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Catholic Priest Gunned Down in Turkey

Television station: Link to Muslim rage over Danish cartoons confirmed.

by Barbara G. Baker

ISTANBUL, February 7 (Compass) – A 16-year-old assailant shot and killed an Italian Catholic priest in the Turkish city of Trabzon on Sunday, shouting the opening phrase of the Muslim call to prayer before he fled the scene.

Father Andrea Santoro, 60, was shot twice in the back on February 5 as he knelt praying after Sunday afternoon mass in the front row of the Santa Maria Catholic Church. The two bullets pierced his heart and liver, a local prosecutor said, killing him almost instantly.

Turkish police launched a major manhunt to capture the juvenile suspect, found early this morning hiding in a relative’s home near the city center. According to CNN Turk, ballistic tests have confirmed a 9 mm pistol seized during the arrest as the weapon used in the crime.

Authorities said the high school student, identified only by his initials, O.A., remained under police interrogation, which CNN Turk said was being conducted in the presence of his parents and two siblings. Another five teenage youths were reportedly detained this afternoon on the basis of the youth’s initial questioning.

According to a report released late this afternoon by the private NTV television station, “during his first interrogation the youth confessed that he committed the murder as a reaction against the caricatures of the prophet Muhammad.”

Speculation had remained high in Turkey for the past 48 hours as to whether the killer’s motive was linked to publication of controversial Danish cartoons depicting the Muslim prophet Muhammad as a terrorist. Thousands of Turks attended public protests this past weekend in many Turkish cities and towns.

Timing Not Incidental

“The fact that he was killed at this point in time does not seem incidental to me,” Luigi Padovese, the apostolic vicar of Anatolia, told Asia News yesterday from Trabzon . “Besides, the atmosphere here [in Turkey ] is too heated, not to say over-heated. And here too, fanatical Islamists can be found.”

Hours after the murder, Papal Nuncio Antonio Lucibello confirmed to the press that the attacker had shouted “Allahu akbar” (God is great) as he ran out of the church. Although the phrase is an Arabic acclamation of prayer, it is also used as a rallying cry by Islamist militants.

Eyewitnesses to the murder included a young Turkish employee of the church standing near the kneeling Santoro and the Italian priest’s niece who lived with him. The rest of the congregation had already left the chapel sanctuary.

In an initial interview, Trabzon Gov. Huseyin Yavuzdemir told the semi-official Anatolia News Agency that local police knew about previous threats and media reports against the priest over alleged attempts to convert Muslims. But the governor said there was no indication that the church was involved in missionary work, and the priest had not requested police protection.

Turkish society and government remain deeply suspicious of Christian missionaries, accusing them of political motives that threaten the nation’s Muslim culture and identity. Less than 1 percent of Turkey ’s citizens are non-Muslim.

Another theory given prominence in the Turkish press alleged that the local mafia controlling human trafficking in the Black Sea region might have ordered the murder. Fr. Santoro had made concerted efforts to rescue Russian and other foreign women involved in prostitution rings in Trabzon .

Several newspapers even fielded the notion that the youthful murderer was a right-wing fan of Mehmet Ali Agca, an unbalanced criminal who had attempted to assassinate Pope John Paul II in 1981.

But whatever the motive, Turkish government authorities swiftly condemned the murder.

“We believe it is entirely an individual act,” Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul told the press yesterday, “but we don’t know the reason behind it or who encouraged it.”

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan expressed dismay over the murder, which he suggested could be linked to the controversial cartoon images. “We’re extremely saddened with such an incident,” Erdogan said, “especially after developments in Denmark ,” where the caricatures were first published.

“One cannot look for a solution from the barrel of a gun,” Erdogan declared. “This is the wish and objective of those who want a clash of civilizations.”

Memorial rites for the slain priest were held yesterday afternoon in Trabzon . Today a Turkish military plane flew Santoro’s body to Italy , where his funeral is set tomorrow at Rome ’s main basilica, St. John Lateran.

Located in Trabzon ’s Gazipasa district, the Santa Maria Church was built in the second half of the 19th century by order of Ottoman Sultan Abdulmecid to serve foreign Christians visiting the city. The small congregation numbers 15, church sources said.

Worrisome Development

The priest’s murder has claimed top coverage in the Italian media for the past two days. “A priest has been killed in Turkey in the name of Allah,” the Il Gioranle newspaper observed. “The atmosphere for religious minorities in Turkey is severe.”

From Ankara , Protestant Pastor Ihsan Ozbek told the top-circulation Hurriyet newspaper today that Father Santoro’s murder was “a worrisome development” for Christians in Turkey .

Quoted as chairman of the Alliance of Protestant Churches, Ozbek confirmed that members of Trabzon ’s small Protestant community had been threatened recently. Without giving names, Ozbek said several Protestant Christians had been assaulted, even on the street, to the extent that some had left the city.

“We are not in a position to protect ourselves,” Ozbek said. “I want the state to take protective measures.”

A member of the Sons of Divine Providence, a Catholic religious order founded in Italy ,

Santoro came to live and work in Turkey in 2000. After three years in Mardin, he moved two and one-half years ago to Trabzon , a port city along the Black Sea coast.

The priest had just returned to Trabzon two days before the attack, after spending a month in Italy .