Alarm in Turkey over violence against Christians

29/01/2008

A spate of recent attacks has highlighted the threat religious minorities face, mostly from marginal ultranationalist groups.

By Ayhan Simsek for Southeast European Times -- 29/01/08

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The EU has faulted Turkey for not providing adequate protection to Christians and other minorities. [SETimes photo]

Adriano Franchini, a 65-year old Catholic priest, had just celebrated Sunday Mass at Izmir's St. Anthony Church when a teenager approached him, expressing an interest in converting to Christianity. As the priest spoke with him, the young man -- actually a fervent nationalist -- flew into a rage and stabbed him in the stomach.

Franchini survived. But three Protestant missionaries targeted in an attack earlier in the year were less fortunate. They were tortured for hours before being killed by a group of young men in the eastern city of Malatya. In 2006, another Catholic priest -- Andrea Santoro -- was shot to death by a 16-year-old while kneeling in prayer.

Christians in Turkey face hostility not only from Islamic extremists, but also from ultranationalists who see their presence as a threat to national security. Popular TV serials such as "The Valley of the Wolves" portray missionaries as agents in a plot by global powers to undermine Islam and the Turkish nation. It was a TV show that reportedly inspired Franchini's assailant.

The wave of attacks -- and particularly the murders in Malatya -- has have shocked many Turks. A majority Muslim but secular country, Turkey prides itself on religious tolerance. The government and nearly all political groups strongly condemned the brutal death of the missionaries.

For critics, however, the violence is a sign that Turkey falls well short of EU standards for religious freedom. Brussels has long complained that the country fails to fully protect non-Muslim minorities.

According to a lawyer representing the families of the slain missionaries, one of the killers had contacts with the local police. Turkey's interior ministry has since launched an investigation.

The lawyer, Mehmet Ali Kocak, also complained that the indictment listed everyone in Turkey's Protestant community, giving detailed information about them. That made the whole group a target, he argued, adding that authorities seemed more interested in highlighting Christian missionary activities than in exposing the real culprits behind the murders.

Another lawyer representing the victims' families, Orhan Kemal Cengiz, charged that local press in Malatya had carried out an anti-missionary campaign, which may have helped fuel the attack.

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The missionaries included two Turkish citizens -- Necati Aydın and Ugur Yuksel – as well as a German national, Tilmann Geske. Geske's wife, Suzanne, does not blame Turks in general for the extremism that took her husband's life. She says she loves Malatya and wants to continue living there with her children.

"After this murder, people in the neighbourhood came to our house to pay their respects. The imam of the house visited us to offer his condolences. I have faith in Turkey's secular system and justice," Geske says.

Zafer Uskul, head of parliament's Human Rights Committee, has participated in the two trials related to the Malatya case, the second of which began on January 14th.

"Turkey is a secular state," Uskul said. "One of the essential necessities of state secularism is to guarantee the freedom of religion. The state has to have an equal distance from all belief systems. However, these people were killed because of their beliefs. This is unacceptable."

This content was commissioned for SETimes.com.
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