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Christians in Turkey fear more attacks after killings at publishing house

Christians in Turkey fear more attacks after killings at publishing house

The gruesome killing of three Christians in this eastern town highlights Turkey's uneasy relationship with its minorities, with Christians fearful that intensifying nationalism and intolerance could lead to more outbreaks of violence against them.
On Thursday, police detained five more suspects in an attack at a Christian publishing house that distributed Bibles, doubling the number of suspects in custody. Some reportedly said they carried out the killings to protect Islam.
The three victims _ a German and two Turkish citizens who converted to Christianity _ were found with their hands and legs tied and their throats slit. The victims had bruises on their faces and cuts on their wrists from the ropes that bound them.
The attack Wednesday added to concerns in Europe about whether this predominantly Muslim country _ which is bidding for European Union membership _ can protect its religious minorities.
Christian leaders traveling to Malatya said they worried that nationalists were stoking latent hostilities against non-Turks and non-Muslims by exploiting growing uncertainty over Turkey's place in the world.
The uncertainty _ and growing suspicion against foreigners _ has been driven by a faltering EU bid, a resilient Kurdish separatist movement in southeastern Turkey, and by an increasingly vocal group of Islamists who see themselves _ and Turkey _ as locked in battle with a hostile Christian West.
"Our lives are in danger because of this mindset," the Rev. Ihsan Ozbek, pastor of the Ankara-based Kurtulus Church, said angrily at a news conference in Malatya. He said there was a "witch hunt" underway against Christians and other minorities.
Nationalists, who have long dominated public debate in Turkey, have also begun to call for Turkey to withdraw from the pro-western project and make its own way in the world. A consequence is that some young men indoctrinated with a vision of Turkish greatness _ and with a view of the West as a force intent on keeping the Islamic world weak _ appear to be viewing with increasing suspicion anyone who is not ethnically Turkish or Muslim.
"The problem is our education and our media," Mustafa Efe, the head of Mujde FM, or Miracle FM, a Christian broadcasting station, said after traveling from Istanbul to Malatya to meet Protestant pastors. "They always say Christianity is dangerous because Christians are trying to break up Turkey."
Christians make up just a fraction of one percent of Turkey's population of 71 million, but the suspicion exists nonetheless.
"There is this general atmosphere of fear _ that Turkey will be segmented," said Orhan Kemal Cengiz, a human rights lawyer who represented one of those killed, Necati Aydin, in an earlier court case. Aydin, 26, had been charged with insulting Islam and spent a month in jail after he was found distributing Bibles in the Aegean city of Izmir.
Hurriyet newspaper quoted one unnamed suspect as saying: "We didn't do this for ourselves, but for our religion. Our religion is being destroyed. Let this be a lesson to enemies of our religion."
Local media said the suspects, all students, were staying at a hostel belonging to an Islamic foundation.
On Wednesday, police detained four youths, aged 19-20, as well as a fifth who underwent surgery for head injuries after he apparently tried to escape the crime scene by jumping from a fourth story window. Five other suspects detained Thursday were about the same age as those taken into custody on the day of the attack, Gov. Halil Ibrahim Dasoz said.
Since last year, other Turkish youths have killed a Catholic priest while he prayed in a church in Trabzon, threatened other priests, and killed a prominent Armenian Christian editor in Istanbul.
Many residents thought their age suggested there was someone else behind the crimes.
"A normal citizen, a normal Muslim, won't get up and do something like this. They won't get up and shoot the pope," said Haydar Kaban, 46, alluding to Mehmet Ali Agca, a Turk from Malatya who shot Pope John Paul II in 1981.
"These are all young people, they're ignorant and if you look, they all come from poor families. These are people who were persuaded," said Dogan Oksar, 29. He speculated that the people who carried out the crimes weren't even from Malatya, a city growing in prosperity that attracts workers and students from other parts of Turkey's poor southeast.
The latest violence comes ahead of presidential elections next month, a contest that highlights fears among Turkey's secular establishment that a candidate from Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's Islamic-rooted party, or even Erdogan himself, could win the job and strengthen Islamic influence on the government.
Erdogan has rejected the label of "Islamist," citing his commitment to the EU bid, though the bid looks increasingly moribund.
Christians and other minorities have watched Turkey's struggling EU bid, which was to afford them more protection, with alarm. Many have worried that the papacy of Pope Benedict XVI, who when he was still a cardinal spoke against Turkey's bid for membership, would only contribute to their problems.
Italian Premier Romano Prodi, speaking from South Korea during a state visit, told the ANSA news agency that while the attack "certainly does not help" Turkey's EU bid, "tragedies like this should not influence" the decision as there are "political guidelines that are looking at long-term prospects."
German Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrat Party _ which opposes Turkey's bid _ said the attacks showed the country's shortcomings in protecting religious freedoms.
The German citizen and one of the Turkish victims were found dead at the publishing house, and the third victim died in a hospital. The German man, identified as 46-year-old Tilman Ekkehart Geske, had been living in Malatya since 2003. His family wanted to bury him in Malatya, and his German wife Susanna, speaking Turkish, told ATV television that she would raise her children in Malatya, a gritty textile and agriculture city famous for its apricots.
A large Turkish flag hung from one of the windows of the four-story students' residence where five of the suspects lived. The curtains were drawn and the door was locked.
Ozbek, the pastor from Ankara, said most Christians were committed to life in Turkey.
"We'll stay where we are. We are Turkish citizens," he said. "We have nowhere else to go."


Updated : 2021-10-16 20:58 GMT+08:00