Trouble in Turkey Fear Prevails after Priest's Murder

Christians are a vanishing minority in predominately Muslim Turkey. The murder of a priest in February shows that the situation has become precarious -- both for Catholics and for Turkey's EU bid.

Father Pierre Brunissen is deeply immersed in thought as he bumps along in the night bus along the Black Sea coast from Samsun to Trabzon in northern Turkey. There is, on this trip, little for the priest to be happy about. He is hurrying to a Christian congregation in Trabzon -- a city of 250,000 Muslims -- which boasts barely a dozen members. And he is needed because the former priest in Trabzon, Father Andrea Santoro, was murdered in his church.

It's a church which is now casting about for a caretaker. In the vicarage, which gives off a distinct air of neglect, a small plastic tree left over from Christmas gathers dust in the visiting room. Because no one volunteered to replace the murdered priest, the 75-year-old Father Pierre was instructed to travel the 250 kilometers by bus from Samsun to Trabzon once a month to look after things in the city's tiny congregation.

The Catholic Santa Maria Church was founded by Capuchin monks 150 years ago. Santoro had the church restored, and now colorful ornaments and images of the saints once again grace the building's walls and ceilings. But in early February, Santoro was shot dead by two gunshots while he was praying in the last pew of the church. The first shot penetrated his lung and the second went straight to his heart. In the dark wood of the pew, a splintered mark made by one of the bullets can still be seen. On this day, Father Pierre will celebrate the first mass in the church since Santoro's murder, but the church bells remain silent -- there is nobody there to ring them.

Christians are a tiny, tolerated minority in Turkey, a country which is 99 percent Muslim, and the Catholic priest is wary of being too conspicuous. He even advises the members of his congregation in Samsun not to wear any visible symbols of their faith, such as a cross dangling on the outside of a blouse or shirt.

"Murdered priests aren't good for Trabzon"

"We have nothing against Christians," says Volkan Canalioglu, the mayor of Trabzon. "On the contrary, we respect other religions; after all, Turkey is home to many cultures." A giant Turkish flag hangs in his office, and he is a member of the Republican People's Party (Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi or CHP) founded by Kemal Atatürk, which promotes the secular legacy of the founder of the modern Turkish state. "You will find no one in Trabzon who approves of this horrible deed."

The vice president of the local soccer team, Trabzonspor, is also upset about the incident. "We were playing a match in Ankara when the murder happened. We won the match, but we couldn't really enjoy our victory," says Hasim Sayitoglu. "Headlines about murdered priests aren't good for Trabzon or for us." Sayitoglu grew up not far from the Santa Maria Church, although he says he doesn't know a single Christian.

Trabzon, an ancient trading city that now hopes to develop a thriving local tourist industry, places little value on its Byzantine heritage. There are many churches and monasteries dating from centuries of Byzantine Christian rule, although most have since been converted into mosques. During the great population exchange between Turkey and Greece in 1923, almost 1.5 million Orthodox Christians were expelled from Asia Minor and replaced by 356,000 Muslims from Greece. As a result of the mass murder and expulsion of the Armenians in World War I, the country had already lost almost a million Christians. The result was an almost entirely Muslim state.

Turkey is still home to about 100,000 Christians. Their status is one of the barometers being used to determine Turkey's suitability for European Union membership, making the murder of Father Santoro especially inconvenient for the administration in Ankara, which is rooted in Islam but is doing its utmost to portray Turkey as tolerant and liberal-minded. "The gunshots were not just aimed at Santoro, but also at the atmosphere of stability Turkey enjoys today," says Interior Minister Abdülkadir Aksu. Foreign Minister Abdullah Gül describes the murder as an "isolated case."

But isolated cases have been on the rise in Turkey.

Churches have few rights

Recently a young man attacked a monk and a priest with a kebab knife in a Catholic monastery in Mersin, a small city on the Mediterranean. "We are no longer safe here," says the Vicar Apostolic for Anatolia, Luigi Padovese. "Until now, Mersin was one of our most peaceful congregations." Nowadays, the bishop never travels without bodyguards, a precaution the interior ministry has practically forced him to accept.

