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“Turkish nationalists see Islam as a unifying force of the country that will be undermined if Christians are allowed to proselytize,” The National reports. Earlier this month, an armed Turkish nationalist threatened a foreign church leader in Izmir. Turkish nationalism was also behind the brutal murders of three Christians in Malatya in 2007.

By Thomas Seibert

4/14/2011 Turkey (The National) – When a Protestant minister in the city of Izmir left his church one day this month, he saw a man pointing a weapon at him and shouting: “Stop proselytizing! You will pay!”

The attacker in front of the Dirilis Kilisesi, or Church of the Resurrection, was quickly overwhelmed, but the incident on the evening of April 1 was a reminder of the hatred that some radical Turkish nationalists feel for Christian missionaries. Radical nationalists in Turkey are not opposed to Christian missionaries for religious reasons, Ferhat Kentel, a sociologist at Istanbul’s Bilgi University, said about the hatred against missionaries.

“It is an effort by nationalists to create enemies, a perception of threat,” Dr Kentel said. “It has nothing to do with Islam. It is an ideological phenomenon.” He said the fear of missionaries was “a symbol for dangers coming from outside”. Turkish nationalists see Islam as a unifying force of the country that will be undermined if Christians are allowed to proselytize.

Four years ago this month, three Christians were killed by young nationalists in the city of Malatya. The main suspect told the court he had acted partly because he had heard “that Christianity and missionary work had the goal of destroying the country”.

The suspect in Izmir opened fire with a blank gun and then reached for a real weapon, according to press reports. Before he could use it, he was wrestled to the ground by Andrew Brunson, the US priest at the church, and others that included plainclothes policemen, the reports said.

The man was arrested by anti-terror police. In a message posted on Facebook hours before the attack, he had written that “imperialists engaging in [Christian] missionary work will pull their blood-stained hands back from my country”, according to news reports.

Although missionary work is legal in secular Turkey, the mistrust of missionaries has been expressed by state institutions. In 2001, a report prepared for Turkey’s National Security Council, which brings together generals, politicians and the president, said missionary activities constituted a threat to national unity as their ultimate aim was to “divide Turkey”.

“Missionary activity, the prime threat to Turkey, has nothing to do with freedom of religion,” Namik Kemal Zeybek, leader of the Democrat Party, or DP, a small right-wing group, said in a speech last week, according to press reports. “These missionary activities, called ‘Evangelical’ and supported by US dollars, are a threat for the whole of humanity.”

The fact that both the numbers of missionaries and Turkish converts to Christianity are very low has done little to allay those fears. “In a Turkey of 75 million people, the number of missionaries is 50,” Mehmet Ali Birand, a commentator wrote in the Posta newspaper. “And, what is even funnier, in this country of 75 million people, only 500 (!) people left Islam and converted to Christianity in the past ten years, according to official figures.”

There are about 100,000 Christians in Turkey, including the Greek-Orthodox and Armenian communities. Protestants, who are the target of most of the anti-missionary violence, number about 3,000 to 3,500, according to the website of the Association of Protestant Churches in Turkey. Most of the Protestants were once Muslims or atheists, the association statement said.

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