Ausgabe 17/2007

After the Missionary Massacre Christian Converts Live In Fear in Intolerant Turkey

Turkish converts to Christianity fear for their lives after the brutal murder of three people at a Christian publisher. Angela Merkel has called for Ankara to promote religious tolerance, while secular intellectuals ask why the 99-percent Muslim country can't put up with a few Christians.

By in Istanbul

Family members and friends of Tilman Geske gather at an Armenian cemetery for his funeral in Malatya on Friday April 20.

Family members and friends of Tilman Geske gather at an Armenian cemetery for his funeral in Malatya on Friday April 20.

Tilman Geske, 46, had a dream when he moved to Turkey. As a practicing Christian, he wanted to live in peace among Muslims in a country that was a cradle of early Christianity. The German immigrant gave language instruction, established a consulting firm and translated Christian literature. "He was a likeable man," says a Turkish accountant who worked in the office next to Geske's. "Whenever I asked him how he was doing, he responded in traditional Turkish: 'Cok seker -- very sweet.'"

His sweet dream came to an abrupt end last Wednesday, when five Turkish fanatics armed with bread knives stormed into the office of the Christian Zirve publishing house in the south-eastern city of Malatya, tied up Geske and two other employees, before torturing them and finally killing them by slitting their throats. One of the victims was stabbed 150 times in a particularly brutal attack. A note left at the scene read: "This should serve as a lesson to the enemies of our religion. We did it for our country."

But the attack undoubtedly did their country more harm than good. The damage the murders have caused could hardly be more devastating. The "missionary massacre," as Turkey's papers have called the unusually brutal crime, has plunged Turkey into new turmoil. It has also shone an uncomfortable spotlight on the question of whether the country will succeed in its bid to join the European Union.

For critics of Turkey, including some in German Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party, the incident merely confirms their warnings that the country simply doesn't belong to Europe. Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi said the crime "certainly does not help" the country's bid for EU membership.

Merkel, who currently holds the EU's rotating presidency, said Sunday that she expected Turkey to take action to show it was tolerant of Christianity after the murders. "This episode has no influence on the accession negotiations, which will continue with the result open. But the episode is a cause for concern," she told the Münchner Merkur newspaper in an interview for its Monday edition. "Everything must be done to inhibit a climate that makes such appalling deaths possible," she told the paper. "I expect clear action from the government in Ankara (to show) that intolerance of Christianity and other religions has no chance."

Optimists, on the other hand, hope the murder was merely a provocation by opponents of democracy intent on steering Turkey away from its westward course. "Just as one cannot claim, in the wake of the killings in Virginia, that all Americans are serial killers, it would be wrong to hold the entire country responsible for this crime," warns sociologist Dogu Ergil.

Nevertheless, there is no longer any doubt that Turkey has run into serious difficulties as far as the development of its civil society is concerned. The murder of the Turkish Protestants exposes a deep-seated problem: Turkey is at a standstill -- or even regressing -- when it comes to key issues like tolerance and pluralism.

"In Germany, Turks residing there have opened up more than 3,000 mosques. If in our country we cannot abide even by a few churches, or a handful of missionaries, where is our civilization?" wrote Ertugrul Özkök, editor-in-chief of leading secular Turkish daily Hürriyet, in a hard-hitting editorial on the murders. "Where is our humanity, our freedom of belief, our beautiful religion?" he asks.


© DER SPIEGEL 17/2007
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