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Murders Shine Spotlight on Evangelical Activity in Turkey

The recent murder of three evangelical Christians in the Turkish city of Malatya is shining a spotlight on the increasingly violent nationalist backlash against missionary activity.

The three men -- two Turks and a German -- were killed April 18 at a Bible distributorship in Malatya, a city in southeastern Turkey famous for its dried apricots and hard-edged politics. The victims had their hands and feet bound before having their throats slit.

According to Turkish newspaper reports, the suspects arrested at the scene, five young men who were living together in a residence belonging to a religious foundation, told investigators they committed the crime in defense of Islam.

"There's a huge witch-hunt that has been opened up in Turkey about missionary work," says Jerry Mattix, a missionary from Yakima, Washington, who has been working for the last five years with an evangelical church in Diyarbakir, an ancient walled city some 250 kilometers (155 miles) from Malatya. "The risk is that we live in an overwhelmingly Muslim society where certain segments of the society see you as divisive to the country. We are a target."

The Sunday following the Malatya murders, Mattix's four-year-old church -- one of Turkey's newest -- was rocking with the sound of some 40 men, women and children singing and clapping exuberantly. Up on a stage decorated with a simple wooden cross, a musician with a hand drum started playing a propulsive beat, while another musician strummed along on the saz, a long-necked Anatolian lute. The group, mostly converts from Islam, started to sing a familiar hymn in Turkish, "Amazing Grace," but with a distinctive Eastern feel.

Across the way from the evangelical church is Diyarbakir's Meryem Ana (Virgin Mary) church, easily among the world's oldest churches. Built only 300 years after the birth of Jesus, the church has been in continuous use by Diyarbakir's Christian community ever since. Recent decades, though, have seen an exodus of Christians from Diyarbakir and the surrounding region and now the church rarely attracts more than a handful of mostly elderly worshippers for its Sunday services.

The scene on this small cobblestone street in Diyarbakir reflects the larger picture in Turkey. While the country's historic Christian communities -- who have been living in the area that comprises modern Turkey since Christianity's earliest days -- are fighting to hold on as their numbers dwindle, Protestant evangelical groups are making inroads in the country. At the same time, as they become more visible, Turkey's evangelical Christians are experiencing an increasing level of nationalist hostility, fed, evangelical leaders say, by both the media and politicians.

Evangelists say their work has become both easier and harder in recent years. On the one hand, reforms associated with Turkey's European Union membership process have meant that proselytizing is now legal, and that more churches have an opportunity to obtain legal status. On the other hand, the number of violent attacks against Christian targets is rising. In 2006, several evangelical churches were firebombed, and a Protestant church leader in the city of Adana was severely beaten. In February of this year, Andrea Santoro, a Catholic priest working in the Black Sea city of Trabzon, was shot and killed by a 16-year-old.

"We didn't expect [the Malatya murders], but, on the other hand, it wasn't a surprise," says Carlos Madrigal, the leader of an evangelical church in Istanbul, the first such church given legal status since the founding of the modern Turkish republic 84 years ago.

"There are always communications from the authorities and the media accusing Christians and missionaries of trying to divide the country, and this [the murders in Malatya] is, in a way, a result of these declarations and this approach to Christians in the country."

Adds Madrigal: "They cut their throats like an animal, like a sacrifice. They were the first martyrs of the evangelical church in this country."

Despite the murders' religious overtones, experts believe they can be better attributed to the extreme nationalism and anti-Western xenophobia that are both on the rise in Turkey. "Islam is a strong identity and you have these people who think they are Muslims and Turks and that all others are infiltrating the country and plotting against it. The problem is that this kind of ideology – anti-Western and anti-Christian -- is being promulgated by some very powerful people," says Mustafa Akyol, a Turkish journalist who writes frequently about Islam and nationalism.

Some of the most forceful language warning against missionary activity has actually come from Turkey's secular establishment. For example, a 2001 report by Turkey's National Security Council (MGK) listed missionaries (along with Islamic fundamentalists) on a list of domestic security threats. Last year, Rahsan Ecevit, the wife of late prime minister Bulent Ecevit, who was a paragon of the Turkish secular left, told the press that missionaries are working on dividing Turkey and paying Muslims to convert. "We are losing our religion," she said.

Salim Cohce, a professor of history and sociology at the state-run Inonu University in Malatya, said he believes that missionaries working in Turkey are focusing on "on destabilization, manipulation and propaganda."

"If they are not controlled, this can be dangerous for Turkey," added the professor, who claims that Turkey today has 500,000 of what he calls "crypto-Christians." (Turkey's official Christian population is around 100,000.)

There is a historical antipathy in Turkey towards missionaries, who were active in the region during the final days of the Ottoman Empire. At that time, missionaries were seen as little more than agents for the European powers that were opposing the Ottomans. "Times have changed. Many people don't understand that Christian missionary work today is the same thing as when a Mosque or Islamic publishing house is opened up in the middle of London," says Akyol.

Turkey's evangelists, meanwhile, want the government, which is dominated by the moderate Islamist Justice and Development Party, to take a more proactive approach against the anti-missionary rhetoric and violence.

Despite the murders in Malatya, evangelical leaders say, they are not ready to retreat from their work. On the Sunday following the murders, the large wooden front doors at the Diyarbakir Evangelical Church were still wide open during services, with several curious visitors coming in to take a look and pick up a Turkish version of the New Testament.

"Our congregation is used to this kind of thing, maybe not of this magnitude, but we have no fear," Ahmet Guvener, the church's gray-haired and charismatic leader, says about the Malatya murders.

Yigal Schleifer is a freelance journalist based in Istanbul.

Murders Shine Spotlight on Evangelical Activity in Turkey

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