Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Protestants and Mor Gabriel on agenda at Merkel’s visit

Mor Gabriel Monastery and the Malatya Zirve Publishing House Massacre were among the main agenda topics during talks in Ankara on Feb. 25, in which German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan met with various spiritual leaders. Fener Greek Patriarch Bartholomew, Acting Patriarch Archbishop Aram Ateşyan, Chief Rabbi Ishak Haleva, Syriac Mor Gabriel Monastery’s Metropolitan Archbishop Samuel Aktaş, the Turkish Syriac Catholic Deputy Patriarch Chorepiscopus Yusuf Sağ, and Ümit Şahin, Protestant Churches Association General Secretary and Coordinator of the Association’s Committee on Religious Freedom, were present in the meeting, which was held in the Official Residence of the Prime Ministry. “We at least saw that the state values and accepts us on legitimate grounds. We hope to be a part of the dialogue process from now on,” Ümit Şahin said. Şahin also said they mostly focused on the Zirve massacre case and the problems Suzanna Geske – the wife of massacre victim Tillman Geske – faced regarding her Turkish citizenship, excluding religion boxes on ID cards, and various issues concerning the church building. “Geske’s application for Turkish citizenship was rejected, and she appealed it for the second time. The Prime Minister told his advisors to deal with the matter,” Şahin said. Three missionaries – German citizen Tillman Geske and two Turks, Necati Aydın and Uğur Yüksel – were tied up and tortured before their throats were slit at the Zirve Publishing House, a Christian publisher in the eastern province of Malatya, on April 18, 2007. Link

Sunday, February 17, 2013

American priest applying for indefinite visa fined for working illegally

A Protestant church in the southeastern province ofDiyarbakır has been fined after authorities determined that its priest had been working illegally when he applied for an indefinite visa despite having already served the parish for 10 years, daily Habertürk reported Feb. 16. 
Jeremiah Ian Mattix has been living in Turkey with a tourist visa since 2003 and requested an indefinite visa because he is a religious functionary, according to the report. 

Following his application, police officers determined that he was presiding over services, as well as teaching for the church. Based on police officers’ complaints, inspectors from the Turkish Labor Institution (İŞKUR) came to Diyarbakır to assess Mattix’s case. 

The church was ultimately fined 6,795 Turkish Liras ($3,850) while Mattix was fined 670 liras ($380) for working illegally.

Ahmet Güvener, president of the association of Diyarbakır’s Protestant Church, objected to the decision, saying the church was in a difficult economic situation. 

“As there isn’t a priest to educate our community in the Christian faith, the Protestant Church in the United States has voluntarily appointed Mattix. We don’t pay any salary to Mattix who is one of the executives of our association,” Güvener told Habertürk, adding that Mattix should be designated a religious functionary, just as imams working inEurope are.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Progress and setbacks for Protestants in Turkey

Turkey's Protestant Christian population has registered important advances in recent years even as they continue to grapple with negative stereotypes and perceived restrictions on their freedom of worship, religious leaders told SES Türkiye.

Behnan Konutgan, pastor of Eminonu Immanuel Protestant Church in Istanbul, said church authorities constructively worked with the government on several issues in 2012.

"Upon the invitation of Turkish education authorities, we launched in 2012 a comprehensive project on the possibility of Christian students being given lessons on Christianity," he told SES Türkiye.

A committee representing Protestant churches in Turkey is preparing textbooks and curricula to support this effort. The work is expected to be finalised this year.

Authorities also allowed religious celebrations in public areas.

"Last Christmas, we submitted a request to the governorate to celebrate the holiday in the streets of Istanbul's Kadikoy district, which was quickly approved. We're pleased that there was no single attempt to attack or disturb us," Konutgan said. "We distributed flowers to the people we saw in the neighbourhood and walked around singing carols."

Protestants were also invited to parliament's constitutional committee last year to express their opinions on the draft under preparation.

But amid signs of progress, a new report by the Association of Protestant Churches in Turkey said violent attacks on their members and places of worship continue, listing 10 hate crime incidents in 2012.

Hate crimes became a national focus following a series of deadly attacks on Christians in 2007. The interior ministry subsequently issued a decree calling on local authorities to increase measures to protect non-Muslim populations from violence and promote social tolerance.

Umut Sahin, general secretary of Association of Protestant Churches, told SES Türkiye that conditions improved after 2007, only to turn for the worst in later years.

"Between the period 2008-2010, there was a relative decline in hate crimes towards our community, as a result of the democratisation wave especially," he said.

