Turkey's Protestants Face Wave of Attacks

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Friday, May 20, 2005

Anti-missionary threats turn into violence.

by Barbara G. Baker

ISTANBUL, May 19 (Compass) -- A Protestant pastor in the Turkish industrial city of Izmit woke up yesterday morning to find a huge red swastika painted on his apartment door, with a handwritten hate letter shoved underneath.

In high-school-level Turkish, the writer threatened the safety of Wolfgang Hade and his family unless they left the country within a month. A German citizen, Hade is married to a Turkish national of Christian background.

The hate letter questioned whether Hade was really serving Christianity or being “used” to attack Turkish values.

“Your efforts to wear us down -- as the inheritors of a great race -- and alienate us from our values will come to nothing,” the writer declared. “Please forward this to the headquarters directing you.”

Together with his wife and small daughter, Hade has lived for the past three and one-half years in Izmit, near the epicenter of Turkey’s disastrous 1999 earthquake in western Turkey. Their small congregation of 15 to 20 Turkish Protestants worship in a two-story building purchased through the foundation of their parent church in Istanbul.

The Izmit Protestant Church was targeted in a violent attack the night after Christmas last year, when someone started a fire next to the outside wall of the building.

“The aim was to burn the church down,” Hade told Compass. “There were black signs of burning and the window was partly broken, but the debris had been swept away.” On three separate occasions since, church windows have been broken out.

Local police investigated all of these attacks and the church installed iron burglar-bars to prevent damage to ground-floor windows. But after a Molotov cocktail was thrown into the upper floor on February 6, church leaders made an appointment with the local governor’s assistant.

“We sent a petition to the governor, and a local newspaper published part of it,” Hade recalled. “Then the attacks stopped. Until yesterday.”

The string of Izmit attacks are not isolated cases. Over the past six months, vigilante groups in at least four other Turkish cities have also threatened Protestant church workers and attacked their places of worship.

Media Fanned Intense Criticism

Simultaneously, the Turkish media has fanned intense criticism of Christian missionary activity. Even government ministers have spoken out, claiming that foreign missionaries had political motives aimed at “damaging the social peace and unity of Turkey.”

A government-approved sermon read out in Turkey’s mosques at Friday prayers on March 11 specifically warned worshippers against Christian missionaries, accusing them of pursuing political agendas to “deceive and convert” people.

Despite the democratic image presented by Turkey’s current government in its drive to enter the European Union, “Their comments have simply added fuel to the nationalist fire,” noted Ihsan Ozbek, an Ankara pastor chairing the Alliance of Protestant Churches (APC) in Turkey.

In the Turkish capital of Ankara, the firebombing of the International Protestant Church in the early hours of April 21 was investigated swiftly and promptly by local police officials.

Inflicting $10,000 in damages, the Molotov cocktails heaved into the church could have burned the entire church down if one of the fire bombs had not run out of fuel, said officials, who described the attack as “amateurish.”

“There had been many incidents of vandalism before this,” one leader of the English-language congregation said. “People have thrown rocks to break the large glass windows of the church, but this was more than that.” The liquid fuel singed the church carpet, with the walls and cabinets near the front of the sanctuary also damaged.

Several weeks before the attack, an email message had been sent to the pastor of the church’s Turkish congregation. “It is our Islamic duty to see you are killed,” the message warned. “The place you call a church will be wrapped around your heads.”

The following week, the U.S. Embassy in Ankara issued an advisory warning regarding the attack, noting an “up tick in threats and vandalism … occurring during a period of increased focus by the Turkish media and government on missionary activity in Turkey.”

In a subsequent news release, the Mazlumder human rights group condemned the “open violation of religious freedom” demonstrated by the Ankara church attack, calling for government authorities to enlighten and “inform public opinion” on the case.

Last month, several acts of vandalism were also reported against the Agape House, a Protestant congregation in the Black Sea city of Samsun. The attacks included broken windows, as well as numerous incidents when eggs were thrown at the building.

According to Orhan Bicakcilar, the congregation’s Turkish pastor who lives in the building, the most destructive attack occurred on November 28 of last year, when the Agape House came under heavy stoning. This incident came shortly after the mayor of the city’s Atakum municipality had insisted that he would never allow a church to be opened there.

Meanwhile, a Turkish Christian living in Istanbul’s Maltepe district told Compass he has been threatened twice in the past year to stop hosting fellowship meetings in his home. In the most recent letter, attached to the window bars of his ground-floor flat two months ago, he was told, “This is a Muslim country,” and he was urged to leave. If he loved his family, the letter advised, he should resettle in a Christian country.

“I don’t know how much of a real threat this is,” he admitted. “I’m not afraid of people’s reactions, but I am afraid of threats against my family.” He said he never reported the incidents to the police because his brother had been told by a policeman that the authorities were “secretly watching” his group.

Life-Threatening Attack

Perhaps the most life-threatening attempt against the Protestant community has occurred in Gaziantep, the second-largest city in southeastern Turkey.

In early November 2004, three young men allegedly “seeking spiritual truth” went into the Gaziantep office of Wilbur Miller armed with a concealed gun and knife. An American, Miller and his family were part of a mixed Turkish-expatriate congregation meeting in the city since 1999.

After wrestling Miller to the floor, the three youths bound, gagged and blindfolded him, declaring they had been given orders by Al-Qaeda to “put him away.”

After an hour and a half, during which they ransacked and looted his office, the attackers finally told Miller they would spare his life if he and his family left the country immediately. Although the incident was investigated by local police and the U.S. Embassy, and Miller later identified two of his attackers, it is not clear whether the three minors were charged or convicted of a crime.

“I am sure it was not Al-Qaeda, but a local group that is uncomfortable with the presence of a Christian church and foreign church workers here,” Miller told Compass.

Last month, two new incidents targeted the Gaziantep congregation. On the evening of April 9, two unknown persons tried to break into the church’s meeting place, using sound bombs to try to break down the front door and blow in a balcony window. Investigating police described the door blast as equivalent to 150 small firecrackers in a pipe.

“Lots of policemen combed the yard to see whether there was any other explosive device or clue,” a member of the congregation told Compass. A printed card like those sent to soldiers on active duty was found, inscribed “Protectors of the Motherland” with the handwritten names of two individuals in the fellowship.

On April 20, a similar bomb was left in front of the home of one of the Turkish Christians in the congregation. It exploded about 10:30 in the evening, startling the whole neighborhood.

Fear of Escalation

None of the attacks against Protestants have received coverage in the national press, in part because local Christians admit they are reluctant to be identified and harassed even further.

“But if there is no response to these incidents of violence and to the youths doing it, they will just continue,” APC press spokesman Isa Karatas told Compass. “It’s necessary to bring it up as an issue,” he said, particularly since officials in the local governor’s office and police force can often identify the troublemakers involved.

Turkey’s miniscule Protestant community consists of an estimated 3,500 Christians gathering in 55 designated places of worship, along with 40 other known house fellowships.

Researched by Rajiv Lee in Istanbul.

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