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Four Street Evangelists Jailed

Three released, one could be deported; top Muslim official defends missionary work.

4/27/07 Turkey (Compass Direct News) – Police jailed four Christian street evangelists in Istanbul for “missionary activity” this week, even as government officials openly defended the right of all religious groups to carry out evangelistic work in Turkey .

Officials released U.S. citizen David Byle this evening, more than 48 hours after he was arrested along with a Korean and two Turkish Christians, his wife said.

Christian sources maintained that Turkey plans to deport the Korean believer, though further details remain unknown.

The four men were detained Wednesday afternoon (April 25) while sharing their Christian faith with passersby at a park in Istanbul ’s Taksim district.

Speaking earlier to Compass from his detention cell at the new foreigners branch of the Turkish security police in Kumkapi, Byle said that an official police report charged the evangelists with missionary activity, disturbing the peace and insulting Islam.

A representative from the U.S. Consulate in Istanbul confirmed the charges to Compass after visiting the police station where Byle was being held yesterday.

“The third charge is missionary activity, but that’s not against the law, so I’m not sure how they are going to work that one,” the consulate worker said.

Byle told Compass that the claim of insulting Islam was based on a book the evangelists were giving out, which he said politely explained that Christians cannot accept the Quran because it contradicts some of the teachings of the New Testament.

“That stuff won’t do anything in court,” Byle, 38, commented. “The only one that could was ‘disturbing the peace,’ and that’s a judgment call.”

Byle said he assumed that the case had been blown out of proportion by right-wing policemen who knew the Christians had not actually done anything illegal.

“But they think, ‘Well at least we can make his life miserable for a few days by pushing him through the system,’” Byle said.

Two of the four Christians were released hours after their arrest.

Byle told Compass that he and the Korean street evangelist had not been visited by a state prosecutor, who is legally required to either throw out the case or officially charge the men within 24 hours of their arrest.

The father of five young children, Byle has been living in Turkey since 1999. The Korean street evangelist, 26, arrived in Istanbul three months ago.

Police arrested the four men after a young woman, angered that her male companion was discussing Christianity with the evangelists, complained to police that the group was “disturbing the peace,” Byle told Compass.

“With about 40 people in front of me, I said that I had just come back from the funerals in Malatya and Izmir and I met with the widows of the Christians who were killed [on April 18 at a Christian publishing house in Malatya],” Byle said. “I said I was amazed with how gentle they were and how forgiving they were of their husband’s killers.”

Byle said that no one in the crowd had a problem with his message when he told them that forgiveness was the only hope for the world. It was only during follow-up conversations that difficulties arose for the street preachers.

“The gal [who complained to the police] happened to be linked to a right-wing group,” Byle told Compass from jail.

Arrested along with Byle were Muharrem Kavak and another Turkish Christian who requested anonymity. He and Kavak were released around midnight on April 25.

Tense National Debate

The arrests occurred in the midst of tense national debate over the legitimacy of Christian missionary activity, sparked by the gruesome killing of three Christian men in southeastern Turkey last week.

One German and two Turkish Christians working at a Christian publishing and book distribution company were tortured and killed in the city of Malatya on April 18.

The five young Muslim suspects reportedly said they carried out the killings to protect their faith and their country.

Though evangelistic activity is protected within the Turkish penal code, anti-missionary and anti-Christian rhetoric has flourished among government officials and national media sources, particularly during the past two years.

“Christophobia” has come from all sides of the political spectrum – not only from Islamists, but also from right-wing and left-wing secularists, Mustafa Akyol pointed out in an April 20 editorial for the Turkish Daily News.

“Almost every day there are news reports on television and in the newspapers about missionaries’ treacherous plans, and how they are buying people with money,” Ihsan Ozbek, chairman of the Alliance of Protestant Churches in Turkey, said at a press conference from Malatya following the murders.

Government officials were quick to condemn the killings, but some declared that Christians and missionaries should shoulder the blame. “Missionaries are more dangerous than terror organizations,” Niyazi Guney, Ministry of Justice director general of laws, commented only a day after the murders, according to the daily Milliyet newspaper.

Even Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, while condemning the murders, scolded Protestant leader Ozbek for claiming that a “witch hunt” against Christians and other minorities was under way in Turkey .

“I see him pouring oil onto the fire,” an April 21 article in Today’s Zaman quoted Erdogan as saying. “I warn him as well, it isn’t right to act this way.”

“We are not fanning the fire, we are already on fire,” Ozbek responded publicly at the funeral of one of the murdered Christians, Necati Aydin, in Izmir on Saturday (April 21).

But in the wake of the Malatya killings, many journalists and politicians have begun to defend missionary activity as a basic right within the scope of religious freedom. Most notable was an unprecedented statement by Religious Affairs Director Ali Bardakoglu, who came out in support of individual freedom to share one’s beliefs.

“No, it is their natural right,” Bardakoglu said according to an April 21 Hurriyet article, when asked whether missionary work was a danger to Turkey . “We must learn to respect even the personal choice of an atheist, let alone other religions.”

Prior Attacks, Harassment

But for Byle and his street-preaching colleagues, statements about freedom to evangelize remain less than convincing.

“David has never been charged before,” Byle’s wife told Compass. “But he’s been stopped by police so many times I can’t remember how often it has happened.”

She said that encounters with police have often been positive, once they see that Byle’s work is apolitical, but this has not always prevented problems from arising with passersby.

In September 2006, Byle and a team of five street evangelists were physically attacked while sharing their faith in Istanbul ’s Kadikoy district. Their assailants escaped after inflicting only minor wounds, and local police helped the Christians receive treatment at a nearby hospital.

“We don’t have any more details,” Byle’s wife said tonight when asked whether Byle would face charges. “The kids are happy that their father is coming home, they’re staying up to wait for him.”