"However, starting from 2010, the increase of terrorist attacks in the southeast pushed the Turkish state and society into anxiety, leading to an increase in intolerance against the Protestant community."

Sahin added that an inability to identify individuals responsible for attacks in 2012 led to an "uncontrolled and unchecked spread of hate crimes."

Mine Yildirim, doctoral candidate at the Finland-based AAbo Akademi Institute for Human Rights, who helped prepare the new report, said many hate crime cases end without thorough investigation.

"In many instances, people who have been attacked forgive the guilty person or withdraw their complaint. And police forces tend to consider these cases as individual ones, underestimating the need for a comprehensive look at what's behind them," she told SES Türkiye.

Saturday, February 09, 2013

Turkey's Christians Could Face Nationalist Backlash

Religion was kept out of the public square for centuries in Turkey, but the country has become more Islamic with the "Islamic-oriented" AKP government in power for a decade. Turkish nationalists, who believe in secularism—and are the main persecutors of Christians—have become more active out of their disappointment, and could turn their anger toward religious minorities.

Historically, Turkey has welcomed Westernization, imbibed a secular mindset, seen itself as more European than Middle-Eastern, and completely banned religion from the public square, keeping it firmly under state control.

However, thanks to the government of the Justice and Development Party, locally known as the AKP, which came to power in 2002, the nation now sees itself as more Middle-Eastern than European, and considers other Muslim countries as brother nations. The AKP, presently in its third consecutive term, has been gradually contributing to Turkey's new Islamic political ethos.

As a result, Turkey now embodies a unique blend of Western ways and Islamist politics not seen anywhere else in the world.

The influence of Islam in the political sphere has not been welcomed by Turkish nationalists who, though they think only Muslims can be Turks, believe in secularism. For them, being Muslim is about identity and not faith. The nationalists have, therefore, become more active, which jeopardizes the security of Christians, mainly the Protestants.

Turkish nationalists see non-Muslim minorities as a threat to national security. So much so, that a Turkish atheist is less of a problem than a Turkish Christian, which they consider to be an oxymoron.

A report titled "Human Rights Violations Report 2012" by the Association of Protestant Churches in Turkey, records at least 10 major attacks on Protestant Christians and churches in the year.

In April 2012, four young men threatened a church leader with statements like, "This is a Muslim neighborhood, what business does a church have here? Unless you recite the Muslim creed we will kill you." They hit him and then fled the area.

Throughout the year, a church official in the city of Izmir faced verbal threats and egg attacks from youths in his neighborhood. Finally, after he was threatened with a gun, the church threatened to take legal action. Under pressure from neighborhood leaders and family members, the young men apologized and the church withdrew its threat of complaint.

Last February, a church building in the city of Samsun was vandalized. The man was quickly identified and apprehended. When he confessed, the church retracted its complaint and he was released. It should be noted that this kind of discrimination is commonplace in the region.

The 2012 report was, however, soft on the AKP government and noted some improvements on the side of the authorities.

After years of persecution, the AKP government holds more promise for religious freedom than its secular and more nationalist, predecessors, the report indicated. Although bureaucratic hurdles still remain, it is now easy to open houses of worship. The state has even offered either compensation for, or the return of property that had earlier been confiscated from non-Muslim community foundations.

In 2012, work began on the possibility of Christian students being given lessons on Christianity. The textbooks and curriculum are being prepared with the help of local congregations. The Protestant community was invited to the Constitution Reconciliation Committee, and was granted the opportunity to give their opinions about the new constitution being written. There were no places of worship closed in 2012, even though one facility used for worship received a closure notice.

However, responses of the international community to the AKP government's moves need to be cautious, given that increased Islamization can eventually threaten the well-being of the religious minorities.

Besides, the AKP's new reforms, while some of them were positive, are not enough to guarantee protection for religious minorities from hyper-nationalists who continue to see Christians as a threat to Turkish identity and security. Their discontentment is rising with the new direction that the nation is taking under the AKP leadership. As they become more insecure about the future, Christians in Turkey might also become more vulnerable to anti-religious reactions.

As Turkey tries to find its voice as a secular nation ruled by religious Muslims, it will need to amend its understanding of secularism to be more inclusive and less nationalistic. It will need to protect the religious freedom of all faith communities from the backlash of secular nationalists by granting them legal rights, status and protection. The future of Turkey looks to be unlike anything in its history, but today it needs to give its people the freedom to choose their religion without being seen as a threat to the Turkish identity.