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Converts in Turkey Charged under Speech Law

Two former Muslims accused of insulting ‘Turkishness’ and Islam.

by Barbara G. Baker

ISTANBUL, October 31 (Compass Direct News) – A Turkish prosecutor slapped criminal charges against two converts to Christianity earlier this month, accusing them of “insulting Turkishness,” inciting hatred against Islam and secretly compiling data on private citizens for a local Bible correspondence course.

Hakan Tastan, 37, and Turan Topal, 46, joined the ranks of 97 other Turkish citizens hauled into court in the last 16 months over alleged violations of the country’s controversial Article 301 restricting freedom of speech.

Haydar Polat, attorney for the two Christians, said a state prosecutor in the Silivri Criminal Court filed a formal indictment against his clients on October 12. If convicted, the accused men could be sentenced from six months up to three years in prison.

The first hearing for the trial, which Polat said could be expected to continue for a year or more, is set for November 23 in Silivri, 45 miles west of Istanbul along the Marmara Sea coast.

Citing articles 301, 216 and 135 of the Turkish penal code, the indictment accused the defendants of approaching grade school children and high school students in Silivri and attempting to convert them to Christianity.

According to the written charges, the three plaintiffs, identified as 23-year-old Fatih Kose, 16-year-old Alper and Oguz, 17, claimed the two Christians had called Islam a “primitive and fabricated religion” and had described Turks as a “cursed people.”

They also accused the defendants of opposing the Turkish military, encouraging sexual misconduct and procuring funds from abroad to entice young people in Silivri to become Christians. Tastan and Topal deny all charges.

Gendarme Raid

It was not until the morning of October 11, when two carloads of gendarme officials appeared with a search warrant at Tastan’s home at 8 a.m., that either of the men knew they were under investigation.

The officers informed Tastan that a complaint had been made against him claiming he had unlicensed guns and was conducting illegal missionary activities. While Tastan and his wife and two small children looked on, the search team spent two hours combing their apartment in Buyukcekmece, on the western outskirts of Istanbul .

“Now let’s go to your office and find Turan,” the soldiers told Tastan, instructing him to call Topal and ask him to stay at the office until he arrived, without explaining why. Surprised that they knew his office address and the name of his office partner, Tastan later learned that a Silivri prosecutor had given the gendarme written permission to follow, photograph and secretly tape them for one month.

After searching the small bureau in Istanbul ’s Taksim district, the gendarme confiscated two computers and an array of books and papers. They then loaded the two Christians into their vehicles and drove them back to Silvri.

After hours of interrogation by military intelligence officials, the two men were released for the night and ordered to return the next morning to complete the investigation. By the end of October 12, they had recorded their formal statements before the prosecutor.

Both men said they had categorically denied all the accusations against them. The charges are apparently based on three or four trips they had made to Silivri months ago to meet a teacher and several high school students who had contacted an Istanbul-based Bible correspondence course requesting a visit.

“It’s all lies,” Topal told Compass. “Someone is trying to make us look like a Christian tarikat [banned religious sect].” He said one of the gendarme officials told him he was accused of having weapons, forming illegal cell groups, evangelizing children and trying to destroy the secular state of Turkey .

Topal, who became a Christian 17 years ago, said he told the gendarme interrogators that he was innocent, “but I am doing missionary work. I am a Christian evangelist, and I don’t deny that. So you can put me in jail for that, if you want. But you know what I’m doing is not against the law.”

A Christian for 12 years, Tastan said he told the prosecutor, “I am a Christian, and I am a Turk. I will keep on sharing my faith. We are not ashamed to be Christians, and we are not hiding anything.”

Tastan said he worked part-time at a printing house and gave the rest of his time to Christian ministry.

Sensational Media Spin

Just four days after the two were released, the mass-circulation Hurriyet newspaper on October 16 gave front-page coverage to the Silivri investigation under the headline, “Gendarme raid missionary office.”

Declaring that parents of Silivri students had complained that the two men were promoting missionary activities among grade school students, the article claimed that their office, linked with the Taksim Protestant Church, had compiled names and detailed private data on 5,000 citizens in Turkey’s Marmara region.

Topal said the claims were absurd, but news clips based on the Hurriyet release were broadcast that same day on TGRT television and the local TV music channel.

The next morning, an article in the Islamic Zaman newspaper linked the Christians’ arrest and interrogations with a Turkish draft-dodger who had two weeks before hijacked a Turkish Airlines plane flying from Albania to Istanbul . Claiming he was a Christian and a conscientious objector, Izmir-born Hakan Ekinci had appealed to Pope Benedict XVI for asylum.

According to Zaman, “… it was confirmed that the hijacker had ties with Tastan and Topal.” The October 17 article stated that the men had confessed in their formal statements that they knew Ekinci and that he had led missionary activities for the Turkish Protestant Church in the Aegean region of the country.

After examining the legal file against Tastan and Topal, Isa Karatas, spokesman for the Alliance of Protestant Churches in Turkey , commented, “There is no legal proof. It only contains verbal allegations, without any evidence.”

Karatas told Compass he considered it “a violation of democratic rights” for the gendarme team to raid and search a private home and office “without a single piece of evidence – and then pass on this destructive and unsubstantiated information to the media.”