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.

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