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ICC Note: Rhetoric in Turkey emphasizing the foreignness of Christianity has only increased after the 2016 coup attempt. This has lead Turkey’s Christians to experience a greater sense of isolation and fear. The number of attacks and incidents of harassment have increased at an alarming rate following the coup.      

06/02/2018 Turkey (Middle East Forum) – While Christians make up less than half a percent of Turkey’s population, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his ruling Justice and Reconciliation Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi, AKP) depict them as a grave threat to the stability of the nation. With Erdoğan’s jihadist rhetoric often stereotyping Christian Turkish citizens as not real Turks but rather as Western stooges and collaborators, many Turks seem to be tilting toward an “eliminationist anti-Christian mentality,” to use historian Daniel Goldhagen’s term. Small wonder that the recent launch of an official online genealogy service allowing Turks to trace their ancestry has kindled a tidal xenophobic wave on the social media welcoming the fresh possibility to expose “Crypto-Armenians, Greeks, and Jews” mascarading as true Turks. [1]

Persecution of Turkey’s Christian minority has long predated Erdoğan and the AKP. As it stood on the verge of extinction, the Ottoman Empire engaged in mass deportations and massacres that culminated in the Armenian genocide. The end of World War I saw the expulsion of more than a million Greeks,[2] and the position of the dwindling Christian community only somewhat improved in Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s secularist republic. Yet while Kemalist Turkey paid lip service to the equality of its non-Muslim minorities, the AKP unabashedly excludes these groups from Turkey’s increasingly Islamist national ethos.[3]

An ominous indication of what lay in store for the religious minorities was afforded as early as December 1998 when Erdoğan, then mayor of Istanbul and an opposition politician, announced that the “mosques are our barracks, the domes our helmets, the minarets our bayonets, and the faithful our soldiers,” quoting a line from a poem by the nineteenth-century nationalist poet Ziya Gökalp underscoring the Islamist foundation of Turkish identity. And while this recitation landed Erdoğan in prison for inciting religion-based hatred,[4] once at the helm, he steadily realized this vision, systematically undoing Atatürk’s secularist legacy and Islamizing Turkey’s public space through such means as the government-operated Religious Affairs Directorate (Diyanet), which pays the salaries of the country’s 110,000 imams and controls the content of their Friday sermons.

Things came to a head during the July 15, 2016 abortive coup when the regime ordered the imams to go to their mosques and urge the faithful to take to the streets to quash the attempted revolt.[5] Not surprisingly, this Islamist-nationalist reassertion was accompanied by numerous Christophobic manifestations (in Ayyan Hirsi Ali’s words),[6] notably attacks on churches throughout the country.[7] In Malatya, for example, a gang chanting “Allahu Akbar” broke the glass panels of the front door of a Protestant church while, in the Black Sea city of Trabzon, rioters smashed the windows of the Santa Maria Catholic church. Witnesses said the attackers used hammers to break down the door of the church before Muslim neighbors drove them away.[8] As Istanbul pastor Yüce Kabakçı lamented:

The reality is that Turkey is neither a democracy nor a secular republic. There is no division between government affairs and religious affairs. There’s no doubt that the government uses the mosques to get its message across to its grassroots supporters. There is an atmosphere in Turkey right now that anyone who isn’t Sunni is a threat to the stability of the nation. Even the educated classes here don’t associate personally with Jews or Christians. It’s more than suspicion. It’s a case of let’s get rid of anyone who isn’t Sunni.[9]

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For interviews with Claire Evans, ICC’s Regional Manager, please contact Olivia Miller, Communications Coordinator: press@persecution.org