A key policy maker from Turkey's governing party acknowledged economic risks for the first time, advising citizens to be cautious and to "not spend too much."

Speaking in an interview for TV8 Tuesday, Bülent Gedikli, the deputy president of the Justice and Development Party, or AKP, said "black clouds" have started to form over the global economy.

"This will have negative effects on Turkey," he advised citizens. "Thus, be cautious. Hold on to what you've got. Don't spend too much."

The world "probably will face a crisis," Gedikli said. "One should not spend promiscuously. We are not painting a rose-colored picture here, we are speaking the truth."

Regarding the recent escalation of violence in the southeast, Gedikli said this has something to do "with Turkey's successes and its [newfound] prestige in the world."

"Some circles evidently don't want this," he told the TV channel. "They are trying to muddy the waters. First, they create fears that Turkey is going to be divided. Then, they want to trigger chaos and an economic crisis. In the past, we had this cycle. The kind of Turkey they want is one that cannot observe global developments and spends its energy inside."

Analysts and economists have been voicing worries over Turkey's current account deficit, which has reached an annual $68.2 billion as of May. In its most recent estimate, the International Monetary Fund predicted that the gap will reach 10.5 percent of gross domestic product this year.


Christians in Eastern Turkey Worried Despite Church Opening

A group of Protestant Chrisitans have finally succeeded in opening a house church in the eastern province of Van after seven years of grappling with local governments. Yet many in the congregation remain concerned by hostile rhetoric from officials.

"They see us as persons who deceive people and who have a secret agenda," Vahit Yıldız, one of the church's elders, recently told the Hürriyet Daily News. "It is not just the concept of a mission that causes prejudice, but also the concepts of 'house prayer' and 'house church.' The quintessential reason behind the fear is the … rhetoric employed by some of [the country's] leaders, which deeply saddens us, besides the prejudices formed by the public."

Shortly after the church opened, Mustafa Bilici, a Van deputy from the ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, said, "It is great heedlessness to open new churches in Muslim societies that are acting as stooges for Zionist activities."

Calling Bilici's remarks "unfortunate," Yıldız said the only desire of the congregation, which is composed of Turks, Azeris, Afghans, Kurds, Iranians and others, was to worship freely.

"Our doors are open to anyone who wants to get to know us," the leader said. The group had been meeting in a two-story house for seven years and had appealed to local governments many times to obtain a license for the house to be recognized as a place of worship.

"Due to a lack of sufficient church buildings and [the authorities' refusal] to grant a Religious Designation License, there are over 100 house groups and rented places of worship all across Turkey," Yıldız said.

Yıldız also noted that Christian clerics have been attacked and threatened in eastern Turkey in recent years, highlighting the murder of Andrea Santoro, an Italian priest who was killed in Trabzon in 2006, and the Zirve Publishing House murders in Malatya in 2007, as examples.

"It is striking that [these] incidents have taken place in eastern provinces. For that reason, we are being very careful," he said. "The way is being paved for similar attacks as long as the true perpetrators remain unexposed and judiciary penalties are not applied. No one will have the courage to commit such heinous attacks if the judiciary mechanism functions as it is supposed to," Yıldız said.

Unless such measures are implemented, Christians in the East will continue meeting in house churches due to threats and attacks, Yıldız noted.

"We are waging a great struggle in this vein. Our true purpose in this struggle is to adopt an open and transparent attitude toward both local governments, as well as toward our state," he said.


Turkish PM Uses Gaza Trip as Tactic for Israeli Apology

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan expressed his desire to visit Hamas-controlled Gaza after a trip to Egypt, a move he will reportedly make if Israel refuses to apologize to Turkey over last year's deadly flotilla raid.

"I wish to go to Gaza. If the necessary conditions emerge, I have a desire to go there," Erdoğan said in a press conference Tuesday at Ankara's Esenboğa airport before departing for northern Cyprus. He did not elaborate further but said the Foreign Ministry was working to arrange the trip, a move that has drawn criticism from Israel.

