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Turkey and its Christians: Persecution complex

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  • Turkey and its Christians: Persecution complex

    Turkey and its Christians

    Persecution complex

    A test of whether Turkey really grasps the concept of religious freedom

    The Economist
    June 25th 2005
    Pgs. 49-50

    ANKARA and MIDYAT - On the edge of a village near Midyat is a stone
    building whose fate may test Turkey's commitment to the European Union.
    Thirty Kurdish families in Bardakci use it as a mosque. But members
    of Turkey's Syrian Orthodox Christian minority (or Syriacs) insist it
    is St Mary's church, which served their community for 200 years until
    civil strife and economic hardship forced them out. They want it back.

    Some 3,000 Syriacs in the south-east say their land and houses have
    been seized, not just by Kurds, but also by the state. In Kayseri,
    an American couple were recently sent death threats by e-mail because
    they are "Christian." A Protestant pastor in Izmit province received
    a menacing letter and found a red swastika painted on his door. In
    Tarsus, a New Zealand missionary was beaten up and then told to leave
    by the mayor.

    "Protestants are the most persecuted group in Turkey," says Ihsan
    Ozbek, pastor of the Kurtulus Protestant church in Ankara. That may be
    exaggerated, but respecting the religious freedom of non-Muslims will
    be critical to Turkey's hopes of joining the EU. For a while Turkey
    did well. Laws against Christians repairing churches were scrapped,
    enabling the Syriacs to restore the ancient Mar Gabriel monastery
    near Bardakci. Another law was passed to let non-Muslim religious
    foundations buy land. Timoteus Samuel Aktas, the metropolitan of
    Mar Gabriel, proudly shows off a new recreation centre for monks at
    his monastery. Yet recent attacks against Syriacs, including the
    detonation of a landmine under a car, have rung alarms - and made
    fellow Syriacs in Europe reconsider plans to return.

    The government's failure to denounce these attacks has been aggravated
    by its attempts to sell land in Bardakci that the Syriacs claim as
    their own. They have petitioned the authorities in Ankara, who have yet
    to respond. Some observers see this as a sign of the "reform fatigue"
    bedeviling the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan ever since he won
    the date of October 3rd for the start of EU membership talks. Others
    detect a mounting campaign against Christians by Islamist forces
    within Mr Erdogan's party.

    One shot was fired by the state institution that micro-manages
    religious life in Turkey, when it issued a sermon on March 11th to
    be preached at some 75,000 officially registered mosques. The sermon
    talked of the dangers posed to national unity by missionaries, who
    "work as a part of a plan to cut the ties of our citizens with the
    [Islamic] faith." This was followed by a statement by Mehmet Aydin,
    the minister for religious affairs, calling missionary activities
    "separatist and destructive." He was praised by nationalists, who fear
    that Europe has plans to convert Turks to Christianity. It matters
    little that only 300 souls have defected in the past eight years -
    or that proselytizing is legally permitted.

    Mr Erdogan still resists calls to reopen the Greek Orthodox Halki
    seminary on Heybeli island off Istanbul that was shut down in 1971.
    Allies say his hands are tied so long as he is unable to deliver on
    pre-electoral pledges to his pious constituents, especially to ease
    the ban on the Islamic headscarf in government offices, schools and
    universities. European diplomats counter that, by denying Christians
    their rights, Turkey is strengthening its growing army of detractors
    within the EU.

    Back in Bardakci, Yusuf Ozkahraman, a 64-year-old Kurdish farmer,
    points smugly at St Mary's church. "Only when the Christian forces
    become stronger that our state will this mosque be shut to the
    believers, and that day will never come," he vows.

    Photo caption: "Is it a church? Is it a mosque?"
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