Embroidered images of U.S.-based Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen, left, and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan are displayed in a shop in Gaziantep, Turkey, on Jan. 17.
By Lisa Barron
Turkish Prime Minster Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s grip on power is being threatened by a rift between his ruling party and a Pennsylvania-based imam who has supported him in the past.
Fethullah Gulen has lashed out at Erdogan from his base in tiny Saylorsburg in the Poconos Mountains, accusing him of impeding the country’s democratic reforms.
“Turkish people … are upset that in the last two years democratic progress is now being reversed,” the imam told The Wall Street Journal in emails.
“Purges based on ideology, sympathy, or world views was a practice of the past that the present ruling party promised to stop,” he added.
Gulen, 72, would like to see a challenge to Erdogan’s Islamist-leaning Justice and Development Party, the AKP, and did not rule out the possibility that followers of his Cermaat movement, which preaches tolerance, would support the secular Republican People’s Party.
He indicated that they, “just like any other citizen, will make their choices based on their values.”
The Journal described Gulen’s emails as “the strongest sign yet of an irreparable split” between the two men.
Under Erdogan, who has led the governing coalition since 2002, Turkey has become the West’s biggest ally in the Muslim world. Now members of his party say that aligning with Gulen’s followers was a mistake, saying Cermaat members “do not conform with the state hierarchy but take orders from the movement.”
But Gulen said it is Erdogan who has changed not him. “Whether the stance or actions of the political actors are consistent with their earlier record should be decided by the Turkish people and unbiased observers,” he said.
Religion was kept out of the public square for centuries in Turkey, but the country has become more Islamic with the “Islamic-oriented” AKP government in power for a decade. Turkish nationalists, who believe in secularism—and are the main persecutors of Christians—have become more active out of their disappointment, and could turn their anger toward religious minorities.
Historically, Turkey has welcomed Westernization, imbibed a secular mindset, seen itself as more European than Middle-Eastern, and completely banned religion from the public square, keeping it firmly under state control.
However, thanks to the government of the Justice and Development Party, locally known as the AKP, which came to power in 2002, the nation now sees itself as more Middle-Eastern than European, and considers other Muslim countries as brother nations. The AKP, presently in its third consecutive term, has been gradually contributing to Turkey’s new Islamic political ethos.
As a result, Turkey now embodies a unique blend of Western ways and Islamist politics not seen anywhere else in the world.
The influence of Islam in the political sphere has not been welcomed by Turkish nationalists who, though they think only Muslims can be Turks, believe in secularism. For them, being Muslim is about identity and not faith. The nationalists have, therefore, become more active, which jeopardizes the security of Christians, mainly the Protestants.
Turkish nationalists see non-Muslim minorities as a threat to national security. So much so, that a Turkish atheist is less of a problem than a Turkish Christian, which they consider to be an oxymoron.
A report titled “Human Rights Violations Report 2012” by the Association of Protestant Churches in Turkey, records at least 10 major attacks on Protestant Christians and churches in the year.
In April 2012, four young men threatened a church leader with statements like, “This is a Muslim neighborhood, what business does a church have here? Unless you recite the Muslim creed we will kill you.” They hit him and then fled the area.
Throughout the year, a church official in the city of Izmir faced verbal threats and egg attacks from youths in his neighborhood. Finally, after he was threatened with a gun, the church threatened to take legal action. Under pressure from neighborhood leaders and family members, the young men apologized and the church withdrew its threat of complaint.
Last February, a church building in the city of Samsun was vandalized. The man was quickly identified and apprehended. When he confessed, the church retracted its complaint and he was released. It should be noted that this kind of discrimination is commonplace in the region.
The 2012 report was, however, soft on the AKP government and noted some improvements on the side of the authorities.
After years of persecution, the AKP government holds more promise for religious freedom than its secular and more nationalist, predecessors, the report indicated. Although bureaucratic hurdles still remain, it is now easy to open houses of worship. The state has even offered either compensation for, or the return of property that had earlier been confiscated from non-Muslim community foundations.
In 2012, work began on the possibility of Christian students being given lessons on Christianity. The textbooks and curriculum are being prepared with the help of local congregations. The Protestant community was invited to the Constitution Reconciliation Committee, and was granted the opportunity to give their opinions about the new constitution being written. There were no places of worship closed in 2012, even though one facility used for worship received a closure notice.
However, responses of the international community to the AKP government’s moves need to be cautious, given that increased Islamization can eventually threaten the well-being of the religious minorities.
