Priest arrested in Turkey for giving bread and water to Kurdish separatists

Ankara, Turkey, Feb 17, 2020 / 12:00 pm (CNA).- Turkish authorities have arrested a Syriac Orthodox priest on terrorism changes after the cleric provided bread and water to members of an illegal Kurdish separatist group.

Fr. Sefer Bileçen of St. Jacob’s Monastery in Nusaybin was first detained along with other local Christians on January 9, before being released on January 14 without charge. He was then re-arrested and indicted on January 16, and accused of being a member of a terrorist group. Information about the indictment was released on February 8.

Fr. Bileçen was arrested after an informant testified that he provided bread and water to Kurdish separatists at the monastery in 2018, actions that the Turkish authorities have said constitute “helping and abetting” terrorists. According to a 2018 police report, members of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) visited the monastery on several occasions.

The PKK is a Marxist group dedicated to the creation of an independent Kurdish state within Turkey. Decades of fighting between PKK separatists and Turkish forces have resulted in the loss of tens of thousands of lives and the group is designated as a terrorist organization in the European Union, though not by the United Nations. The leader of the party has been in a Turkish prison since 1999.

In addition to the accusation of providing food and water to the PKK members, Bileçen is also accused of failing to report their identities to the authorities, even though he was aware they were members of the banned group.

Nusaybin, where the monastery is located, is predominantly Kurdish.

Bileçen does not deny providing food and water to the PKK members, but he told authorities that his actions had no political motivation and were not a demonstration of either support or sympathy for the PKK. The priest said offering food and water to those in need was a requirement of his Christian faith, and that he never left the monastery grounds.

“I give food to whoever comes to my door. I need to do so as per my religion and philosophy,” Bileçen said through a lawyer on January 13.

“And since I am a priest, I cannot lie. I am not doing this in the name of helping an organization, but instead as per my belief. Philosophically, I cannot also denounce someone. This is also the case in terms of religion. I do not step outside the monastery anyway,” he said in January.

Bileçen is due in court on March 19.

Jon Koriel, chairman of the Assyrian Policy Institute, told Asia News that he was “deeply concerned” about the charges, and that the indictment sends “damaging messages” to the Christian community in Turkey, Koriel said.

“We call on Turkish authorities to drop all charges against him without precondition,” he added.

If convicted, the charges filed against Fr. Bileçen carry a minimum sentence of seven and a half years in prison.

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