Erdogan's Turkey Increasingly Dangerous for Christians

Adjunct Fellow, Center for Religious Freedom

What a stunning, intriguing travel destination Turkey used to be. And once upon a time, it was a uniquely safe and secular state remarkably free of extremism, despite a teeming, overwhelmingly Muslim population that numbers some 79.5 million souls.

Nowadays, however, Turkey is being progressively radicalized under the firm hand of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Turkey’s tiny community of some 160,000 Christians is all too aware of the encroaching danger they face.

Erdogan was prime minister of Turkey from 2003 until 2014, and has been president since 2014. Over those years his penchants for despotic rule and Islamism have become increasingly evident.

Of course, the trouble for Christians didn’t start with Erdogan. Armenian, Syriac, and Pontic Greek Christians have never forgotten the genocide that took place in Turkey in the early 20th Century, when well over a million of their own died at the hands of Turkish killers.

In recent years, the future of Turkey’s Christians has darkened dramatically. Just over a year ago a failed coup attempted to overthrow Erdogan and his hardline AKP political party. Since then, an ongoing purge of “terrorists” has led to tens of thousands across the country being arrested and jailed. The country’s religious minorities have seen the writing on the wall.

Following the coup attempt, Turkey expert Aykan Erdemir at Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) explained, “On August 7, in a demonstration of solidarity, Turkey’s Jewish and Christian religious leaders joined the ‘Democracy and Martyrs’ rally, the government’s million-strong anti-coup demonstration in Istanbul. In denouncing the coup plotters, however, three of the speakers insulted religious minorities by tarring the plotters as ‘seeds of Byzantium,’ ‘crusaders,’ and as a ‘flock of infidels.’”

Even before the failed coup, Christians had endured sporadic violence. Two Catholic clergymen were murdered — a priest in 2006 and a bishop in 2010. In 2007, a well-known Armenian journalist was assassinated. Just a few months later, a German and two Turkish converts to Christianity were brutally killed — some say ritually tortured — while working at a Christian publishing house.

Justice was certainly not served on behalf of any of those Christians.

Aykan writes, “The five culprits of the publishing-house massacre were released in 2014, and the murderer of the priest walked [in 2015]. The Armenian editor’s assassin received a hero’s welcome when brought into the police station, where officers praised his courage and asked him to pose with the Turkish flag.”

The pressure on Christians hasn’t come solely from physical assaults. Just weeks ago, Fox News reported that the Turkish state has seized some 50 religious properties from the Christian minority: “Mor Gabriel — one of the world’s oldest working monasteries since it was started in the 5th Century — filed an appeal against the confiscations, but it was rejected in May by a governmental commission tasked with liquidating the seized assets.”

At the same time, Muslim prayers are now being offered in Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia, one of the world’s oldest and perhaps the most splendid of all historic Christian churches.

Threats, thefts, beatings, and murders that are applauded by state officials are appalling. But a particularly ominous action took place in October 2016, apparently as another by-product of the abortive coup.

American pastor Andrew Brunson and his wife, Norine, were arrested and accused of “activities against national security.” The Brunsons have lived and ministered in Turkey for more than 20 years. They were locked up in isolation for nearly two weeks, and were forbidden to seek legal counsel or alert U.S. embassy representatives.

Eventually Brunson’s wife was released, but Brunson is still being held — despite a direct appeal from President Trump to President Erdogan. The White House reported that Mr. Trump “raised the incarceration of Pastor Andrew Brunson and asked that the Turkish government expeditiously return him to the United States.”’

Andrew Brunson remains behind bars, presumably being held as a pawn for some future political chess game between Turkey and Western powers. Turkey’s Christian community remains on high alert alongside Jews and other religious minorities, feeling very much at risk.

In the meantime, Turkey’s panoramic tourist sites continue to tempt travelers — especially Christians who want to explore New Testament locales.

The Christian tourists come to witness glorious relics of Turkey’s past. But increasingly, they find a land whose spectacular beauty is overshadowed Erdogan’s ever-tightening fist.