Shortly after the murder in Trabzon, nationalist youth attacked a Catholic priest in Izmir. They grabbed him by the neck and shouted: "We will kill you!" and "Allahu akbar! God is great!" The priest barely made it to safety. After the incident, police officers were routinely posted in front of the church in Izmir, a measure that had already been taken in other cities.

Turkey's Christian minorities had hoped that reforms introduced by the administration of Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan -- as part of its effort to gain EU membership -- would not just lead to a few improvements, but to complete religious freedom. Although Christians are permitted to practice their faith freely, in many cases their churches have practically no rights and often have no claim to the property they stand on.

When Bishop Padovese requested work permits for two church employees in Trabzon, the interior ministry denied his request, arguing that because a Catholic Church doesn't exist in Turkey, it cannot file requests. "That's the paradox," says Padovese, "We are here, but legally we don't exist." It was not until recently that pastors, who were previously registered as consular employees, have been allowed to register as members of their own profession.

"The basic level of anti-Christian sentiment has increased," says Felix Körner, a German Jesuit whom the Vatican sent to Ankara to encourage a Christian-Islamic dialogue. Turkey's efforts to enter the EU have triggered nationalist counter-reactions, says Körner. "Even in educated circles, people are saying that Turkish unity and national sovereignty are in danger."

Risking physical attack

Conspiracy theories have likewise been making the rounds in Turkey for some time, producing a climate in which Christians distributing the New Testament risk being physically attacked. In a sermon against missionaries it distributed last year, the state religious authority rails against what it calls "modern crusades," claiming that their goal is to "turn our young people away from the Islamic faith."

Priests have been accused of seducing women in their churches or encouraging young people to engage in sinful acts. Father Pierre has already won four court cases for libel against defendants who had spread rumors that he routinely watches porno films with young people. To protect himself, he now maintains the best possible relations with the local Turkish hierarchy, routinely paying visits to the chief of police, the governor and the mufti. "It helps," he says.

Sixteen-year-old Oguz, Andrea Santoros's suspected murderer, is currently being held under high security at the Trabzon prison. Four bodyguards have been assigned to the boy to prevent him from harming himself or being silenced by others. He has refused to make any statements.

Was Oguz truly trying to avenge the humiliation of Muslims who saw the Danish cartoon controversy as an affront to their prophet, as his family claims? Or was the murder the work of the Mafia, which was incensed over the church's practice of giving shelter to Russian prostitutes? Or perhaps the boy, apparently a loner, was a willing tool for nationalist extremists.

According to his family, Oguz, a high-school student, had recently become "very religious." "He prayed five times a day," says his brother Alpaznar. His father, who runs a dental laboratory in Trabzon, claims that he first heard about the Muhammad cartoons from his son. "He was very upset, but I told him that it was none of his concern."

The father, pale and bald, is constantly jumping up from his chair, nervously rubbing his hands. He doesn't have a photo of his son, holding up a newspaper clipping instead. "I feel bad for the boy," he says, sounding almost as if "the boy" weren't his own child.

Closed for a month

Oguz apparently spent most of his time in an Internet café in a small shopping center in downtown Trabzon. "He was especially fond of strategy games," says the owner, Senol Sahin, adding that the boy had recently become very aggressive. "He would send me e-mails in which he used vile language. I even hit him once for doing it." Sahin believes the boy is "easily influenced."

On the morning of the murder, Oguz apparently came home and asked for directions to the Santa Maria Church. Then, according to his father, he left the house with his younger brother. The murderer must have known his way around, because the churchyard one passes through to reach the church lies in the middle of a group of buildings, and is in full view of half a dozen apartments, many displaying the Turkish flag in their windows.

The priest's young Italian housekeeper, startled by the shots, claims that she saw a silhouette, and that it was that of a man, not a boy.

The church remained closed for one month. Meanwhile, Bishop Padovese has sent two lay assistants and a visiting Polish pastor to Trabzon, so that the church can be kept open at least two or three times a week for the few Christians who still live in Trabzon.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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