Daughter unable to attend school, church; acid thrown on her jacket.
CAIRO, Egypt, May 25 (CDN) — From the mosque across the street, words blasting from minaret megaphones reverberate throughout the tiny apartment where Maher Ahmad El-Mo’otahssem Bellah El-Gohary is forced to hide. Immediately following afternoon prayers, the Friday sermon is, in part, on how to deal with Christians.
“Do not shake their hands. Do not go into their homes. Do not eat their food,” an imam shouts as El-Gohary, a convert to Christianity from Islam, looks through his window toward the mosque, shakes his head and grimaces.
“I hope one day to live in a place where there are no mosques,” he says. “How many megaphones do they need?”
For nearly two years, El-Gohary and his teenage daughter have been living in hiding because he abandoned Islam and embraced Christianity. During this time he has been beaten and forcibly detained, and his daughter has been attacked. He has had to endure death threats, poverty and crushing boredom.
Asked what gets him through the constant pressure of living on the run, El-Gohary said he wants to show the world how Christians are treated in Egypt.
“My main driving force is I want to prove to people the amount of persecution that Muslim converts and Christians face here, and that the persecution has been going on for 1,400 years,” he said.
When asked the same question, his 16-year-old daughter, Dina Maher Ahmad Mo’otahssem, pushed back tears and said one word.
El-Gohary, 57, and his daughter were forced into hiding shortly after August 2008, when he sued the national government to allow him to change the religion listed on his state-issued ID from Islam to Christianity.
El-Gohary followed in the footsteps of Mohammed Ahmed Hegazy, 27, also a convert from Islam, in filing an ID case because he didn’t want his daughter to be forced to take Islamic education classes or have her declared an “apostate” by Egyptian Islamic authorities if she decided to stay a Christian into adulthood. Dina is required by law to possess an ID card. The ID card is used for everything from opening a bank account to receiving medical care. The identification also determines whether Egyptians are subject to Islamic civil courts.
Dina is the daughter of El-Gohary and his first wife, who is a Muslim. El-Gohary said that before he got married, he told his future wife that one day he would be baptized as a Christian. He said he now thinks she was convinced that he would eventually turn back to Islam. Over time, she grew tired of his refusal go back on his faith and complained to El-Gohary’s family, demanding a divorce.
“She started crying. She went to my parents and my brother and said, ‘This is not going to work out, I thought that he was going to change his mind. I didn’t think he was that serious about it,’” El-Gohary said. “She started talking about it to other people to the point where they started calling me from the loudspeakers of the local mosque, asking me what I was doing and ordering me to come back and pray.”
Eventually El-Gohary married another Muslim, and over the years she became a Christian. She has fled Egypt and lives in the United States; El-Gohary hasn’t seen her since March 2009.
On April 11, 2009, El-Gohary’s lawyers presented a conversion certificate from the Coptic Church in court. He obtained the certificate under court directions after going to Cyprus, at great expense, to obtain a baptismal certificate. The next month, the State Council, a consultative body of Egypt’s Administrative Court, provided the court with a report stating that El-Gohary’s change of faith violated Islamic law. They instructed that he should be subject to the death penalty.
In February 2009, lawyers opposing El-Gohary’s case advocated that he be sentenced to death for apostasy. On June 13, 2009, a Cairo judge rejected El-Gohary’s suit.
On Sept. 17, 2009, authorities at Cairo International Airport seized his passport. He was trying to travel to China with the eventual hope of going to the United States. On March 9, 2010, the Egyptian State Council Court in Giza, an administrative court, refused to return his passport. He has another hearing about the passport on June 29.
“I think it’s a kind of punishment, to set an example to other Muslims who want to convert,” El-Gohary said. “They want me to stay here and suffer to show other converts to be afraid. They are also afraid that if they let me go, then I will get out and start talking about what is happening in Egypt about the persecution and the injustice. We are trapped in our own country without even the rights that animals have.”
As recently as last week, El-Gohary and his daughter were living in a small, two-bedroom apartment across the street from a mosque on the outskirts of an undisclosed city in Egypt. The floor was littered with grime and bits of trash. Clumps of dust and used water bottles were everywhere.
