ICC Note: An annual report produced by the Union of Protestant Churches highlights the continued hostilities and discrimination faced by churches and Christians throughout the country. Most of them are on the level of threats, small-scale attacks including arson, broken windows, and other types of vandalism. There are also legal obstacles by local officials that further restrict the ability of Christians, especially Protestants to meet and worship openly.
01/12/2015 Turkey (Al-Monitor) While barbaric attacks such as the one on the French magazine Charlie Hebdo raise concerns of Islamist extremism and sometimes spark Islamophobia in the West, Turkey’s tiny Protestant community is reporting intolerance toward Christians.
The Union of Protestant Churches, the umbrella organization for all Protestant denominations in Turkey, published its “Rights Violations Report 2014” on Jan. 7 on its website. The document contained a long list of incidents of harassment and discrimination faced by church members throughout Turkey in the past year.
Fortunately, it lists no assassinations and murders. Yet, still there are various hate crimes that reflect bigotry against Christians on a societal level. Examples include threats to local churches and small-scale attacks such as suspected arson or the breaking of windows. There are also cases of humiliation and threats to converts from Islam to Christianity. Missionary work, in particular, was met with hostility, as Protestants faced threats while trying to share their faith.
Some of these threats came from ordinary citizens, but there are cases of official harassment as well. In Izmir, for example, a group of Protestants was detained briefly for engaging in “missionary activity,” which is actually not banned by Turkish law, yet is still widely opposed. In another incident during Christmas in Antalya, the police confiscated Bibles from a Protestant booth.
Most probably, none of these incidents reflect a policy decided at higher levels. They rather seem to reflect a societal intolerance that influences policymakers in a bottom-up fashion, and the report notes that nuance. First, it lists numerous occasions in which the Protestants’ reasonable demands to establish places of worship, proclaim their faith or celebrate their holy days such as Christmas were rejected by mayors or other local administrators in various parts of Turkey, from Istanbul to the southeast. These rejections, the report argues, are mainly caused by local politicians worrying over losing votes and “local administrators’ unwillingness to be seen as ‘those who allow the building of churches.'”
To understand the deeper dynamics of the problem, Al-Monitor spoke to Umut Sahin, the secretary-general of the Union of Protestant Churches and himself a Protestant convert. Sahin cited some facts about his community. There are currently some 50,000 Protestants in Turkey, he said, but most of them are expatriates from the West. Native Turkish Protestants, he added, number only about 5,000 individuals, nearly all converts. Some 4,000 of these are converts from Islam, while the remaining 1,000 are converts from Eastern churches, such as the Armenian Church.
One fundamental problem, Sahin argued, is that while the Turkish government recognizes traditionally established communities — such as the Greek Orthodox, Armenian, Catholic or Syriac churches — it does not recognize the Protestants.