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

Trial over ‘Insulting Turkishness’ Again Yields No Evidence

Justice Minister says Article 301 defendants ‘presumed innocent’ until verdict.

ISTANBUL, May 28 (CDN) — The 11th hearing of a case of alleged slander against two Turkish Christians closed just minutes after it opened this week, due to lack of any progress.

Prosecutors produced no new evidence against Hakan Tastan and Turan Topal since the last court session four months ago. Despite lack of any tangible reason to continue the stalled case, their lawyer said, the Silivri Criminal Court set still another hearing to be held on Oct. 14.

“They are uselessly dragging this out,” defense lawyer Haydar Polat said moments after Judge Hayrettin Sevim closed the Tuesday (May 25) hearing.

Court-ordered attempts to locate and produce testimonies from two witnesses summoned three times now by the prosecution had again proved fruitless, the judge noted in Tuesday’s court record.

Murat Inan, the only lawyer who appeared this time on behalf of the prosecution team, arrived late at the courtroom, after the hearing had already begun.

The two Protestant Christians were accused in October 2006 of slandering the Turkish nation and Islam under Article 301 of the Turkish criminal code.

The prosecution has yet to provide any concrete evidence of the charges, which allegedly took place while the two men were involved in evangelistic activities in the town of Silivri, an hour’s drive west of Istanbul.

Both Tastan, 41, and Topal, 50, 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 for the past two years, ever 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.

Two weeks ago, Turkish Justice Minister Sadullah Ergin commented before the United Nations Human Rights Council on the controversial May 2008 amendments to Article 301, under which Tastan and Topal are being tried.

Ergin insisted that the revised Article 301 had provided “a two-fold assurance” for freedom of expression in Turkey. The most significant revision required all Article 301 cases to obtain formal permission from the justice minister before being prosecuted.

This week Ergin released Justice Ministry statistics, noting that out of 1,252 cases filed under Article 301 during the past three years, only 83 were approved for prosecution.

Stressing the principle of “presumption of innocence,” Ergin went on to criticize the Turkish media for presenting Article 301 defendants as guilty when they were charged, before courts had heard their cases or issued verdicts.  

But for Tastan and Topal, who by the next hearing will have been in trial for four years, Ergin’s comments were little comfort.

“At this point, we are tired of this,” Tastan admitted. “If they can’t find these so-called witnesses, then the court needs to issue a verdict. After four years, it has become a joke!”

Topal added that without any hard evidence, “the prosecution must produce a witness, someone who knows us. I cannot understand why the court keeps asking these witnesses to come and testify, when they don’t even know us, they have never met us or talked with us!”

Both men would like to see the trial concluded by the end of the year.

“From the beginning, the charges against us have been filled with contradictions,” Topal said. “But we are entirely innocent of all these charges, so of course we expect a complete acquittal.”

Report from Compass Direct News


Beleaguered minority has much to lose, gain in polls.

NEW DELHI, May 1 (Compass Direct News) – With elections underway in India, its 2.3 percent Christian minority – which faced a deadly spate of attacks in the eastern state of Orissa last year – is praying for a secular party to come to power.

Along with the Muslim community, Christians fear that if the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its allies form the next government or an ideologically loose coalition comes to the helm, their already compromised welfare may further deteriorate.

Dr. John Dayal, secretary general of the All India Christian Council, said that the end of the Congress Party’s monopoly on power in the 1990s led to the rise of several major individual groups, including the BJP, political wing of the Hindu extremist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) conglomerate.

“The rise of regional and linguistic or caste-based parties spells a danger for pan-national minorities, as parties with a narrow and localized outlook will have neither the strength nor the political need to come to their defense,” Dayal told Compass. “What is at stake now, as never before, is the stability and consistency of India’s constitutional institutions in their response to critical situations, their zeal to correct wrongs and their commitment to the welfare of the weakest and the lowest.”

Religious minorities, Dayal said, were hoping for a strong showing by a secular party, “possibly the Congress [Party],” supported by regional groups of a secular character.