El-Gohary had taped over the locks, as well as taped shut the inside of windows and doors, to guard against eavesdroppers and intruders. He had taped over all the drain holes of the sinks to keep anyone from pumping in natural gas at night.
Even the shower drain was taped over.
The yellow walls were faded, scuffed and barren, save for a single picture, a holographic portrait of Jesus, taped up in what qualified as a living room. El-Gohary motioned through a door to a porch outside. Rocks and pebbles thrown by area residents who recently learned that he lived there covered the porch.
“I would open the window, but I don’t want the rocks to start coming in,” he said.
El-Gohary has an old television set and a laptop with limited access to the Internet. Dina said she spends her time reading the Bible, talking to her father or drawing the occasional dress in preparation for obtaining her dream job, designing clothes.
Even the simple task of leaving El-Gohary’s apartment is fraught with risk. Every time he leaves, he places a padlock on the door, wraps it with a small plastic bag and melts the bag to the lock with a match.
El-Gohary cannot work and has to rely on the kindness of other Christians. People bring him food and water and the occasional donation. When the food runs out, he has to brave going outside.
“Our life is extremely, extremely hard. It’s hard for us to attend a church more than once because people will know it is us,” he said. “We can’t go to a supermarket more than once because we are going to be killed.”
Possibly the worst part for El-Gohary is watching his daughter suffer. A reflective youth with a gentle demeanor, Dina is quick to smile. But at a time when her life should be filled with friends, freedom and self-discovery, she is instead confined between four walls.
Even going to school, normally a simple thing, is fraught with dangerous possibilities. Dina hasn’t gone to school in about a year. She said that the last time she did, other students ridiculed her mercilessly, and a teacher hit her when she tried to attend religious classes for Christians instead of Muslims.
Now she and her father fear she could be beaten, kidnapped and forcibly converted, or simply killed. She can’t even go to church, she said.
“I don’t understand why I am being treated this way,” she said. “I believe in something, Christianity – I chose the religion because I love it. So why should I be treated this way?”
Dina was a little girl when she starting hearing about Jesus. Her father used to sit with her and tell her stories from the Bible, and he also told her about his conversion experience. Like her father, she cites a supernatural experience as a defining event in her faith.
One night, she said, she had a dream in which an enormous image of Jesus smiling appeared in a garden. She said the image became bigger and bigger until it touched the ground and became a golden church. She told her father about the dream, and since then she has believed in Christ.
Under Islamic law, Dina is considered a Muslim because her father was born as one. Because, like her father, Dina has decided to follow Christ, she is considered an “apostate” under most interpretations of Islamic law.
She gained national prominence in November 2009, when she wrote a letter, through a Coptic website, to U.S. President Barack Obama. She told the president that Muslims in the United States are treated much better than Copts in Egypt and asked why this was the case. She hopes the president will pressure the Egyptian government to ensure religious rights or let her and her father immigrate to the United States.
One afternoon last month, Dina was walking to a market with her father. As the two walked, El-Gohary noticed smoke and vapors coming off Dina’s jacket. The canvas was sizzling and dissolving. Someone had poured acid over the jacket. El-Gohary ripped it off her and threw it away.
“I asked people if they saw what happened and everyone said, ‘No, we didn’t see anything,’” El-Gohary said.
Luckily, Dina was not physically injured in the attack, but since then she has been terrified to go outside.
“I am very, very scared,” she said. “I haven’t gone outside since the attack happened.”
Change of Faith
El-Gohary, also known as Peter Athanasius, became a Christian 36 years ago while attending an academy for police trainees. During his second year of school, he became good friends with his roommate, a Copt and the only Christian in the academy. After watching cadets harass his roommate for praying, El-Gohary asked him why the others had ridiculed him.
“For me, it was the first time I had heard something like that,” El-Gohary said. “I didn’t have any Christian friends before, and I didn’t know about the level of persecution that takes place against Christians.”
Eventually, El-Gohary asked his friend for a Bible and took it home. His family tried to dissuade him from reading it.
