Turkey Sentences Priest to Imprisonment for Acts of Religious Charity
Anti-Terrorism Laws Used to Disregard Religious Freedom
04/07/2021 Washington D.C. (International Christian Concern) – International Christian Concern (ICC) has learned that on April 07, 2021, a Turkish court sentenced Syriac priest Father Sefer (Aho) Bileçen from the Monastery of Mar Yaqoub al-Suruji to two years, one month, in prison on terrorism-related charges. This sentence comes just over a year after Father Bileçen was detained alongside 12 others on the charges of aiding the PKK, an internationally recognized terrorist organization.
Shortly after his arrest in January 2020, Father Bileçen shared the following statement through his attorney with the Urfa Bar Association’s Human Rights Commission:
“Two members of the organization came to the monastery in 2018. They asked me for food. And I gave it. It was detected afterwards. In response to this, the Gendarmerie Commander met me through the metropolitan bishop. I did not deny it. I wanted security measures to be taken so that this incident would not happen again. But no security measures were taken.
“I thought that the case was closed after the report was taken down. I would give no matter who came to my door. I need to do it religiously and philosophically. I cannot lie as I am a priest. I did it not in order to aid an organization, but due to my faith. Philosophically, I cannot tip off, either. It is also religiously the case. I do not leave the monastery anyway.”
At the time of his arrest, Father Bileçen was charged with “being a member of a terrorist organization.” The charge associated with his sentencing states that he was “aiding the organization.” Father Bileçen was not present in the courtroom at the time of his sentencing, although his attorney was present, reports local news.
Turkey’s human rights record and use of the judiciary to reinforce human rights abuses has come under increased scrutiny. A recently released report by Amnesty International explains, “(Turkey’s) judiciary disregarded fair trial process and continued to apply broadly defined anti-terrorism laws to punish acts protected under international human rights law.”
Turkey’s religious freedom record has also suffered greatly because of these circumstances. The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom recommended Turkey for a Special Watch List in their 2020 Annual Report.
Claire Evans, ICC’s Regional Manager for the Middle East, said, “When strangers come to your door asking for food and water, you give them food and water. This is a foundational aspect of the Christian faith, an act of religious charity exemplified by Jesus. The experience of having strangers approach Christian clergy, particularly those living in more rural areas, and asking for these necessities for survival, is not unusual. To help in this way is not just a religious charity obligation, it is basic human decency.”
“But there is another dynamic we must consider: if that stranger is a terrorist, can their request even be denied? Can you even safely say no? Unfortunately, this case proves a point that Christians in rural Turkey have been making for decades: that they are caught in the middle of the Turkish-PKK conflict and no matter how they respond, they will lose. We urge Turkey to reconsider this case. Religious charity should not be criminalized. A lack of the capacity to give consent should not be criminalized. For the sake of a healthy, flourishing, and diverse society, the precedent established by the Turkish court in this decision must be revisited.”
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