“Personally, I would even welcome a Third Front [a grouping of anti-Congress Party and anti-BJP parties led by the Communist Party of India-Marxist] government supported by the Congress Party,” he added. “Certainly, a BJP-led government is the least desirable, as we fear major erosion and even regression in issues of freedom of faith, Dalit liberation and affirmative action for the poor.”

With the BJP in power, directly or as part of the ruling alliance, in 10 states – Madhya Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, and Punjab in the north; Chhattisgarh and Bihar in the east; Gujarat in the west; Nagaland and Meghalaya in the northeast; and Karnataka in the south – he said Christians believe it is important that a strong, secular government comes into power at the federal level.

The federal government can issue warnings and ultimately dismiss state legislatures and state executives if they fail to protect the lives of their people or major unrest erupts. The federal government can also make laws applicable across the nation.

The BJP-ruled states have become “absolutely inhospitable” and “hostile” to Christians thanks to the “inaction of the federal government,” said Sajan K. George, national president of the Global Council of Indian Christians (GCIC).


Orissa, Andhra Pradesh

The eyes of Christians are also on state assembly elections in Orissa state.

Orissa is ruled by the Biju Janata Dal (BJD), which on March 7 broke its 11-year-old alliance with the BJP over the latter’s involvement in Kandhamal district violence. Elections in Orissa, held on April 16 and 23, are particularly important given that the results will either embolden Hindu nationalists to launch more attacks to polarize voters along religious lines or compel them to abstain from violence.

In December 2007, a series of brutal attacks began in Kandhamal. The violence that lasted for around 10 days killed at least four Christians and burned 730 houses and 95 churches under the pretext of avenging an alleged attack on Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati, a leader of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council).

Violence re-erupted in the district following the killing of Saraswati on August 23, 2008. A Maoist group took responsibility for the murder, but BJP supporters claimed that Christians were behind the assassination.

The BJP has made the killing of Saraswati its main election plank. The party’s two candidates from Kandhamal – Manoj Pradhan for the G. Udaygiri assembly seat and Ashok Sahu for the Kandhamal parliamentary constituency – contested the elections from jail. Pradhan, a primary suspect in the August-September 2008 violence, has been in jail for the last few months. Sahu, a former senior police official, was arrested on April 14 for delivering a hate speech against Christians in the run-up to elections. He was released on bail on April 17.

In its election campaign, the BJD promised to provide protection to the Christian community in Kandhamal and elsewhere in the state, putting the blame of the Kandhamal violence entirely on the BJP.

“It was important to break up with the BJP because I don’t consider them healthy any longer for my state after Kandhamal – which I think is very apparent to everyone,” Orissa Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik told CNN-IBN on April 19. “Before Kandhamal, we were lucky in the early years of the state government not to have a serious communal problem at all. But Kandhamal was very tragic and serious.”

According to the CNN-IBN private news channel, the Congress Party could benefit from the divorce of the BJD and the BJP. Nevertheless, the BJD is expected to form the next state government in Orissa.

The Congress Party, on the other hand, blamed both the BJD and the BJP for last year’s violence.

Elections in Kandhamal took place despite the fact that over 3,000 Christians were still in relief camps and hundreds of others had fled to others parts of the state fearing more tensions. Father Ajay Kumar Singh of the Catholic Archdiocese of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar reached Kandhamal from the neighboring Gajapati district early on April 16, election day.

“Along the way, we came across numerous felled trees blocking the road in at least six places,” Fr. Singh told Compass. “The roads were deserted, and my colleagues and I were scared. But we somehow managed to reach Kandhamal.”

He added that in Dharampur in Raikia Block and in Kattingia near Tiangia in G. Udaygiri Block – where eight Christians were killed during last year’s violence – Christians were threatened if they did not vote for the BJP.

In Nilungia village, seven kilometers (four miles) from G. Udaygiri, where a Christian was killed, at least 40 Christians did not cast their votes out of fear of a backlash, Fr. Singh said.

“They feared tensions if they returned to their village and stayed out of the district,” he said.

The Catholic Church in Orissa had urged the Election Commission of India to postpone elections in Kandhamal, but polls were held as scheduled.

