prayer hall, and police alerted by the extremists arrived and took the five pastors to the police station for questioning. The Christians were released at about 8:30 p.m. after agreeing to give police prior notice of any worship services as a security measure. 

Madhya Pradesh – About 20 Hindu extremists attacked a pastor in Balaghat on Nov. 24. Pastor Ghanshyam Chowkse of Jeevan Jyoti Ashram was visiting a local Christian family when the extremists broke into the house of Purnima Dhuarey and dragged the pastor out, striking him with their fists and legs. They also struck Dhuarey with their hands. Pastor Kamlesh Nagpure told Compass that the mob was carrying a gas container with them, intending to burn Pastor Chowkse alive, and he said Pastor Chowkse was traumatized for days afterward. The extremists were members of the Bajrang Dal, the right-wing youth wing of the Hindu extremist Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council). Dhuarey was also attacked and beaten four months ago for recently converting to Christianity. She and Pastor Chowkse have filed two separate First Information Reports at the local police station. Dhuarey named the extremists in her FIR as she was able to recognize them, but Pastor Chowkse reported only unidentified men. “No major proceedings have yet taken place in both the cases,” Pastor Nagpure told Compass.

Karnataka – Hindu extremists from the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council) falsely accused Pastor K. Manjunath of forceful conversion, verbally abused him and stopped construction of his church on Nov. 12 in Shimoga. Pastor Manjunath had received approval from the government to construct the church building, which is registered under the Bhadravati Municipality. The Global Council of Indian Christians reported that the extremists filed a complaint against the pastor with the Shimoga Development Authority, which issued a show-cause notice asking him to answer the complaint. After investigating, police allowed construction of the church building to continue.

Karnataka – About 20 Hindu extremists beat two Christians on Nov. 10 in Attibele, Karnataka. The Global Council of Indian Christians reported that Chandrachari Gangadhari and Chandra Gowda were visiting Christian homes when the intolerant Hindus verbally abused, beat them and burned Bibles and gospel tracts. Gowda sustained internal injuries. As is customary in India, police detained the victims rather than the aggressors, holding the Christians at the police station until 11 p.m. and joining the extremists in warning them not to return to the village.

Chhattisgarh – About 50 Hindu extremists stormed a prayer meeting and beat Christians until one fell unconscious on Nov. 8 in Bliaspur. A Christian identified only as Tekchand invited a couple, Keshup and Sangeeta Baghel, to their house to pray for their sick child when the extremists broke in and beat the Christians. Tekchand fell unconscious. The extremists dragged the couple to the police station, and along with about 100 other Hindu hardliners tried to pressure the police into filing baseless charges of forceful conversion. On hearing of the incident, four Christians went to the police station, where the extremists beat them on their arrival. Tekchand filed a police complaint against the intolerant Hindus, and the Christians were taken to the police station for medical checkup. The Christians were released at about 3 a.m. that night.

Karnataka – Police on Nov. 1 entered a children’s hostel run by Christian Outreach Ministries (COM) in Udupi and arrested the manager on baseless charges of forceful conversion. Saroja Margaret was sent to Mangalore District Prison after a magistrate ruled against judicial custody and was released on bail on Nov. 3. The Evangelical Fellowship of India (EFI) reported that Margaret and her husband, the Rev. Joseph Jamkandi, were shocked to learn that two girls who had sought shelter for four months beginning in June had supposedly accused them of forceful conversion and of criticizing Hinduism. After the girls, identified only as Megha and Shilpika, had visited their parents in Madikere, their parents and Hindu extremists filed a complaint at Kapu police station charging that Margaret had forced the children to read the Bible and had criticized Hinduism. Police questioning the remaining 63 girls and others at the hostel, as well as neighbors, did not find anyone offering any statements to support the accusations, according to EFI. The hostel provides shelter, food and clothing to 65 girls from various castes and religious backgrounds. EFI reported that the remaining 63 girls told police there was never an instance when they were forced to read the Bible or participate in Christian devotion, and they said criticism of any religion was never uttered in the hostel. Nevertheless, the Deputy Superintendent of Police on Nov. 1 told Kapu police to present Margaret before a magistrate, as the Hindu hardliners had filed a First Information Report. Margaret was arrested for “uttering words with intent to hurt religious feelings of others” (Section 298 of the Indian Penal Code) and for “creating problems in the community” (Section 153 Part 1-b).

Maharashtra – In Pune, a Christian identified only as Sanjeev was beaten by about 60 students at Ferguson College on Oct. 27 for leading a Bible study. A source reported that Sanjeev was proclaiming Christ to two students at their request when the attacking students came from different directions and began beating him; they berated him for preaching and informed the college principal of his activities. The principal filed a complaint against Sanjeev for trespassing and “hurting the religious sentiments” of the students. Police took the Christian into custody, seizing Bibles and Christian literature from him. With local Christian leaders’ intervention, he was released without charge.

Andhra Pradesh – Hindu extremists pressured Christians to recant their faith and convert back to Hinduism on Oct. 27 in West Singhbhum, Jharkhand. The All India Christian Council reported that representatives of the Hindu extremist Adivasi Maha Sabha, along with village leaders, disrupted a prayer meeting and threatened to cut all economic and community ties from the Christians if they did not obey their demand to return to Hinduism. The extremists took away the handle of a water pump that served as the only source of water for the Christians. Police refused to register a First Information Report on the incident but assured the Christians that they would investigate. The village water pump has been repaired.

Karnataka – Hindu extremists on Oct. 23 claimed that a church building in Ankola, Karwar district was used as a center for forceful conversion. The Global Council of Indian Christians reported that the extremists also accused Christians there of cheating poor people and disturbing the neighborhood with their prayers. The extremist leaders went to the home of the owner of the land on which the church building is built, Shankar Naik, and reprimanded him for allowing it to remain open. The extremists filed a baseless complaint of forceful conversion with the local administrator, who in turn filed a police complaint against Naik. Due to extremist pressure, police forced Naik to shut down the building, threatening to arrest him if he opened it again. The Christians there now worship in the house of area pastor.

Report from Compass Direct News