“No, you can’t read the Bible,” his father told him. “It’s a really bad book.”
Undeterred, El-Gohary began reading the Bible in the privacy of his room. In the beginning, he said, the Bible was difficult to understand. But El-Gohary concentrated his efforts on the New Testament, and for the first time in his life, he said, he felt like God was speaking to him.
El-Gohary read the account of Jesus meeting the woman caught committing adultery, and the level of mercy that Jesus showed her transformed him, he said.
“Jesus said, ‘If anyone among you is without sin, then let him throw the first stone.’ The amount of forgiveness and love in this story really opened my eyes to the nature of Christianity,” El-Gohary said. “The main law that Jesus talked about was loving God ‘with all your heart, soul and mind.’ The basis of Christianity is love and forgiveness, unlike Islam, where it is based on revenge, fighting and war.”
Also, El-Gohary said, when he compared the two religions’ versions of heaven, he found that the Islamic version was about physical pleasure, whereas for Christians it was about being released from the physical world to be with God.
El-Gohary said his decision to follow Christ was final after he had a brilliant vision of light in his bedroom at his parents’ home, accompanied by the presence of “the peace of God.” El-Gohary said at first he thought he was seeing things, but then his father knocked on the door and demanded to know why the light was on. He told his father he was looking for something.
As a budding Christian convert, El-Gohary went back to the police academy and learned as much as he could about Christ and the Bible from his roommate. Persecution wasn’t long in coming.
One day an upperclassman spotted El-Gohary absent-mindedly drawing a cross on a notebook. The cadet sent El-Gohary to a superior for questioning.
El-Gohary avoided telling academy officials that his roommate had taught him about Christianity, but a captain at the school was able to piece together the evidence. The captain called El-Gohary’s father, a high-ranking officer at the academy, who in turn told the captain to make the young convert’s life “hell.”
Officials were imaginative in their attempts to break El-Gohary. He had to wake up before all the other students. He was ordered to carry his mattress around buildings and up and down flights of stairs. They exercised El-Gohary until he was about to pass out. Then they forced him to clean bathroom facilities with a toothbrush.
El-Gohary was not swayed from Christ, but he decided he couldn’t stay in what he said is the agency that “is the center of persecution against Christians” in Egypt. He tried numerous times to resign, but officials wouldn’t let him. Then he tried to get kicked out. Eventually, officials suspended the police cadet and sent him home for two weeks. At home, his family had a surprise waiting; they had hired an Islamic scholar to bring him back to Islam.
The scholar started by yelling Islamic teachings into El-Gohary’s ears, then moved on to write Quranic verses on his arms. El-Gohary remained seated and bore the humiliation in silence. Suddenly El-Gohary stood up, pinned the man against a wall and started yelling at him; the convert had caught the distinct smell of burning flesh – when he looked down at his arms, El-Gohary saw the scholar burning his hands with thin, smoldering iron rods.
“I said, ‘Enough! I have tolerated all of your talk. I have listened to all you have said, but this has gone too far,’” El-Gohary recalled. “The man said I had a ‘Christian demon’ inside me.”
As bad as things have been for El-Gohary and his daughter, their dedication seems rock-solid. They said they have never regretted their decisions to become Christians.
El-Gohary said that eventually, he will triumph.
“By law, my circumstance will have to change,” he said. “I have done nothing illegal.”
Dina is not so sure; she said she doesn’t feel like she has a future in Egypt, and she hopes to move to a place where she can get an education.
Whatever happens, both El-Gohary and his daughter said they are prepared to live in hiding indefinitely.
“There are days that I break down and cry, but I am not giving up,” Dina said. “I am still not going back to Islam.”
Report from Compass Direct News
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.”
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
Defectors’ descriptions add to evidence of strong but severely persecuted church.
DUBLIN, April 24 (Compass Direct News) – Eom Myong-Heui of North Korea was a loyal communist in the Workers’ Party of Korea before she became a Christian under the influence of her business partner – a missionary who was later arrested and tortured into revealing that Eom was a believer.
