On September 6, in the Akçaabat district of Trabzon province, the fronts of several buildings built for tourists were demolished as a result of complaints that their design resembled a cross. Pictured: The shore at Akçaabat, Turkey. (Image source: Sinan Şahin/Wikimedia Commons)
Turkey's Association of Protestant Churches has released its 2019 "Human Rights Violations Report" detailing the state of religious freedom in the country.
The report sheds light on problems Protestant Christians faced in Turkey in 2019. These included barring foreign Protestants from entering Turkey for no other reason than their faith, as well as the inability of Christians to train their own religious workers.
One major difficulty for Protestant Christians in Turkey is that the Protestant community is not recognized as a legal entity.
According to the report, the Protestant community has mostly tried to solve this problem by establishing associations or becoming a representative of an already existing association. Associations and foundations, however, are not accepted as a "church" or a "place of worship." The Protestants, therefore, cannot benefit from the advantages given to officially recognized places of worship. When Protestants introduce themselves to the authorities as a church, they receive warnings that they are not legal and may be closed down. On March 21, in Bolu, for example, a house church used by Iranian refugees was sealed off by the Bolu Governorate.
The laws in Turkey also do not allow training religious leaders or opening religious schools for the Protestant community. The Protestants were solving this problem by providing training apprentices, giving seminars within Turkey, sending students abroad or using support from a foreign clergy. In 2019, however, many members of the foreign clergy, as well as church members, were deported, refused residence permits or denied entry visas into Turkey -- as in previous years.
In addition, the report disclosed, at least 35 foreign Protestants -- including Americans, British, and Germans -- were barred from entering Turkey. When family members were counted, more than 100 people have been affected by these bans. The report continued:
"These people have been resident in our country for many years, live here with their families, many have made investments in our country and sent their children to school, and all of them have no criminal record at all. This situation represents a major humanitarian problem. These entry bans, imposed with no forewarnings, destroy the unity of the family and create chaos for all members of the individual's family.
"In court cases opened to challenge this situation, the authorities have claimed that these people are pursuing activities to the detriment of Turkey, have taken part in missionary activities and that some of them had attended the annual Family Conference which we have held for twenty years."
In 2019, Christians across Turkey were exposed to hate crimes and hate speech, as well as to verbal and physical attacks. Examples include:
On February 13, a sign erected by the Istanbul Cankurtaran Church Association was dismantled by the Üsküdar Municipality without the knowledge of the Church authorities, on the grounds that it was too large, attracted notice and made those who passed by on the street uncomfortable when seeing it.
On July 14, in the Izmit province, two people broke a crucifix necklace worn by a young Christian. After swearing, insulting and slapping the Christian, the perpetrators ran off.
On July 19, a local court in Malatya ruled that the Malatya Governor and the Ministry of the Interior were not at fault in the April 18, 2007 murder of three Protestant Christians because of their faith, and that therefore the compensation paid to the victims' families had to be repaid to the government, along with the interest.
On September 6, in the Akçaabat district of Trabzon province, the fronts of several buildings built for tourists were demolished as a result of complaints that their design resembled a cross.
On November 19, in Diyarbakır, a South Korean citizen and Protestant Christian, Jinwook Kim, died from wounds sustained in a knife attack. Kim, a volunteer in the church, had lived in Diyarbakır for six months and had a pregnant wife.
Members of the Protestant community became more reluctant to complain to the security forces or report incidents due to hate-speech and the perpetrators going unpunished, and also due to being unable to get satisfactory results from investigations by authorities, and the perpetrators usually remaining unidentified.
During the 2019 Christmas and New Year season, various anti-Christmas and anti-New Year campaigns took place throughout Turkey. Hostile posters were hung on the streets, brochures were distributed, social media campaigns were conducted, and news was published in print and on social media. The participation in these campaigns by various public institutions created an intense atmosphere of hate. In particular, there was a significant increase in abusive and insulting comments from users of social media and newspaper websites towards Christianity and Christians.
