The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF)’s 2018 Annual Report includes Turkey among its Tier 2 violators — that is, countries where religious freedom violations are systematic, ongoing, and/or egregious.
The USCIRF’s 2018 Annual Report on Turkey notes that “in 2017, the state of religious freedom in Turkey worsened.” Among the signs of this deterioration, the report states, is the fact that most of Turkey’s “longstanding religious freedom concerns remain unresolved, including the return of expropriated minority properties, the delay in providing dual citizenship to Greek Orthodox Metropolitans so they can participate in the church’s Holy Synod, and equal funding for religious minority community buildings from the public budget.”
The ongoing plight of the Ecumenical Patriarchate is another indication of why the USCIRF has classified Turkey among its violators of religious freedom.
“Turkey’s War on Christian Missionaries,” by Uzay Bulut, Gatestone Institute, December 30, 2018:
The day after American pastor Andrew Brunson was released from Turkish prison, another Christian who had been living for nearly two decades in the country was detained by Turkish authorities, and told that he had two weeks to leave the country — without his wife and three children. The American-Canadian evangelist, David Byle, not only suffered several detentions and interrogations over the years, but he had been targeted for deportation on three occasions. Each time, he was saved by court rulings. This time, however, he was unable to prevent banishment, and left the country after two days in a detention center.
When he tried to return to his family in Turkey on November 20, he was denied re-entry. According to Claire Evans, regional manager of the organization International Christian Concern:
“Turkey is making it increasingly clear that there is no room for Christianity, even though the constitution states otherwise. It is no coincidence that Turkey decided to initiate this process the day after Brunson’s release from prison and that, in doing so, the authorities ignored a court order. We must keep the Byle family in our prayers during this period of difficult separation.”
Brunson and Byle are among many Christian clerics who have fallen victim to Turkey’s aversion to Christianity. In its annual Human Rights Violations Reports, published since 2009, Turkey’s Association of Protestant Churches details Turkey’s systematic discrimination against Protestants, including verbal and physical attacks; nor does the Turkish government recognize the Protestant community as a “legal entity,” denying it the right to freely establish and maintain places of worship.
Turkey’s Protestants cannot open their own schools or train their own clerics, forcing them to rely on support of foreign church leaders. Still, several foreign religious workers and church members have been denied entry into Turkey, refused residence permits or deported.
Although missionary activities are not illegal according to the Turkish criminal code, both foreign pastors and Turkish citizens who convert to Christianity nevertheless are treated as pariahs by authorities and much of the public. It is no wonder that this is the case, given the years of anti-Christian “reports” by state institutions that shape government policy.
- In 2001, after receiving a report from Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization (MIT), the National Security Council (MGK) declared Christian missionary activities a “security threat” and stated that “required precautions should be taken against [their] divisive and destructive activities.”
- In 2004, the Ankara Chamber of Commerce (ATO) issued a report claiming that “missionary activities provoke ethnic and religious separationist aspirations and target the unitary structure of the state.”
- In 2005, State Minister Mehmet Aydın said: “We think that [Christian] missionary activities aim to destroy the historical, religious, national and cultural unity… it is seen as an extremely planned movement with political goals.”
- In 2006, the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) published in a monthly journal a report referring to Christian missionaries as a “threat” and emphasized that legal regulations needed to be made to prevent their activities. That same year, Ali Bardakoğlu, then-head of Diyanet (the government-funded Directorate of Religious Affairs), said in televised comments that it is “Diyanet’s duty to warn the people about missionaries and other movements that threaten society.”
- In 2007, Niyazi Güney, a Justice Ministry official, said that “missionaries are even more dangerous than terrorist organizations.”
Such public denunciations of Christian missionaries have had concrete and devastating consequences.
In 2006, for instance, a Protestant church leader named Kamil Kıroğlu, a Muslim convert to Christianity, was beaten unconscious by five men, one of whom shouted, “Deny Jesus or I will kill you now,” and another yelled, “We don’t want Christians in this country!”
Also in 2006, Father Andrea Santoro, a 61-year-old Roman Catholic priest, was murdered while praying in the Santa Maria Church in Trabzon. Five months later, a 74-year-old priest, Father Pierre François René Brunissen, was stabbed and wounded in Samsun. The perpetrator said that he had committed the act against the priest to protest “his missionary activities.”
In April 2007, three Christians were tortured to death in the Zirve Bible Publishing House massacre. In November of the same year, an Assyrian priest, Edip Daniel Savcı, was kidnapped. One month later, a Catholic priest, Adriano Franchini, was stabbed and wounded during a Sunday church service. The priest reportedly had been “accused of missionary activities” by some websites.
In June 2010, Bishop Luigi Padovese, Apostolic Vicar of Anatolia, was murdered by his driver, who shouted, “Allahu Akbar” (“Allah is the greatest”) as he slit the priest’s throat. At his trial, the murderer said that the bishop was a “false messiah,” then twice in the courtroom he loudly recited the adhan (Islamic call to prayer).
Despite its current tiny and disintegrating presence in Turkey, Christianity has a long history in Asia Minor (part of contemporary Turkey), the birthplace of numerous apostles and saints, among them Paul, Luke, Ephrem, Polycarp, Timothy, Nicholas and Ignatius. Many events recorded in the Bible took place in that area. The indigenous peoples of the land — Armenians, Assyrians and Greeks — are among the first nations to embrace the Christian faith.
The first seven Ecumenical Councils were also held in the area that today is Turkey. It was in Antioch (Antakya) where the followers of Jesus were called “Christians” for the first time in history and where St. Peter established one of the earliest churches. Edessa (Urfa in southeast Turkey) was an early center of the Assyrian (Syriac) Orthodox Church. The ancient Greek city of Byzantium (a.k.a. Constantinople — the current Istanbul) was a hub of Christianity and the Hagia Sophia, built there in the 6th century, was the largest church in the world — until Ottoman Turks invaded the city in 1453 and converted the church into a mosque. Since then, Christians in the region have been under Muslim domination.
Today, only around 0.2% of Turkey’s population of nearly 80 million is Christian. The 1913-1923 Christian genocide across Ottoman Turkey and the 1955 anti-Greek pogrom in Istanbul are some of the most important events that largely led to the destruction of the country’s ancient Christian community. Yet, still today — even after Turkey joined the Council of Europe in 1949 and NATO in 1952 — Christian missionaries and citizens continue to be oppressed in Turkey….