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Anti-Missionary ‘Witch-hunt’ Haunts City in Eastern Turkey

Muslim woman attacked for ‘Christianizing,’ while followers of Jesus live in ‘disgrace.’

by Peter Lamprecht

ISTANBUL, April 20 (Compass Direct) – Fanned by local media and a Muslim mufti, an anti-missionary witch-hunt targeting Christians in Turkey’s eastern city of Bingol left a Muslim woman beaten in her tailor shop last month while police allowed her attacker to walk free.

Guler Morsumbul has not yet found a lawyer willing to represent her in court next Monday (April 24) against the man who attacked her six weeks ago, accusing her of “Christianizing” his daughter.

On the morning of March 8, Mehmet Caf entered the Muslim woman’s tailor shop in Bingol’s city center, vandalized the premises and beat Morsumbul’s face black and blue.

In front of police and Morsumbul’s neighbors, Caf claimed that Morsumbul had been trying to “Christianize” his 13-year-old daughter, Bingol’s local Kent Haber newspaper reported on March 9.

“We’re Being Christianized,” shouted the paper’s banner headline. Providing only Caf’s initials, the article quoted his claims that Morsumbul and other “missionaries” had forced his daughter and 100 other students to attend a secret mass.

Ismet Gunyel, a relative of Morsumbul and one of only four known Christians in the city, confirmed reports that Caf had not been arrested. But he refuted Kent Haber’s claims that Morsumbul and her husband did not want to open a case against Caf.

Another relative of Morsumbul, who requested anonymity, confirmed that the woman’s family wished to prosecute Caf. “She is the complainant in the case,” the relative said. “They should have arrested Caf, but they didn’t and he’s still free.”

Gunyel told Compass that it took Morsumbul, 49, three days to find a doctor who was willing to examine her and issue a medical report. Finding a lawyer has been even more difficult.

As one local source commented, area lawyers have said in essence, “I don’t want to be an advocate for these missionaries.”

Climate of Fear

Gunyel told Compass that many others have suffered from rising anti-missionary sentiment in Bingol since reports of missionary activity first appeared in a national newspaper three years ago.

“Whoever has a grudge against someone else, whoever wants to destroy someone’s business, simply calls the other person a Christian,” said the 45-year-old who converted to Christianity over 10 years ago.

According to Gunyel, Caf attacked Morsumbul as part of a revenge campaign by one of Caf’s relatives, a former business partner – and now competitor – of Morsumbul’s husband.

After the two business associates reportedly parted ways in 2004, Caf’s family began to spread rumors that the Morsumbuls were building a church and converting Muslims.

Overall, Gunyel said the main responsibility for the growing fear of missionaries in the city lay with Bingol’s mufti, Yalcin Topcu. As the state-appointed Muslim authority for the province, the mufti had organized an anti-missionary conference in 2004.

Yet in an interview with Compass, Topcu said anti-missionary fears in Bingol were so strong that he himself was a potential victim.

When Morsumbul’s husband came to see him after she was attacked, the mufti said, “I told him, ‘If today I support you and explain everything, tomorrow they’re going to come after me and say I was the one doing Christian propaganda.’ I don’t feel safe.”

‘Complete Disgrace’

Talk of suspected Christian proselytizing first emerged in May 2003, when Gunyel helped Turkish Christians from the neighboring city of Diyarbakir distribute tents in the wake of an earthquake.

A May 22 article in national daily Vakit claimed Gunyel was helping missionaries “profit from the suffering of the earthquake victims” by distributing Bibles in relief packages.

Gunyel said that life with his wife and two sons (also Christians) remained relatively peaceful until January 2004, when they happened to appear on national television attending a church service.

During the evening news, Kanal 7 TV station ran a 10-minute clip on the Turkish Protestant Church in Diyarbakir , where Gunyel and his family happened to be visiting. Gunyel’s wife drew the attention of both television cameras and commentators because her head was covered in the typical Islamic style.

“After that, everyone in Bingol started to ask questions,” Gunyel told Compass. Neighbors and relatives reacted by cutting all ties with the family. “Our business relations terminated. Our lives were a complete disgrace.”

Mufti Topcu said that to help “ease everyone’s anxiety,” his office organized a week-long conference in April 2004 on the danger of missionary activities in Bingol.

“Don’t give in to the illusion that our surroundings are secure,” the conference’s keynote speaker, Mehmet Keskin from the Ankara Religious Affairs Directorate, was quoted by local Bingol newspaper as saying.

According to the April 8, 2004 article, Keskin claimed there had been reports that 50 to 60 people in Bingol had converted to Christianity and were trying to take over Turkish soil.

Gunyel said that, far from calming fears, the conference only made the situation worse. “At that time we were always afraid,” the Christian said. “They were talking about missionaries, but in a qualified way they were talking about us, because there are no other Christians in Bingol.”

Gunyel told Compass that his relatives were constantly threatened with violence if Gunyel did not publicly renounce Christianity or leave the city. Soon after the conference, a group of women barged into a store belonging to one of his relatives, thinking that it belonged to Gunyel. Store employees quickly told the women that they had come to the wrong place; when the women asked them for directions to Gunyel’s clothing shop, they claimed ignorance.

“Those were terrible days. We kept thinking, ‘Now they’re going to attack us,’” Gunyel said. “Within seven months of the conference I suffered a terrible heart attack.”

The November 15, 2004 heart attack left the Christian dependent on medication to control erratic blood pressure.

“All of this is happening because of the mufti,” a relative of Gunyel who requested anonymity told Compass. “He really wants to drive Gunyel out of this city.”

Rights Advocate Deported

Gunyel also took issue with Bingol’s governor and security directorate for remaining silent on the issue.

Bingol Gov. Vehbi Avuc repeatedly declined to talk with Compass by telephone, and his personal secretary said he had no knowledge of the situation.

Mufti Topcu acknowledged that anti-missionary fears had been misused for personal advantage but also said that missionaries with ulterior political motives were a problem in Bingol. “In my personal opinion, missionary activities are political – they aren’t actually a service to religion,” the mufti commented.

With the resurgence of Kurdish separatist attacks throughout Turkey in the past year, Bingol’s ethnic Kurdish majority has made city officials especially sensitive to perceived political meddling.

Last week Turkey deported Human Rights Watch researcher Jonathan Sugden, who was investigating human rights abuses in Bingol.

The British national told Compass yesterday that he had been officially deported on April 13 for carrying out research on a tourist visa. Thus he refuted claims by Turkish media that he had been “making inflammatory speeches to villagers.”

Gunyel admitted he was worried that “anti-missionary” violence will continue if Caf is not duly punished. He said that, as Christians, his own family is in danger now because anyone can “go to Bingol, beat up someone and not get arrested because the person they beat up is [labeled] a Christian.”