In a photo widely shared on social media, as just one example, a bearded Muslim man punches Santa Claus. The photo was also posted in an article, "Why should the New Year not be celebrated?", and published on the news website "Haber Vakti".
Other widespread anti-Christmas messages and posters in print and social media during the New Year's celebrations, included posters that portray Santa Claus as a monster or evil. Messages on posters also included:
- December 31 is not Christmas. It marks the conquest of Mecca. "Whoever imitates a people is one of them."- The Prophet Mohammed.
- There is a rush for Christmas everywhere. The Pope might make an announcement any time and say: "We will not celebrate Christmas in order not to look like Muslims".
- We do not celebrate Christmas. "Avoid celebrating the festivals of the enemies of Allah." - Caliph Omar
- What happens if a Muslim celebrates the New Year (Christmas)? Our Prophet gives the answer: "Whoever imitates a people is one of them." If a Christian celebrates the Ramadan festival or the beginning of the Mohammedan calendar, it means that they have become Muslim and entered Islam.
- In a poster Santa Claus holds a sign, asking: "Isn't it a huge sin according to your religion to celebrate our festivals? Don't you have a brain at all?"
- We are the ummah [nation] of Muhammad, who brought us Salah (Islamic daily prayers) from Miraj [Mohammed's alleged ascent into the heavens around the year 621], and not the nation of Santa Claus that brings gifts on the New Year.
- Will we continue sacrificing our Islamic civilization for Western customs like the New Year?
- Hey Muslim! Just sleep on New Year's night.
- We are not celebrating the New Year because we are Muslim.
- New Year celebrations are an invitation to sins.
- I celebrate his New Year and then kick Santa Claus.
Such posters were not only published on social media; on January 1, an Islamist group distributed anti-Christmas leaflets to passers-by in the Galata neighborhood of Istanbul.
In the meantime, Christians in Turkey still face serious pressures, attacks and bans when they attempt to share their faith.
On November 10, a stand in front of the Malatya Church that contained the New Testament and other Christian books was overturned by youths; the Bibles and books were thrown in the trash. The youths left a threatening note saying that such publications should be removed or the books would be burned.
The Antalya Bible Church's official request in December to open a stand in a public area for Christmas was also rejected despite their often having opened a stand there. Over the last three years, the authorities have refused permission, giving "security/terrorism" as a reason. This year, the reason given for refusal was an over-concentration of tourists in the area, according to the report.
Some textbooks also target Christian communities. "Missionary Activity" continues to be a heading under the section related to "National Threats" in the eighth grade elementary school textbook entitled, Revolutionary History and Kemalism. This teaching continues to be referenced in supplementary textbooks and tests related to missionary activity being considered a "national threat".
In 21st century Turkey, whose constitution asserts that the state is officially "secular", Christians continue losing their jobs for their faith.
In the province of Aydın, for example, a Christian teacher was removed from her post because her faith was reported in the media, and news outlets claimed that the teacher had been involved in missionary activities. Despite a petition signed by the students and colleagues of the teacher declaring that nothing of this sort had taken place, an official investigation into the teacher was carried out and she was removed from her post. At the time the report was written, the teacher was transferred to a different school in Izmir. The result of the official investigation, however, is as yet unknown.
Two Protestant Christians who worked as civil servants also had their employment terminated -- one from the State Theater in Ankara, and the other from the State Opera and Ballet in Antalya -- although there were no negative allegations made about them.
Claire Evans, Regional Manager for the Middle East of International Christian Concern (ICC), told Gatestone:
"The New Testament church was born in Asia Minor, which is now Turkey, and Christianity has deep roots there. However, the entry bans of foreign Protestants, employment discrimination, the inability of the churches to gain a legal entity, and the restrictions on churches to train their own leaders are all deepening barriers for religious freedom in Turkey."
Uzay Bulut, a Turkish journalist, is a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Gatestone Institute.