Besides, the AKP’s new reforms, while some of them were positive, are not enough to guarantee protection for religious minorities from hyper-nationalists who continue to see Christians as a threat to Turkish identity and security. Their discontentment is rising with the new direction that the nation is taking under the AKP leadership. As they become more insecure about the future, Christians in Turkey might also become more vulnerable to anti-religious reactions.
As Turkey tries to find its voice as a secular nation ruled by religious Muslims, it will need to amend its understanding of secularism to be more inclusive and less nationalistic. It will need to protect the religious freedom of all faith communities from the backlash of secular nationalists by granting them legal rights, status and protection. The future of Turkey looks to be unlike anything in its history, but today it needs to give its people the freedom to choose their religion without being seen as a threat to the Turkish identity.
Nineteen suspects accused of inciting the brutal 2007 murders of three Christians in eastern Turkey went on trial before Malatya’s Third Criminal Court in early September.
With the court’s acceptance in June of a third indictment in the case, known as the “Malatya Massacre” in the Turkish media, allegations against primarily military officials have finally been made public.
“This indictment provides the first solid evidence that our military authorities officially assigned the named suspects to monitor and attack the Christians in Malatya,” Umut Sahin from the legal committee of the Turkish Association of Protestant Churches told Open Doors News.
The new 761-page indictment alleges that the attack by five young murderers who stabbed, tortured and slit the throats of two Turks and a German citizen in their Malatya office had been masterminded by a retired general in Turkey’s 1st Army Corps and ultranationalist military officials in the Malatya gendarmerie. The gendarmerie is a law-enforcement arm of the military; It has jurisdiction outside of Turkey’s cities and towns.
Ret. Gen. Hursit Tolon, who was named as the prime suspect behind the killings, at the Zirve Christian Publishing House in Malatya, failed to appear during the six consecutive days of hearings that began Sept. 3. The 70-year-old former general sent the court a 10-day medical excuse from his prison cell.
Initially jailed in 2008 as a suspect in the alleged Ergenkon conspiracy, Tolon was accused of plotting to topple the ruling Justice and Peace Party (AKP) government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. After his release in 2009 due to poor health, he was re-arrested in January 2012 on “serious suspicions of a criminal act.”
According to the new indictment, the Zirve murders were part of the so-called Cage Action Plan hatched by military officials trying to undermine the AKP government through assassinations, threats and acts of terror against Turkey’s non-Muslim minorities.
In the initial indictment, state prosecutors demanded three consecutive life sentences for the five killers, all apprehended at the scene of the crime. When the presiding judge questioned them during the September hearings, several of the murder suspects insisted that they had no motive to overthrow the government and had in fact voted for the AKP.
Denying any acquaintance or links with Tolon and the other accused conspirators, defendant Emre Gunaydin declared, “We went on an expedition on behalf of Islam on our own to accomplish this event.”
A Judiciary Scandal?
Just two days before the Sept. 3 hearings began, Turkish authorities shocked the lawyers for the victims by abruptly replacing the two prosecutors, and two of the three judges, in the case, leaving only one member of the judicial panel familiar with the trial’s massive files: presiding Judge Hayrettin Kisa.
“This has seriously damaged effective progress in the trial,” said Erdal Dogan, a lawyer for one of the victims. In particular, the two prosecutors who had worked on the new indictment for the past one and a half years, examining the evidence and questioning witnesses and the accused in person, were taken off the case.
“Changing the court prosecutors has had an unbelievably negative impact on the case,” Sahin said. “For six days, the accused suspects made incredible criticisms of the indictment, but the new prosecutor did not utter a single word for the whole six days!”
In response, the Council of Judges and Prosecutors stated that the Justice Ministry’s reassignment of the Malatya prosecutors and judges was a routine transfer, simply following recent legal reforms affecting the status of criminal courts.
But according to Orhan Kemal Cengiz, a lawyer for the victims, “This is a serious and really unacceptable scandal, concerning such a huge case. There are more than 40,000 pages in the attachments to this indictment alone!”
“Is it possible that the AKP government is uncomfortable with the conclusion of this case?” questioned Today’s Zaman columnist Orhan Oguz Gurbuz on Sept. 16. “The government must address these doubts and questions. Otherwise, it will undermine its own legitimacy and the pluralist/democratic identity that it has relied on since the beginning.”
Spying on Christians
After the new indictment was read out in court, six of the accused soldiers testified to what had been going on behind the scenes for at least a year before Necati Aydin, Ugur Yuksel and Tilmann Geske were attacked and killed in their office on April 18, 2007. According to their testimony:
Under the local commander’s direction, the Malatya gendarmerie had been monitoring the handful of Christians in Malatya 24 hours a day, tapping their telephones and paying informers some 60 percent of their intelligence budget to collect data on their activities, sometimes in cooperation with police and secret intelligence officials.
