- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 5, 2004

DIYARBAKIR, Turkey — When a mentally deranged Turk showed up at Diyarbakir Evangelical Church one hot July day quoting verses from the Koran and waving a butcher knife, it took police a half-hour to get there.

By that time, Medet Arslan, 27, had broken several windows, threatened the Christians who were inside the church, and burned New Testaments and other Christian literature, curtains, bookshelves, tapes, compact discs and whatever furniture he could find in the reception hall. Had church members not locked him inside the room, he might have gone to the sanctuary on the second floor to do more damage.

Known in Turkish as Diyarbakir Kilisesi, the 11-year-old congregation just inside the ancient white-and-gray basalt city walls is the only evangelical Christian group in all of eastern Turkey. The closest similar church is at Adana, in central Turkey near the southern coast. House prayer groups exist in the cities of Sanli Urfa and Gazi Antep, which are respectively two- and three-hour drives west of Diyarbakir.

However, this small congregation is playing a minor role in today’s announcement in Brussels on whether talks can start regarding Turkey’s admission to the European Union. Some governments — among them those of Britain, Greece, Finland and Poland — favor Turkey’s admission to the union. Others, including Denmark and Austria, oppose it. Turkey’s lackluster human rights record, especially regarding political prisoners, and slowness to allow religious freedom are two of the sticking points in the debate.

Istanbul, formerly Constantinople, was the capital of the Byzantine Empire and a center of Christianity centuries before the birth of Islam. Scattered Armenian, Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic and other churches, monasteries, cathedrals and pilgrimage sites of the early centuries of the Christian era remain in use as places of worship.

Sami Turgut, a diplomat at the Turkish Embassy, defended his country’s actions.

“We have already made huge changes,” he said, “and we are still making some changes in our laws and [penal] code.”

Turkey’s eagerness to be part of the European Union has dampened religious harassment aimed at evangelical Christians. In recent years, the national Committee of Culture and Protection of Historical Sites has filed two lawsuits to shut down the Diyarbakir evangelical Christian congregation.

Now the church is being watched by Europeans — namely German, Dutch and British lawmakers, embassy officials and ambassadors who have visited — to gauge whether Turkey is serious about human rights for religious and ethnic minorities. Minor matters, such as slow police response to an attack on the church, concern them.

Diyarbakir Kilisesi is made up of both Christians and Kurds, Turkey’s main ethnic minority. Diyarbakir is in the heartland of a region known for its uprisings seeking self-rule for about 15 million Kurds packed into cities such as Diyarbakir, Van and Mardin.

These cities became sanctuaries after the government destroyed hundreds of villages in the 1990s in search of members of the Kurdistan Workers Party. Caught in the middle were villagers who sided with neither group but who, after their homes were bulldozed by the government, had to leave their farms and live in urban ghettos.

Because of their sufferings, the Kurds tend to be more open to Christianity, said Jerry Mattix, an American pastor who has been assisting the 40-member Diyarbakir Kilisesi since he moved his young family there in 2001.

“Kurds tend to be freethinkers,” he said, “and they are more open than the Turks, who have a lot of baggage and preconceived notions about Christianity.”

Mr. Mattix, who acts as a church consultant and Bible teacher to the congregation and to chief elders Ahmet Guvener and Cengiz Bayram, estimates the country has 70 evangelical Protestant churches, comprising 5,000 believers. Many meet in homes.

A decade ago, there were 20 such churches, he said, and most of those gatherings were held in secret. The political atmosphere in Turkey has improved enough, he added, to allow Christians to meet openly, to have summer camps attracting several hundred people and to have public baptisms in the Mediterranean Sea.

Some fears remain. During lunch at a local restaurant, several members of his church were openly nervous about being asked — within earshot of other patrons — how they had become Christians.

One said he was directed in a dream to seek out the church. Others said they had responded to newspaper ads offering a correspondence course in Christianity. Respondents are directed to contact persons in nine Turkish cities.

“We are relatively free and we are tolerated now,” Mr. Mattix said. “What attracted me to Turkey is that here’s a Muslim country that’s relatively open to evangelism. We [evangelical Christians] ought to be all over this.”

Turkish churches have an abundance of single men, who do volunteer work daily at the church because of the lack of jobs in what is considered an outlaw province by other Turks. Bookshelves at the Diyarbakir church are loaded with free Christian books and tapes, and copious numbers are handed out to the 20 visitors the church sees on an average day.

The two-hour Sunday service in an upstairs room with upholstered beige chairs and a blue tile floor look like any similar house of worship in an American storefront. Worship is led with a guitar, a narrow Turkish drum and a “saz,” an instrument shaped like a mandolin.

But conversions to Christianity are few. Of the 20 to 30 baptized members, Mr. Mattix says, maybe 10 are mature Christians.

“There isn’t a huge outpouring of the Holy Spirit here yet, but we are praying for it,” he said.

Unlike other mainly Islamic countries, Turkey does not follow provisions of Islamic law that forbid Muslims to change their religion or exact the death penalty on those who do. But conversion to Christianity is discouraged, and Diyarbakir Kilisesi has endured two lawsuits filed by the local governor’s office to shut it down.

The church won one lawsuit that accused members of interfering with the Meryamana Kilisesi, a third-century Aramaic church and convent across a narrow alley.

A second lawsuit accused the evangelicals of illegally setting up a church in a home. Although Mr. Guvener does not live in the three-story building the church occupies, construction was halted for a few months until a court awarded the church the right to occupy its building last year. Before that, the congregation met in private homes.

“But the laws aren’t in place to make us fully legal,” Mr. Mattix said. “We need full legality to function as a church and to run a children’s program. But any work with children needs permission from the Ministry of Education. But this will take massive rewriting of Turkish law,” involving directives that affect mosques as well as churches.

The problem with legalizing religious buildings is that many of the mosques function illegally as well, he said, meaning that Muslims would have to join the Christians in making their ministries compliant with the law.

Thus, Diyarbakir Kilisesi functions in a gray area between legality and illegality where any group that feels threatened by the church can file a lawsuit. Although Turkey has been a secular country since 1923, 98 percent of the populace is Muslim. Christians are mainly Armenian and Greek Orthodox, or evangelical Protestants who are converts from Islam.

Events in Europe have tempered the religious harassment, Mr. Mattix said, which may be why the church has won in court lately.

“We are optimistic,” said Tuluy Tanc, another spokesman for the embassy. “We feel we will have fulfilled the Copenhagen criteria — demands made of Turkey by the EU several years ago — as a result of the wide-scale reforms we have undertaken. There may be some misgivings, but those aren’t enough to put off negotiations.”

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