Victims of Radical Islam Christianity's Modern-Day Martyrs
Part 3: 'We Don't Feel Safe Here'
Government-tolerated persecution occurs even in Turkey, the most secular and modern country in the Muslim world, where around 110,000 Christians make up less than a quarter of 1 percent of the population -- but are discriminated against nonetheless. The persecution is not as open or as brutal as what happens in neighboring Iraq, but the consequences are similar. Christians in Turkey, who numbered well over 2 million people in the 19th century, are fighting for their continued existence.
It's happening in the southeast of the country, for example, in Tur Abdin, whose name means "mountain of God's servants." It's a hilly region full of fields, chalk cliffs, and centuries-old monasteries many. It's home to the Syrian Orthodox Assyrians, or Aramaeans as they call themselves, members of one of the oldest Christian groups in the world. According to legend, the Three Wise Men brought the Christian belief system here from Bethlehem. The inhabitants of Tur Abdin still speak Aramaic, the language used by Jesus of Nazareth.
The world is much more familiar with the genocide committed against the Armenians by Ottoman troops in 1915 and 1916, but tens of thousands of Assyrians were also murdered during World War I. Half a million Assyrians are said to have lived in Tur Abdin at the beginning of the 20th century. Today there are barely 3,000. A Turkish district court threatened last year to appropriate the Assyrians' spiritual center, the 1,600-year-old Mor Gabriel monastery, because the monks were believed to have acquired land unlawfully. Three neighboring Muslim villages had complained they felt discriminated against by the monastery, which houses four monks, 14 nuns, and 40 students behind its walls.
"Even if it doesn't want to admit it, Turkey has a problem with people of other faiths," says Ishok Demir, a young Swiss man with Aramaean roots, who lives with his parents near Mor Gabriel. "We don't feel safe here."
More than anything, that has to do with the permanent place Armenians, Assyrians, Greeks, Catholics and Protestants have in the country's nationalistic conspiracy theories. Those groups have always been seen as traitors, nonbelievers, spies and people who insult the Turkish nation. According to a survey carried out by the US-based Pew Research Center, 46 percent of Turks see Christianity as a violent religion. In a more recent Turkish study, 42 percent of those surveyed wouldn't accept Christians as neighbors.
The repeated murders of Christians come, then, as no surprise. In 2006, for example, a Catholic priest was shot in Trabzon on the Black Sea coast. In 2007, three Christian missionaries were murdered in Malatya, a city in eastern Turkey. The perpetrators were radical nationalists, whose ideology was a mixture of exaggerated patriotism, racism and Islam.
Converts in Grave Danger
In even graver danger than traditional Christians, however, are Muslims who have converted to Christianity. Apostasy, or the renunciation of Islam, is punishable by death according to Islamic law -- and the death penalty still applies in Iran, Yemen, Afghanistan, Somalia, Mauritania, Pakistan, Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
Even in Egypt, a secular country, converts draw the government's wrath. The religion minister defended the legality of the death penalty for converts -- although Egypt doesn't even have such a law -- with the argument that renunciation of Islam amounts to high treason. Such sentiments drove Mohammed Hegazy, 27, a convert to the Coptic Orthodox Church, into hiding two years ago. He was the first convert in Egypt to try to have his new religion entered officially onto his state-issued identity card. When he was refused, he went public. Numerous clerics called for his death in response.
Copts make up the largest Christian community in the Arab world and around 8 million Egyptians belong to the Coptic Church. They're barred from high government positions, diplomatic service and the military, as well as from many state benefits. Universities have quotas for Coptic students considerably lower than their actual percentage within the population.
Building new churches isn't allowed, and the old ones are falling into disrepair thanks to a lack both of money and authorization to renovate. When girls are kidnapped and forcibly converted, the police don't intervene. Thousands of pigs were also slaughtered under the pretense of confining swine flu. Naturally all were owned by Christians.
The Christian Virus
Six Copts were massacred on Jan. 6 -- when Coptic celebrate Christmas Eve -- in Nag Hammadi, a small city 80 kilometers (50 miles) north of the Valley of the Kings. Predictably, the speaker of the People's Assembly, the lower house of the Egyptian parliament, called it an "individual criminal act." When he added that the perpetrators wanted to revenge the rape of a Muslim girl by a Copt, it almost sounded like an excuse. The government seems ready to admit to crime in Egypt, but not to religious tension. Whenever clashes between religious groups occur, the government finds very secular causes behind them, such as arguments over land, revenge for crimes or personal disputes.
Nag Hammadi, with 30,000 residents, is a dusty trading town on the Nile. Even before the murders, it was a place where Christians and Muslims mistrusted one another. The two groups work together and have houses near each other, but they live, marry and die separately. Superstition is widespread and the Muslims, for example, fear they could catch the "Christian virus" by eating together with a Copt. It comes as no surprise that these murders occurred in Nag Hammadi, nor that they were followed by the country's worst religious riots in years. Christian shops and Muslim houses were set on fire, and 28 Christians and 14 Muslims were arrested.
Nag Hammadi is now sealed off, with armed security forces in black uniforms guarding roads in and out of the city. They make sure no residents leave the city and no journalists enter it.
Three presumed perpetrators have since been arrested. All of them have prior criminal records. One admitted to the crime, but then recanted, saying he had been coerced by the intelligence service. The government seems to want the affair to disappear as quickly as possible. The alleged murderers will likely be set free again as soon as the furor has blown over.
More Rights for Christians?
But there are also a few small indications that the situation of embattled Christians in Islamic countries could improve -- depending on the extent that nationalism and the radicalization of political Islam subsides again.
One of the contradictions of the Islamic world is that the best chances for Christians seem to crop up precisely where a major player actually comes from the political Islam camp. In Turkey it is Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a former Islamist and now the country's prime minister, who has promised Turkey's few remaining Christians more rights. He points to the history of the Ottoman Empire, in which Christians and Jews long had to pay a special tax, but in exchange, were granted freedom of religion and lived as respected fellow citizens.
A more relaxed attitude to its minorities would certainly signify progress for Turkey.
JULIANE VON MITTELSTAEDT, CHRISTOPH SCHULT, DANIEL STEINVORTH, THILO THIELKE, VOLKHARD WINDFUHR