And after the attack, the gendarmerie officers tapped the telephones of the victims’ families, lawyers and judges in the case, and then gave false documents and testimony to manipulate the trial, trying to portray the three murdered Christians as criminals linked with illegal groups like the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the soldiers testified.
On the witness stand, the soldiers told Judge Kisa that they refused to accept “any of the accusations” against themselves.
“I was obeying orders conveyed to me within the command-chain hierarchy,” Sgt. Adem Gedik said, defending his illegal surveillance within the Malatya city limits, which fall under jurisdiction of the police force, not the gendarmerie.
Hearings on the case will resume on Nov. 12, when Tolon and the remaining alleged perpetrators are scheduled to testify.
The key suspects include Col. Mehmet Ulger, Malatya’s gendarmerie commander at the time; Ruhi Polat, a theology instructor at the local Inonu University; Maj. Haydar Yesil; and Ilker Cinar, an intelligence agent assigned by military officials to fake his conversion to Christianity, infiltrate the Turkish Protestants and then publicly “reconvert to Islam,” denouncing Christians as a threat to national security.
Supporters of Ergenekon, a nationalist-secularist …
European Union diplomats are expressing growing concern at what they see as the increasingly militant stance taken by Turkey’s ruling Islamists.
They accuse Ankara of using probes into alleged plots against the government as a tool to jail and silence opponents and compromise the country’s secular credentials by introducing Koran studies in public schools.
Other measures include lowering the age at which parents can send their children to Islamic religious schools, increasing pressure on those criticising Islam and restricting abortion.
“I have used this meeting to convey our concerns about the increasing detention of lawmakers, academics and students and the freedom of press and journalists,” he said.
Changes due to take effect when the new academic year starts this autumn also have also ruffled feathers. The Islamist-rooted ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) government is introducing Koran lessons.
And from the end of primary school, more parents will be able to opt out of the secular education system and send their children to Islamic religious schools. Previously these schools could not recruit children under the age of 15: now children as young as 11 will be allowed to attend.
There is concern too over plans by state broadcaster TRT to launch a religious channel and proposals for prayer rooms in newly built public buildings such as creches, theatres and even opera houses.
“A series of recent moves show that the conservative tendency has the upper hand and faces no opposition,” said Marc Pierini, a former head of the EU diplomatic team in Turkey.
“Civil society exists, but it is hardly audible,” said one Ankara-based diplomat.
“The media are for the most part directly or indirectly controlled by the AKP and the opposition is powerless,” the diplomat added.
Plans to restrict the abortion laws and other moves that critics say will would make Islam a more visible part of daily life are added areas of concern.
Comments last month by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in which he compared abortion to a botched attack by the military that killed 34 civilians last December, brought a sharp response from a senior EU diplomat.
Erdogan had said of abortion: “You either kill a baby in the mother’s womb or you kill it after birth. There’s no difference.”
And in a emotive reference to the attack in Uludere, in which Turkish warplanes killed civilians they had mistaken for Kurdish separatists, he said “every abortion is an Uludere.”
“Some politicians made comparisons that are not appropriate,” Ambassador Jean-Maurice Ripert, head of the EU delegation in Turkey, told journalists.
Turkey is preparing a bill to slash the time limit for abortions from 10 weeks to between four and six weeks.
Thousands of women have demonstrated against the proposed changes, defending the existing abortion law, which dates back to 1965.
Turkey’s acclaimed composer and pianist Fazil Say faces trial in October on charges of insulting religious values in a series of provocative tweets about Islam. If convicted, he could face up to 18 months in prison.
In April, Say told the Hurriyet daily that he felt completely ostracised by Turkish society since having declared that he was an atheist, an experience that for him highlighted a growing culture of intolerance.
One European diplomat in Istanbul remarked: “It’s not just the fact that he is being put on trial, but also what the pro-government newspaper Sabah says, which has made a hero out of the guy who denounced him.”
The Islamist newspaper Yeni Akit has lavished praise on the person who alerted the authorities to Say’s comments on Twitter, with one headline describing him as “The man who gives no respite to the enemies of Islam”.
Erdogan has also just announced that a giant mosque is to be built on one of Istanbul’s most hills, which will become one of the city’s most visible landmarks.
This latest announcement on top of the other developments have been seized on by the critics of Erdogan and the AKP, who suspect the government has a covert agenda to promote Islam — and undermine Turkey’s secular traditions.
“He fuelled this debate himself recently with certains utterances, one example being that he and his party wanted to see ‘the emergence of a religious generation’,” noted Semih Idiz, a leader writer for Milliyet newspaper.