Authorities placed Eom into a detention center in her hometown of Moosan and tortured her into denying her faith – but her incarceration continued under appalling conditions. Officials eventually released her due to her previous national loyalty. Now an assistant pastor at a church in Seoul, South Korea after a harrowing escape from her home country, Eom relates a journey that is part of a growing body of evidence of a strong – and severely persecuted – church in North Korea.
“A lot of people ask me if there really are people in North Korea who believe in Christ,” she said. “Do you really think that the missionaries who were there and all the believers who meet underground are all dead?”
Even as the North Korean government this month allowed two high-profile, U.S. Christian bands to perform at a music festival in Pyongyang, the fear of punishment authorities have instilled in North Korean Christians keeps most of them from publicly revealing their faith. As many as 400,000 Christians are estimated to worship secretly in the country, and Suzanne Scholte, head of an association of some 60 groups campaigning for change in the country called the North Korean Freedom Coalition (NKFC), estimates that more than 200,000 North Koreans are held in political prison camps for various perceived “disloyalties” to the regime, including adherence to Christianity.
Christian support group Open Doors estimates that of the 200,000 people incarcerated in political prison camps, at least 40,000 are Christians. Under North Korea’s policy of juche, or self-reliance, citizens may worship only President Kim Jong Il and his late father, former ruler Kim Il Sung.
Jung Eun Hye, one of several North Korean refugees expected to speak about conditions in the country at events in Washington, D.C. next week, said that freedom of religion is stipulated in North Korea’s constitution, but that “Christians have to risk their lives to have a secret service away from the oppression of the government.”
Jung, who faced severe persecution after authorities caught his father and aunt with Bibles in their possession, said he did not know that any churches existed in Pyongyang until he escaped from North Korea. While a handful of government churches do exist in the capital, Jung is one of many refugees who believe that these churches exist only to “deceive the outside world.”
“Here is my question,” said Jung. “If North Korea has freedom of religion, why does the government arrest, kill or imprison Christians in camps from which they never return?”
Testimony from various sources confirms that the government actively seeks out Christian groups and meeting points and imprisons Christians solely because of their faith. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) last year reported refugees saying that Christianity remained a key factor in the interrogation of people repatriated from China to North Korea. Border guards reserved the harshest punishment for those who admitted having any contact with Chinese or South Korean Christians.
“There is no freedom of belief or religion,” one refugee stated. “[We are taught] that if one is involved in religion, one cannot survive.”
Former police and security officers interviewed for USCIRF’s report admitted that their superiors had instructed them to play the role of Christians and infiltrate “underground” prayer meetings in order to incriminate, arrest, imprison and sometimes execute believers in North Korea.
‘Abyss of Death’
A delegation of North Korean refugees recently described their experiences ahead of events on Capitol Hill from Sunday (April 26) through Saturday (May 2) as part of North Korea Freedom Week.
Kim Young Soon, a refugee who spent nine years in a prison camp, said North Korean ruler Kim “is pushing the people into the abyss of death. In such a society, no one can trust anyone.”
Authorities sent Kim Young Soon and her family to prison camp No. 15, otherwise known as Yodok, after she made a seemingly innocent comment about the regime.
“Every mountain and field in Yodok was covered with dead bodies because of malnutrition and hunger,” Kim said. She described waking at 3:30 a.m. to run six kilometers (nearly four miles) to her assigned workplace and surviving on a diet of unripe, salted corn. Her parents and two of her sons died during their incarceration; border guards shot her third son when she fled with him to China shortly after their release.
Former prisoner Jung Gwangil said prison guards sadistically controlled inmates through collective punishment.
“If I did something wrong, all the members of the group I belonged to were punished,” he said. “When guards withheld food or switched off heaters in the middle of winter, fellow prisoners would sometimes beat the responsible inmate to death.”
Another former prisoner, Kim Tae Jin, described being left naked in a freezing cell and forced to sit on quicklime in the rain, resulting in severe burns to her skin.
“Even now, there are people who cut their own fingers off to avoid hard labor, who disguise themselves as madmen, or who lose their arms from beatings because they believe in a God who supposedly doesn’t exist,” she added.