According to the district administration, the poll turnout on April 16 in Kandhamal was around 55 percent.

The violence following Saraswati’s murder lasted for over a month, killing more than 127 people and destroying 315 villages, 4,640 houses, 252 churches and 13 educational institutions, besides rendering more than 50,000 homeless.

The incidence of Christian persecution is high in Andhra Pradesh, too. Analysts anticipate a neck-to-neck competition between the ruling Congress Party and the regional Telugu Desam Party (TDP), which recently allied with Left parties in the Third Front. The BJP is also in the fray but doesn’t appear strong enough to stake claim to power in the state.


Obscure Prognosis

With election results not due until May 16, the outlook at this point is murky.

“About all that can be said with certainty in the resulting alphabet soup of political parties is that the BJP won’t be aligning with Congress, or with the Left. Beyond that it’s a numbers game,” The Times of India noted in an editorial today. “Most observers agree that alignments determining who will form the next government will be decided only after the elections.”

The national daily added, “As India’s long, hot election summer grinds on, with the third phase held yesterday and the fifth and final phase not scheduled before the 13th of this month, it’s regrettable that no overarching themes have emerged even at this late stage, which can define the election.”

With 714 million eligible voters of the more than 1 billion people in the country, the five-phase elections for the 15th Lok Sabha (Lower House of Parliament) and for the state assemblies of Orissa, Andhra Pradesh and the north-eastern state of Sikkim began on April 16.

The three main parties are the left-of-center Congress Party (officially known as the Indian National Congress), which leads the governing United Progressive Alliance (UPA); the Hindu nationalist BJP, a leading party of the opposition National Democratic Alliance (NDA); and the Third Front.

A party and its allies need 272 members to rule in the 545-member Lok Sabha.


Expediency over Ideology

The regional and caste parties involved include the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), headed by Dalit (formerly “untouchable”) woman Mayawati, chief minister of Uttar Pradesh state in the north; and the Samajwadi Party (SP), also a powerful party in that state.

Other significant parties are the Janata Dal-United (JD-U) party and the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) party in the eastern state of Bihar; the BJD in Orissa; the Trinamool Congress party in the eastern state of West Bengal; the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and the Shiv Sena party in the western state of Maharashtra; the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) party and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) party in the southern state of Tamil Nadu; the TDP and Telangana Rashtriya Samiti (TRS) party in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh, and the Janata Dal-Secular (JD-S) party in the southern state of Karnataka.

The Congress Party is hoping that it will be supported by the SP, the RJD, the Trinamool Congress party, the NCP, the DMK, and the TRS in case it emerges as the single-largest party post-elections. The JD-U, the Shiv Sena and the AIADMK, on the other hand, are likely to extend their support to the BJP-led NDA. The BSP, the BJD, the TDP, and the JD-S are expected to join the Third Front.

Most of these smaller parties, however, are keeping their options open and will formally declare their allegiances only after the results are announced on May 16.


Decade of Persecution

The concern of Indian Christians can be understood against the backdrop of the decade since 1998, when the BJP, under the aegis of the NDA, came into power at the federal level, marking the beginning of systematic persecution of Christians.

In January 1999, an Australian missionary, Graham Staines, and his two young sons were burned alive in Orissa’s Keonjhar district. From 2000 to 2004, around 200 anti-Christian attacks were reported each year from various parts of the nations. In March 2004, India’s second massive spate of anti-Christian attacks took place in the Jhabua district of the central state of Madhya Pradesh.

The incidence of persecution remained high despite the change of the federal government in mid-2004 – after the Congress Party-led UPA defeated the BJP-led NDA.

At least 165 anti-Christian attacks were reported in 2005, and over 130 in 2006. Including the Orissa attacks, the total number of violent anti-Christian incidents rose to over 1,000 in 2007. And 2008 turned out to be the worst year for the Christians as violence returned in Kandhamal.

“The results of the elections on May 16 will show whether the ideology of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, the father of the nation who promoted communal harmony, will prevail in India, or that of his killer Nathuram Godse, allegedly a member of the RSS,” said George of the GCIC.

Report from Compass Direct News