Turks Threaten to Kill Priest over Swiss Minaret Decision

Slap to religious freedom in Switzerland leads to threat over church bell tower in Turkey.

ISTANBUL, December 15 (CDN) — In response to a Swiss vote banning the construction of new mosque minarets, a group of Muslims this month went into a church building in eastern Turkey and threatened to kill a priest unless he tore down its bell tower, according to an advocacy group.

Three Muslims on Dec. 4 entered the Meryem Ana Church, a Syriac Orthodox church in Diyarbakir, and confronted the Rev. Yusuf Akbulut. They told him that unless the bell tower was destroyed in one week, they would kill him.

“If Switzerland is demolishing our minarets, we will demolish your bell towers too,” one of the men told Akbulut.

The threats came in reaction to a Nov. 29 referendum in Switzerland in which 57 percent voted in favor of banning the construction of new minarets in the country. Swiss lawmakers must now change the national constitution to reflect the referendum, a process that should take more than a year.

The Swiss ban, widely viewed around the world as a breach of religious freedom, is likely to face legal challenges in Switzerland and in the European Court of Human Rights.

There are roughly 150 mosques in Switzerland, four with minarets. Two more minarets are planned. The call to prayer traditional in Muslim-majority countries is not conducted from any of the minarets.

Fikri Aygur, vice president of the European Syriac Union, said that Akbulut has contacted police but has otherwise remained defiant in the face of the threats.

“He has contacted the police, and they gave him guards,” he said. “I talked with him two days ago, and he said, ‘It is my job to protect the church, so I will stand here and leave it in God’s hands.’”

Meryem Ana is more than 250 years old and is one of a handful of churches that serve the Syriac community in Turkey. Also known as Syrian Orthodox, the Syriacs are an ethnic and religious minority in Turkey and were one of the first groups of people to accept Christianity. They speak Syriac, a dialect of Aramaic, a language spoken by Christ. Diyarbakir is located in eastern Turkey, about 60 miles from the Syrian border.

At press time the tower was standing and the priest was safe, said Jerry Mattix, youth pastor at the Diyarbakir Evangelical Church, which is located across a street from Meryem Ana Church.

Mattix said that threats against Christians in Diyarbakir are nothing out of the ordinary. Mattix commonly receives threats, both in the mail and posted on the church’s Internet site, he said.

“We’re kind of used to that,” Mattix said. He added that he has received no threats over the minaret situation but added, “I wouldn’t be surprised if we do.”

Mattix said the people making threats in the area are Muslim radicals with ties to Hezbollah “who like to flex their muscles.”

“We are a major target out here, and we are aware of that,” Mattix said. “But the local police are taking great strides to protect us.”

Mattix said he also has “divine confidence” in God’s protection.

The European Syriac Union’s Aygur said that Christians in Turkey often serve as scapegoats for inflamed local Muslims who want to lash out at Europeans.

“When they [Europeans] take actions against the Muslims, the Syriacs get persecuted by the fanatical Muslims there,” he said.

The threats against the church were part of a public outcry in Turkey that included newspaper editorials characterizing the Swiss decision as “Islamophobia.” One Turkish government official called upon Muslims to divest their money from Swiss bank accounts. He invited them to place their money in the Turkish banking system.

In part, the threats also may reflect a larger and well-established pattern of anti-Christian attitudes in Turkey. A recent study conducted by two professors at Sabanci University found that 59 percent of those surveyed said non-Muslims either “should not” or “absolutely should not” be allowed to hold open meetings where they can discuss their ideas.

The survey also found that almost 40 percent of the population of Turkey said they had “very negative” or “negative” views of Christians. In Turkey, Christians are often seen as agents of outside forces bent on dividing the country.

This is not the first time Akbulut has faced persecution. Along with a constant string of threats and harassment, he was tried and acquitted in 2000 for saying to the press that Syriacs were “massacred” along with Armenians in 1915 killings.

In Midyat, also in eastern Turkey, someone recently dug a tunnel under the outlying buildings of a Syriac church in hopes of undermining the support of the structure.

At the Mor Gabriel Monastery, also near Midyat, there is a legal battle over the lands surrounding the monastery. Founded in 397 A.D., Mor Gabriel is arguably the oldest monastery in use today. It is believed local Muslim leaders took the monastery to court in an attempt to seize lands from the church. The monastery has prevailed in all but one case, which is still underway.

“These and similar problems that are threatening the very existence of the remaining Syriacs in Turkey have reached a very serious and worrying level,” Aygur stated in a press release. “Especially, whenever there is a problem about Islam in the European countries, the Syriacs’ existence in Turkey is threatened with such pressures and aggressions.”

Report from Compass Direct News 


Armed militants fire into crowd, seriously injuring three; jizye tax imposed in Orakzai.

ISTANBUL, April 27 (Compass Direct News) – As Taliban control hits pockets of Pakistan and threatens the nation’s stability, Christians worry their province could be the next to fall under Islamic law.

Violence on Tuesday night and Wednesday (April 21-22) near the port city of Karachi – some 1,000 kilometers (nearly 700 miles) from the Swat Valley, where the government officially allowed the Taliban to establish Islamic law this month – heightened fears. Christians in Taiser town, near Karachi, noticed on the walls of their church graffiti that read, “Long Live the Taliban” and calls for Christians to either convert to Islam or pay the jizye, a poll tax under sharia (Islamic law) paid by non-Muslims for protection if they decline to convert.