While she was in prison, she said, a fellow inmate known only as Park formed a small “fellowship” of seven Christians. Prison guards eventually caught Park, beat him severely and asked him, “Who told you about the existence of God?”
“Do we have to be told about the existence of the sun to know that it’s there?” Park replied. “We learn its existence by feeling its warmth.”
In such conditions, the journey to faith is perilous for North Koreans – or nothing short of miraculous in the case of Eom, an assistant pastor at Seoul’s New Pyongyang Full Gospel Church (a fellowship for North Korean Defectors associated with Yoido Full Gospel Church).
She was extremely loyal to the regime until she made contact with a South Korean-Chinese Christian businessman.
“It’s very hard to live in North Korea, so if you don’t secretly do business, you can’t survive,” Eom said in sharing her story with members of another large church in Seoul, South Korea. “So for a few days I just kept being polite and agreeing with whatever he said about God, even though I knew he was wrong … but then God started to change my heart.”
Eventually the missionary gave her a small New Testament.
“I enjoyed it,” she said. “The teaching to love your enemy, give him food if he’s hungry, give him water if he’s thirsty. I also took to heart the words about loving each other.”
Eom asked a superior why North Korea didn’t have a religion other than worship of the Kim family.
“His eyes got big and he told me that religion was poison,” she said, “and that if I tried to learn about Christianity I would automatically become a traitor.”
As a teacher, Eom knew what happened to children of traitors and immediately began to worry about her two daughters. When police arrested the missionary and someone warned her that she could be next, Eom packed a small bag and assured her youngest daughter that she would return in three days.
“At the time,” she told the Seoul congregation, “I didn’t realize that this trip would bar me from ever entering the country again.”
Detained by police, she said, she could not understand why the authorities were so concerned about whether she was a Christian instead of asking about her business activities. After her release and unable to rescue her daughters, she escaped to China, where she was arrested twice and told, “If we arrest you again, we will kill you.”
From China Eom made a dangerous journey via Myanmar to Thailand, where she spent six months in a detention center before being granted asylum in South Korea in 2002.
“This is a most critical time for the North Korea human rights movement,” said Scholte, head of the NKFC and president of the Defense Forum Foundation. “We either advance these issues now with the opportunity that comes from a new administration and a new Congress, or we see another decade of death and despair for those whose great misfortune was to be born under the Kim Jong Il dictatorship.”
Report from Compass Direct News
Ministry of Justice decision suggests spreading Christianity may be unlawful in Turkey.
ISTANBUL, March 20 (Compass Direct News) – Turkey’s decision last month to try two Christians under a revised version of a controversial law for “insulting Turkishness” because they spoke about their faith came as a blow to the country’s record of freedom of speech and religion.
A Silivri court on Feb. 24 received the go-ahead from the Ministry of Justice to try Christians Turan Topal and Hakan Tastan under the revised Article 301 – a law that has sparked outrage among proponents of free speech as journalists, writers, activists and lawyers have been tried under it. The court had sent the case to the Ministry of Justice after the government on May 8, 2008 put into effect a series of changes – which critics have called “cosmetic” – to the law.
The justice ministry decision came as a surprise to Topal and Tastan and their lawyer, as missionary activities are not illegal in Turkey. Defense lawyer Haydar Polat said no concrete evidence of insulting Turkey or Islam has emerged since the case first opened two years ago.
“The trial will continue from where it left off – to be honest, we thought they wouldn’t give permission [for the case to continue],” said Polat, “because there was no persuasive evidence of ‘degrading Turkishness and Islam’ in the case file.”
A Ministry of Justice statement claimed that approval to try the case came in response to the original statement by three young men – Fatih Kose, Alper Eksi and Oguz Yilmaz – 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.”
Prosecutors have yet to produce any evidence indicating the defendants described Islam in these terms, and Polat said 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,” said Polat. “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 contended that prosecuting lawyers have given political dimensions to the case by rendering baseless accusations in a nationalistic light.
