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Turkey's Christians face backlash

Several recent murders have confronted Turkey's growing ranks of Christian evangelicals.

The Assyrian Meryem Ana Church, nestled on a narrow cobblestone lane in this ancient walled city in eastern Turkey, has seen continuous use since about 300 A.D. But these days, its services rarely draw more than a handful of worshippers.

By contrast, the 4-year-old Diyarbakir Evangelical Church across the street, held a sturdy congregation of 40 this past Sunday – mostly Islamic converts – who were rocking and clapping exuberantly to a vaguely familiar hymn: A distinctly eastern rendition of Amazing Grace, accompanied by the saz, a long-necked Anatolian lute.

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As evangelical groups like the one at Diyarbakir make inroads among a largely Islamic population, their visibility has vexed many Turks who seem them as foreign interlopers. An increasingly violent nationalist backlash, fed by both secular and religious rhetoric from politicians and the media, church leaders say, has had deadly consequences for Turkey's growing evangelical community.

Last week saw the brutal murder of three evangelical Christians – two Turks and a German – working at a Bible publisher about 150 miles away in the city of Malatya. According to Turkish newspaper reports, the five young males arrested at the scene 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, Wash., who has been working with the Diyarbakir church for the last five years. "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."

Church officials say their work has become both easier and harder in recent years. On the one hand, reforms associated with Turkey's European Union (EU) membership process have meant that proselytizing is now legal and that more churches have an opportunity to obtain legal status.

On the other hand, violent attacks against Christian targets are becoming more frequent. Last year, several evangelical churches were fire-bombed, and a Protestant church leader in the city of Adana was severely beaten by a group of assailants. Last February, 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, leader of an evangelical church in Istanbul, the first such church given legal status in the Turkish republic's 84-year history..

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

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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," says Mustafa Akyol, a Turkish journalist who writes frequently about Islam and nationalism. "The problem is that this kind of ideology – anti-Western and anti-Christian – is being promulgated by some very powerful people."

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) as a security threat.

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 to divide Turkey and are 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, says he believes that the missionaries working in Turkey are focusing on "on destabilization, manipulation, and propaganda."

"If they are not controlled, this can be dangerous for Turkey, " adds the professor, who claims that Turkey today has 500,000 of what he calls "crypto-Christians."

The influx of evangelicals joins a historical Turkish antipathy toward missionaries, who were active in the region during the final days of the Ottoman Empire and who were seen as little more than agents for the European powers that opposed the Ottomans.

Turkey's evangelists, meanwhile, say they would like to see the government take a more proactive approach against the antimissionary rhetoric and violence.

"Our congregation is used to this kind of thing, maybe not of this magnitude, but we have no fear," says Ahmet Guvener, the Diyarbakir Evangelical Church's gray-haired leader. "We are keeping our trust in God."