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A Special Report by ICC
02/05/2013 Washington D.C. (International Christian Concern) – With no conviction for the accused six years after the infamous murder of three Christians in Turkey’s eastern Malatya province, the Christian minority is losing assurance that their interests are valued and ultra-nationalists feel emboldened that they can get away with killings.
In April 2007, newspapers around the world reported on how three Christians – German citizen Tillman Geske and two Turks Necati Aydın and Uğur Yüksel – were tied up and tortured before their throats were slit at the Zirve Publishing House, a Christian publisher in Malatya. Five Turkish youths, then aged around 19 or 20, were arrested for the crime. However, the authorities appear to be dragging their feet, without a conviction in sight, despite the accused having confessed to the crime.
That this delay has emboldened the accused was recently evidenced when one of the accused angrily threatened, in open court, to shoot the judge in the head after he was not allowed to question one of the witnesses directly. His anger against the judiciary is symptomatic of a nationalistic distrust of the ruling Islamic-rooted government, the Justice and Development Party, locally known as the AKP.
Turkish nationalists – the main force behind Christian persecution in the country – are unique in the sense that, while they are for secularism, they do not accept non-Muslims as Turkish.
The Malatya or Zirve murders have all the makings of a shadowy crime drama. A secret political faction allegedly ordered the brutal torture and murder of the three Christians in order to send a message to religious minorities, subvert the Islam-influenced government, and firm up Turkish secular nationalism through intimidation and fear.
The possible existence of the political network, Ergenekon, also known as “deep state,” was the subject of much media speculation in 2008, when 33 of its alleged members were seized in a police raid and charged under Article 313 of the penal code for inciting armed revolt against the government. By April 2011, nearly 300 people were formally charged with being members of the high-level cabal.
It is believed that the five accused were merely foot soldiers in the sinister hierarchy of this ultra-nationalist network, which consists of renegade members of the security forces who flout the law to serve their idea of Turkey’s best interests.
After the Malatya murders, the Turkish newspaper Sabah linked Ergenekon to the crime. In a report by the National Intelligence Organization, MİT, the murders of the Malatya missionaries, Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink, and a Catholic priest in Trabzon, were all carried out by footmen at the behest of a group inside the General Staff’s Special Operations Department.
Erdal Doğan, a lawyer in the Malatya murder case, told local media, “Murders committed by Special Operations and the National Strategies and Operations Department of Turkey [TUSHAD] should not be ignored.”
In January 2013, arrest warrants were issued for a retired general and four other people for their possible involvement in the Malatya murder case. The court ordered the arrest of Hursit Tolon, a former commander of Turkey’s 1st Army Corps, who was already under arrest in a separate trial relating to Ergenekon.
Ergenekon has also been blamed for a series of bomb blasts, a grenade attack on a newspaper, and virtually every act of political violence in Turkey over the last 30 years – allegedly all for the sake of a military coup to overthrow Turkey’s Islamist-rooted government. Prior to his arrest, one of the alleged members of Ergenekon told The Guardian newspaper that he was a “patriot fighting the disintegration of the nation.”
Although critics have accused the AKP government of using Ergenekon to control and suppress its opponents, the belief persists that the ultra-nationalist “deep state” is behind the Malatya murders and many other violent, politically-motivated crimes.
Cengiz Candar, one of Turkey’s most prominent journalists, captures this ultra-nationalist sentiment by saying, “The idea is that to preserve Turkey it is necessary and legitimate to resist in any way. And anyone who is pro-European, liberal, who argues for increased rights for minorities and so on, is a traitor.”
Turkish nationalism is at the root of most persecution and hate crimes against religious minorities in the country. Although most nationalists identify themselves as Muslims, it is merely a religious identity that is firmly rooted in secularism, not faith. Their distaste for religious activity stems from Turkey’s long history of keeping religion out of the public square and under state control – a longstanding cultural ethos that they feel is threatened by the ruling moderate Islam government and the activity of religious minorities, particularly Protestant Christians.
Although the AKP has initiated reforms that provide more religious freedom to minorities, the legal rights of Christians remain restricted and their freedom of religion remains stunted. The Malatya murder case needs swift judicial action, not merely for the sake of calming the fears of Christians in Turkey, but also to send a clear message to ultra-nationalists that the government will take a firm stand against anyone guilty of hate crimes against religious and ethnic minorities.
The added element of a possible covert network does complicate the investigation by reducing the accused to pawns in a network that has bigger and more sinister players. But, the delay in obtaining a conviction for the accused only adds to the insecurity of Christians in Turkey, who urgently need to know that they can trust the government to protect their interests.
As the judiciary navigates its way through the complex investigation, Christians around the world are waiting and watching to see how the story will unfold. The outcome could signal the direction that Turkey is going to take in the future.