“From their point of view, missionary activity carried out by missionaries of imperialistic countries is harmful for Turkish culture and the country overall,” Polat said.
Tastan said that although he has always been confident that he and Topal will be acquitted, the decision of the Ministry of Justice to try them under Article 301 left him deeply disappointed in his own country.
“After this last hearing, I realized that I didn’t feel as comfortable as I had been in the past,” Tastan told Compass. “I believed that surely the Ministry of Justice would never make the decision they did.”
Tastan said he was uneasy that his country would deem his Christian faith as insulting to the very Turkishness in which he takes pride.
“This is the source of my uneasiness: I love this country so much, this country’s people, that as a loving Turk who is a Christian to be tried for insulting Turkey has really cut me up,” said Tastan. “Because I love this nation, I’ve never said anything against it. That I’m a Christian, yes, I say that and I will continue to do so. But I think they are trying to paint the image that we insult, dislike and hate Turks. This really makes me sad and heartsick.”
If nothing else, Tastan said, the trial has provided an opportunity for Turkish Christians to show God’s love and also make themselves known to their compatriots. He called the ministerial decision duplicitous.
“A government that talks the European Union talk, claims to respect freedom, democracy, and accept everyone, yet rejects me even though I’m a Turkish citizen who is officially a Christian on his ID card, has made me sad,” he said. “That’s why I’m disappointed.”
At the time of their arrests, Topal and Tastan were volunteers with The Bible Research Center, which last week acquired official association status and is now called “The Society for Propagating Knowledge of the Bible.” In the last court hearing, prosecutors demanded that further inquiries be conducted into the nature of the association since the defendants used their contact lists to reach people interested in Christianity.
“Because they think like this, they believe that the Bible center is an important unit to the missionary activities,” said Polat. “And they allege that those working at this center are also guilty.”
The court has yet to decide whether police can investigate the Christian association.
Polat and the defendants said they believe that as no evidence has been presented, the case should come to a conclusion at the next hearing on May 28.
“From a legal standpoint, we hope that they will acquit us, that it will be obvious that there is no proof,” said Tastan. “There have only been allegations … none of the witnesses have accused us in court. I’m not a legal expert, but I believe that if there is no proof and no evidence of ‘insulting,’ then we should be set free.”
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 Christian missionaries were trying to form illegal groups in local schools and insulting Turkishness, the military and Islam.
Despite a court summons sent to the Silivri and Istanbul gendarme headquarters requesting six gendarme soldiers to testify as prosecution witnesses, none have stepped forward to do so. At a June 24, 2008 hearing, two witnesses for the prosecution declared they did not know the defendants and had never seen them before facing them in the courtroom. Several witnesses – including one of the original complainants, Kose – have failed to show up on various trial dates.
“We believe the case has arrived to a concluding stage, because all evidence has been collected and the witnesses have been heard,” Polat said. “We believe the accused will be dismissed. The inverse would surprise us.”
Polat underlined that while the case shows that human rights violations in Turkey are still a “serious problem,” it is also true that Turkey’s desire to join the European Union has brought sincere efforts to improve democratic processes. He attested, however, that establishing a true democracy can be a long process that requires sacrifices.
“It is my conviction that there is no other way for people to believe in and establish democracy than through struggle,” he said.
Tastan added that he sees hope that the notion that being “Turkish” means being Muslim is breaking. Due to exposure to media coverage of the murder trial of the April 18, 2007 slaughter of three Christians in Malatya, he said, Turks are becoming aware that there are fellow citizens who are Christians and are even dying for their Lord.
“This makes me happy, because it means freedom for the Turkish Christians that come after us,” said Tastan. “At least they won’t experience these injustices. I believe we will accomplish this.”
For the time being, though, the Ministry of Justice’s decision that Tastan and Topal can be tried under the revised Article 301 law appears to contribute to the belief that to promulgate a non-Islamic faith in Turkey is tantamount to treason. As Turkish online human rights magazine Bianet headlined its coverage of the decision, “Ministerial Edict: You Can Be a Christian But Do Not Tell Anyone!”
Report from Compass Direct News