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Muslim Horde Vandalizes Orthodox Village in Turkey

Compass Direct

by Peter Lamprecht

The unchecked passions of two young Greek Orthodox Christians in rural Turkey last month showed how a single misstep can result in the persecution of the larger community.

More than 100 residents of the Turkish village of Karsu vandalized the Greek Orthodox quarter of Altinozu last month after receiving reports that Christians had attacked Muslims. A street fight had erupted when two young cousins allowed themselves to be provoked by a Muslim insult of Christian women.

The Muslim mob descended on Altinozu’s Greek Orthodox neighborhood of Sarilar shortly before 11 p.m. on August 3, chanting “there is no room for infidels here.”

Gendarmerie reinforced local police and helped halt the violence, but not before the vandals had damaged 10 houses and injured five people ranging in age from 12 to 62, including the wife of parish leader Spir Bayrakcioglu.

Cousins Mitri and Engin Keseroglu, Orthodox Christians from the Sarilar neighborhood, have been charged with using razors to slash two Karsu youth in a fight earlier that evening that triggered the outbreak of violence. A knife-wielding Muslim in the altercation, 19-year-old Bahadir Arslanoglu, was not arrested.

According to Karsu village headman Kenan Yildirim, most of Karsu’s residents were gathered at the town’s monthly business meeting when they received a telephone call saying that Christians were attacking Muslims. In his comments to the local Ozyurt newspaper, the mayor claimed that he tried to stop the ensuing revenge attack, and that he even received several blows in the process.

No One from Karsu Arrested

Tractors and minibuses transported approximately 100 Karsu residents three kilometers (1.8 miles) to the entrance of Sarilar neighborhood in Altinozu, where they regrouped before proceeding on foot.

As they made their way unopposed through the Orthodox neighborhood, they reportedly chanted “get out of here, you have no business here, this land is ours,” while using sticks and stones to break windows and attack the ethnically Arab Turkish citizens.

One resident, who requested his name be withheld, told Compass that upon hearing a commotion he rushed outside and saw a large crowd. “Behind them were five or six policemen watching the event, because they were too few in number to intervene.”

Shortly after 11 p.m., gendarmerie arrived to reinforce the police and dispersed the crowd by firing shots in the air.

Police did not detain anyone from Karsu in relation to the vandalism.

Later that night, police arrested Sarilar Orthodox Christians Mitri Keseroglu, 18, in his home, while 21-year-old Engin Keseroglu was taken into custody the following morning around 8 a.m.

The Keseroglu cousins were charged with “the use of a sharp object to intentionally injure.” They were released on September 1 after nearly a month in prison. According to their lawyer, Mustafa Dikce, the trial date has not yet been set.

In official statements made to the police, the Keserogluses denied using weapons in their scuffle with 19-year-old Bahadir Arslanoglu and 18-year-old Mehmet Sozer, both Muslims. The cousins claimed that the two Karsu youths had attacked them first as they were on their way home.

Though Arslanoglu denied any involvement in instigating the fight, the Ozyurt newspaper reported, and local sources confirmed, that the brawl with the Keserogluses had started because of rude remarks Arslanoglu had made about Christian women.

Simmering Tensions

Engin Keseroglu reported that after an initial scuffle ended and he had continued home with only minor injuries, “I realized that I no longer had my cell phone.”

Returning to the fight scene accompanied by Mitri Keseroglu and another 17-year-old cousin, he found that Arslanoglu and Sozer had also come back with four more friends. According to Mitri Keseroglu, Arslanoglu pulled out a knife, and the fight resumed until bystanders managed to pull the two groups apart.

Arslanoglu and Sozer went to the hospital, where they received stitches for long slices on the cheek and forehead. According to an August 10 doctor’s report, the scars were permanent and require plastic surgery.

Many residents of both villages claimed that the Karsu attack on Sarilar later that night was nothing more than a brawl between the Christian and Muslim young men that got out of hand.

Two days after the violence, Karsu headman Yildirim was quoted by Ozyurt as apologizing, “We’re very sorry that this event was provoked.”

“This whole thing was started because of rude remarks made to women,” parish leader Bayrakcioglu explained in the same article. “It grieves me that the issue got so big.”

Sarilar carpenter Selim Bayrakcioglu told Compass that the roots of the fight went back to April, when the Christian quarter held its annual Easter celebration of games and folk dancing. “Young men from other [Muslim] villages come because they can be in the same place as young women,” many of whom, he said, were European visitors who did not dress in a way that was culturally sensitive to Turkish standards of modesty.

Bayrakcioglu said that while anyone who came with family was welcome, the Christians did restrict the participation of single males “who were often there to bother women. I think those young men [Arslanoglu and Sozer] were not let in to the festivities, and that’s how this thing began.”

The area has traditionally been a rare example of inter-faith peace in a part of the world where religious wars like the Crusades have left their mark. During Turkey ’s War of Independence following World War I, Turks protected Altinozu’s ethnically Arab Christians, who belong to the Greek Orthodox Church.

The region’s reputation is one reason it was chosen to host last weekend’s “Meeting of Civilizations,” attended by Armenian Orthodox, Muslim, Jewish, and Greek Orthodox leaders.

Muslim Lawyer Mustafa Dikce explained to Compass that he took the Keserogluses’ case because he wanted to defend good relations between religions. “Here, for years we have been living as brothers with these people, Muslim, Christian, Alevi, and Sunni,” he said. “Altinozu is such a great place, but there can be people who want to destroy it.”

But not everyone from this ethnically diverse region painted a rosy picture of Muslim-Christian relations.

Bayrakcioglu, the Sarilar carpenter, agreed that relations with neighboring Muslims have “always been good,” but pointed to a deeper problem of identity that the Orthodox of Sarilar must face.

“We [Greek Orthodox] have never been seen by this mother country as true children,” he said, pointing out that no one had been held responsible for the late-night vandalism. “The fact that they got enraged over a very simple thing and appeared to be ready to rub us out goes to show that things aren’t quite as friendly as they appear.”

Yet Bayrakcioglu is not one to hold a grudge. The morning after the attack, he shocked his wife when he gave nails, free of charge, to Karsu residents who came to his hardware store.

The carpenter said that he hopes things will get better. “I’m not a second-class citizen here. I’m not a stepchild. This is our mother country. My grandfather served in the military here, my father served in the military, and I served in the military. We need to understand this, and we need the people around us to understand this. But it looks like its going to take a long time.”