According to diplomatic sources, Erdoğan was planning to cross into Gaza from the Rafah gate with Egypt during his trip to the country on July 21.

Taking into consideration that the UN panel on Gaza will release its report on the Mavi Marmara incident on July 27, the prime minister decided to postpone the Gaza part of his trip, in case of an apology from Israel. If this doesn't happen before the UN report is released, Erdoğan is reportedly considering going to Gaza during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, which starts Aug.1, and breaking the Israeli embargo himself.

Feridun Sinirlioğlu, undersecretary of the Turkish Foreign Ministry and Moshe Yalon, the vice prime minister of the Israeli government, have been in secret talks in recent weeks to formulate how Israel would apologize to Turkey and compensate the families of the nine Turkish citizens killed onboard the Gaza-bound aid ship. The UN inquiry panel is expected to submit its report to Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on July 27; the report is set to be released Aug. 1.

The Daily News has learned that a draft text was introduced to both Israel and Turkey's prime ministers, and a last meeting before July 27 is expected to take place in New York. Turkey has made it clear that if there will be no agreement on an apology, it's ready to take further steps, deepening the deterioration of bilateral ties.

Erdoğan's possible visit to Gaza, to meet with Hamas leaders, is seen as one of these steps. But Israel's defense establishment may support a "cautious" apology to Ankara for its deadly raid last year on the Mavi Marmara, Israel's Daily Haaretz reported Sunday.

Erdoğan's possible visit was first reported in the Palestinian media over the weekend. The report caused fury on the Israeli side. Turkey is working for intra-Palestinian reconciliation and the visit to Gaza, if it happens, will come after Hamas leader Khaleed Mashal met with Turkish officials in Istanbul in June. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is set to visit Turkey on July 21 to attend the conference of Palestinian ambassadors in Istanbul.


Azerbaijan Questions Turkey's Moves Concerning Nabucco

Azerbaijan questioned Turkey's attitude to the Nabucco Pipeline project after Baku failed to receive a copy of the signed contract from Ankara, according to a top official from the Caspian nation.

"Unfortunately, nobody sent us the copy of this Project Support Agreement," Elshad Nasirov, the vice president of the State Oil Company of Azerbaijan, or SOCAR, told the Hürriyet Daily News during a recent interview. "And we will not ask for it, because this will violate the principle of equal treatment for three projects: Nabucco, the Trans Adriatic Pipeline, or TAP, and the Interconnection Turkey-Greece-Italy, ITGI."

Azerbaijan was the only project partner absent when the legal framework and the project support agreements for the Nabucco Pipeline were reportedly signed and finalized on June 8, between Nabucco Gas Pipeline International GmbH and the responsible ministries of the five transit countries: Austria, Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania and Turkey.

The signature ceremony was organized just before Turkey's June 12 general elections in the Central Anatolian province of Kayseri, where the Turkish energy minister was running for a seat in Parliament.

The agreements were described by the Nabucco consortium as the affirmation of an advantageous regulatory transit regime under European and Turkish laws, protection against any discriminatory changes in said laws and support for legislative and administrative actions for the implementation of the project.

Nasirov also said an obligatory bilateral transit agreement between Azerbaijan and Turkey, to make the project a reality, had not been signed yet either, he said.

"We were very close to signing this agreement in April or May. But some minor and some important things prevented two parties to agree and finalize it," Nasirov said.

"As we understand, this agreement supports the further implementation and development of the Nabucco concept. But I would like to ask you, does this signature of the project support agreement mean the decision of the Turkish Republic was made to start the transit of gas from Azerbaijan?" Nasirov said.

"And if it does, why don't we sign the bilateral transit agreement in order to enable the two other projects? If we have not yet signed the transit agreement, should we understand that Nabucco has still not been sanctioned by Turkey?"

For the ITGI and TAP, Nasirov said that in order to transfer gas through Turkish territory, there needs to be a transit agreement between Turkey and Azerbaijan. "So these projects also cannot be implemented without a transit agreement," he said.