As members of the congregation erased the graffiti, armed men intervened to stop them. Soon 30-40 others arrived as support and began to fire indiscriminately at the crowd, leaving several injured. Among those seriously injured were three Christians, including a child, according to a report by advocacy group Minorities Concern of Pakistan: Emrah Masih, 35, Qudoos Masih, 30, and Irfan Masih, 11. A Pashtun named Rozi Khan was also among the injured.

Policemen and military forces arrested seven suspects at the scene and recovered an arms cache of semi-automatic pistols and a Kalashnikov assault rifle.

The Taliban is an insurgent movement of primarily Pashtun Islamists ousted from power in Afghanistan in 2001. Pakistani media portrayed the Karachi violence as a sectarian clash between Christians and Pashtuns that escalated into a gunfire exchange and that Christians committed arson attacks. The Daily Times claimed that the Christians protested the graffiti by setting ablaze some shops, including roadside stalls and pushcarts.

But a legal advocacy worker told Compass that police scattered the Christians when they began their protests and stood by as a Taliban-assembled mob attacked them.

“The Christians do not have guns, they do not have weapons, but only a little bit of property and the few things in their houses,” said Sohail Johnson, chief coordinator of Sharing Life Ministry Pakistan. “They are poor and have no courage to fight them. How can Christians, who lived like animals here, stand against them?”

Johnson said that local Christians, terrified over recent Talibanization campaigns, may not pursue legal action against the arrested men, although Asia News reported that Qudoos Masih filed an initial report at the Sarjani town police station. The Christians fear inciting violence by taking a stand against elements connected with the Taliban, Johnson said.

Eyewitnesses to the attacks against Christians in Karachi said they were religiously motivated. A representative of the Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM) regional party told Compass that after firing on the crowd, the Taliban went through Christian houses, ransacked them and burned one down. He said they also burned Bibles and beat women on the street. Reports of two execution-style killings of Christians could not be verified.

Karachi police and administration reportedly claimed that the Karachi attack came not from the Taliban but from Pashtuns who resettled in the area from the North West Frontier Province (NWFP). The MQM, however, has long suspected Taliban presence in Karachi.


Expanded Campaign of Violence

Local officials are worried that the Taliban is making inroads into Karachi, the financial center of Pakistan, in the same way it did within the Swat Valley in the NWFP.

In mid-February Pakistan’s fertile Swat Valley turned into a Taliban stronghold ruled by sharia under a “peace agreement,” but instead of honoring the accord with an end to bombings and other violence, the Islamic militants have expanded their campaign to outlying areas and other parts of the country. Of the 500 Christians remaining in Swat Valley when sharia was initially established in February, many have migrated to other provinces while those who stayed live in fear of a rise in violence against non-Muslims.

In the Federally Administered Tribal Area adjacent to the NWFP, the Taliban this month demanded a jizye payment of 50 million rupees (US$625,000) from Sikhs living in Orakzai Agency. Those who did not flee paid a combined total of 2 million rupees (US$25,000), and Christians worry they could be next. Relegating non-Muslims to dhimmi status – the second-class state of those subject to an Islamic administration and its jizye tax in exchange for protection – is part of the writings of the founder of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (Assembly of Islamic Clergy), one of Pakistan’s main Islamic parties with ties to the Taliban in Afghanistan and similar parties in Bangladesh and Egypt.

Last week the Taliban effectively took control of Buner district, just 60 miles from the capital of Islamabad, and it has begun battling government soldiers in Malakland Agency.

Non-Muslims make up 3 percent of the population in the Muslim-majority nation of 176 million. They are frequently marginalized, particularly in the sharia-influenced justice system that gives precedence to Muslims. But they fear Taliban infiltration will accelerate their marginalization in a stealth manner, as they cannot tell the difference between a Taliban fighter and a community member.

“We cannot identify who is a Taliban fighter because there are an uncountable number of people who have a beard and wear a turban,” Johnson said. “We cannot recognize who belongs to the Taliban because they penetrate every corner of Pakistan.”

The MQM official in Karachi said many of the Christians in the area are poor and illiterate. They are on the lower rungs of the social ladder and have nobody to protect their interests except for the church.

“Nobody is going to help them,” he said. “The church can help them get education, but they are not also able to give them [security] help.”

His statements were backed by MQM leader Altaf Hussein, who called on Pakistan’s Interior Ministry to take emergency preventative measures to ensure the safety of minorities against the “rising activities of armed lawless elements,” according to The News International.

A local teacher said that during the looting police only stood by, making no effort to stop the Taliban as they ransacked Christian houses.

“Rather than stopping them, they allowed them to burn the houses, [harass] the Christian women and burn Bibles,” he said.

Although Pakistani politicians and security forces have said openly in recent weeks that the Taliban was closing in on Islamabad and could trigger a government collapse, they claimed the pro-Taliban slogans in Karachi were scrawled not by the Taliban but conspirators wanting to incite violence.

Maulana Fazlur Rehman, an Islamist party leader, said talk of the Talibanization of Karachi was merely a ruse to allow the United States to invade Pakistan as it had done to Afghanistan.

“Those raising this slogan are trying to create another Osama for America in this part of the world,” he said, according to The News International.

The Karachi attacks were part of escalating violence throughout the country. The government informed the National Assembly on April 20 that 1,400 people had been killed in terrorist attacks in the last 15 months.

Report from Compass Direct News