Last April I wrote about Evangelical pastor Andrew Brunson, who was detained by the Turkish government and accused of being a supporter of Fetullah Gulen whom the Erdoğan administration blames for the failed coup attempt of July 2016. Little has changed since then as Brunson remains under custody without bail; if he is convicted of being a spy, he will likely spend rest of his life behind bars in a country where he went to spread the good news of Christ.
Brunson and his legal representation have been denied access to any court material. On March 13th, Turkish prosecutors demanded life imprisonment for Brunson with the accusation of not only organizing the failed coup but also “establishing links with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and obtaining espionage information for political and military purposes” The only evidence for the veracity of these charges is a “secret” witness. The fact that the Gulen movement is Muslim in nature and PKK is an organization with socialist and atheistic tendencies does not seem matter to the Turkish authorities.
Gulen lives in Philadelphia and both the Obama and Trump administrations refused to extradite him to Turkey because President Erdoğan has failed produce a reasonable and just cause. Gulen’s involvement in the coup is not established, but evidence or eyewitnesses is not requirement for imprisonment according to current Turkish government. Due process, it seems, has become an unknown to the country that now looks drastically different from the lands of my childhood. Erdoğan has systematically eliminated prominent members of the judiciary and the military who upheld secularist and nationalist ideals established by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (1881-1938). Atatürk’s reliance of on the brute force of the military and massive social change—including the implementation of educational reforms based on the thought of John Dewey—were used to hold back the tide of Islam, within which there is little or no distinction between the temporal and the spiritual.
Those changes are quickly disappearing under President Erdoğan. Now that there is no one to hold him back, Erdoğan can do as he wishes, even imprison American citizens without due process with the hope that the American government will exchange them for Gulen. In a September 2017 speech, Erdoğan said, “America wants their priest back [referring to Pastor Andrew]. You have a priest [referring to Gulen]. You give him back”. It should be noted that the word he used for “priest” is a derogatory word that induces revulsion in most Turkish speakers. This kind of obvious blackmailing is justified in the minds of a man and his followers who think the very act of being a missionary or a Christian make you suspicious at best, and a spy or a traitor at worst.
Erdoğan’s unbridled intrusions have so far affected every Christian community in Turkey, and many outside of Turkey. In 2016, citing the damage caused by fighting, the government expropriated the largest Armenian Cathedral, which led to a lawsuit that reversed the decision. The small Syriac community then witnessed the Turkish government claiming legal ownership of over one hundred properties, including two functioning monasteries with monks who speak the dialect of Aramaic that is closest to the one spoken by Christ. Recently, the Turkish government interfered in the election of a new Armenian patriarch by refusing to acknowledge the elected patriarch, who had been selected by a two-thirds majority of the voters. Since the Turkish government refuses to recognize religious minorities as legal personalities and claims authority over them in the fashion of French laïcité, or secularism, such abuses continuously challenge human rights and religious freedom of Christians in Turkey.
Meanwhile, both Catholic and Protestant churches are vandalized or receive regular threats that are usually ignored by Turkish authorities. Erdoğan’s Operation Olive Branch in Afrin, in north Syria, not only resulted in the death of many Christians and refugees, but undermined peace in the region. Turkish intervention had become so troublesome that many Kurds had to stop fighting ISIS in order to push back the well-organized and highly trained forces of Erdogan.
Of course, one does not need to be Christian to suffer from Erdoğan’s heavy hand. Mere criticism of his policies has landed many a journalist, social media user, and Kurdish leader in jail.
The aspiring sultan-khalif has proven to be an expert at twisting the domestic opinion to whatever cause he choses to pursue. Erdoğan has no problem declaring anyone opposing his agenda a traitor, or any foreigner raising a voice in opposition a spy. With centuries of theocratic Ottoman history and almost a century of paranoid Turkish government behind him, Erdoğan has much in his game book to keep stirring up hate and prejudice against those who do not agree with him and suppressing those he sees as a threat to his incoming sultanate.
When I converted to Christianity almost fifteen years ago, the sacrifices I made were little compared to some of the consequences suffered by Christians in today’s Turkey. Since my conversion, a priest, a bishop, missionaries, and converts have been murdered, and trials for those accused of the killings are taking years to conclude, emboldening those who wish to replicate those crimes. Threats and attacks are a regular part of any church, as Christians of any background are asked to keep their heads down and not make a fuss about injustices and discrimination.
Meanwhile, Erdoğan pursues more power, and seems willing to do nearly anything to quash his enemies, perceived or real. Yesterday, on the 59th day of the Operation Olive Branch, Turkish forces took complete control of Afrin, forcing the civilian population to flee for their lives. In a statement today Erdoğan said that Afrin will not be the last stop, but only the beginning until all the terrorist camps in Syria and then in Northern Iraq will be destroyed: “One night we will appear suddenly and cleanse the PKK supporters. If we are friends and brothers, you will aid us in any way possible” (my translation).
“Maybe the Turkish government does not want to forcibly eject the Syriac minority from the country,” said Turkish Rapporteur Renate Sommer from the European People’s Party, “but at the same time it wants to completely erase it.” The same could be said for all Christians in Turkey. The Ottoman Empire demonstrated an effective expertise at patiently eradicating Christianity from Asia Minor, the land from which the Gospel had long ago spread to the world. The new sultan of Turkey seems to have read all the right history books in seeking to repeat the same work of persecution and elimination. His ongoing actions within Turkey and in Afrin—and perhaps beyond in the near future—bear witness to a serious, up-and-coming menace in the Middle East.