Little Time Left to Find Nabucco Investors

Nasirov said there were also investment problems for Nabucco.

"Azerbaijan has sent messages to European countries many times asking for an offer to invest. But we haven't heard anything from Europe yet," he said.

Nasirov drew attention to the fact that there were still plenty of legal and commercial issues to be agreed on as part of the Nabucco project.

"We have very limited time for these issues, we only have two and a half months left now," Nasirov said.

Second Project: Şahdeniz II Project

Nasirov said another Azerbaijani energy project, Şahdeniz, was huge, sophisticated and very expensive.

"The shareholders have to invest $20 billion to $22 billion just to start production. Therefore, in order to find out how commercially feasible the Şahdeniz project is, we have to very carefully calculate what the sale price and transportation cost for the sale of gas in the markets outside Azerbaijan will be," Nasirov said.

Regarding the United States' open support for the Şahdeniz project, Nasirov said, "We don't want to be involved in games wherever or however they are being played.

"We don't think we will be involved in competition. After the Fukushima disaster in Japan, the demand for gas will only increase. And the gas of Azerbaijan will not and cannot make any negative effect on the other suppliers," he said.

Nasirov also said Azerbaijan did not want to depend solely on one buyer for gas in the region.

"Russia wants to buy all the gas we have, but we do not want to commit to only one buyer – we prefer diversity among the buyers, so we sell gas to the EU and Iran, as well as Russia," Nasirov said.


Top Business Leader Defends 'Acquired Rights' of Workers

The head of Turkey's top business lobby intervened Tuesday in the controversy over severance pay for workers in an unusual way, defending the "acquired rights" of laborers.

A delegation from the Turkish Industry and Business Association, or TÜSİAD, led by Chairwoman Ümit Boyner, visited three top ministers from the new Turkish Cabinet in Ankara on Tuesday.

Meeting with the delegation, Science, Industry and Technology Minister Nihat Ergün said the government aims to finish work on a new medium-term economic program before the new budget draft is sent to Parliament to be debated.

Boyner, meanwhile, said she believed Parliament could present the "will" to write a new constitution.

"The solution to every question lies in Parliament," Boyner told journalists. "We hope political parties within and outside of Parliament act according to this will. A new constitution can only be realized with this approach."

Regarding Turkey's competitive power, Boyner said the economy should move toward sustainable growth that creates more domestic added value.

"For this, industrial policies, industry strategy and contributions from science and technology are crucial," the Anatolia News Agency quoted her saying. In her remarks, Boyner also emphasized the need for a new incentive program aimed at the private sector.

Emphasis on 'acquired rights'

During her visit with Deputy Prime Minister Ali Babacan, Boyner reflected on the controversy surrounding alleged government plans to abolish or curb severance pay.

"Labor markets should be assessed as a whole," Boyner said. "Regarding severance pay, all acquired rights should be protected, in a forward-looking way. I don't think there will be any backtracking on this. A new arrangement in non-salary costs could be realized, but what's important is to increase employment."

All such arrangements should be implemented "in accordance with the Trade Unions Act," the TÜSİAD chief added, implying the need for consensus.

Babacan said the parameters of a change in the severance payment scheme will be determined "after talks with employer representatives and employee representatives."

"I read with awe in today's newspapers," he said, referring to stories claiming that severance pay will be slashed from one month's salary for each year worked to six months of pay for 20 years of work. "I don't understand how these figures come out. Our studies on a new severance payment fund will be based on the protection of worker's rights. At the same time, it will aim to [lessen] the burden on the employer."

The TÜSİAD delegation also visited Family and Social Policies Minister Fatma Şahin, the only female Cabinet member, who said the government's aim is to enact "social policies that prioritize the happiness of 74 million" citizens.

During the meeting, Boyner noted that the rate of women's participation in the labor force is only 24 percent, as opposed to rates as high as 54 percent in developed countries.


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