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2 converts in Turkey charged under free speech restrictions

ISTANBUL, Turkey (BP)–A Turkish prosecutor has filed criminal charges against two converts to Christianity, accusing them of “insulting Turkishness,” inciting hatred against Islam and secretly compiling data on private citizens for a local Bible correspondence course, according to an Oct. 31 report by Compass Direct News, a Christian news agency based in Santa Ana, Calif. news service.

Hakan Tastan, 37, and Turan Topal, 46, joined the ranks of 97 other Turkish citizens taken to court in the last 16 months over alleged violations of the country’s controversial Article 301 restricting freedom of speech, Compass reported.

The attorney for the two Christians, Haydar Polat, said a state prosecutor in the Silivri Criminal Court filed a formal indictment against Tastan and Topal on Oct. 12. If convicted, the accused men could be sentenced from six months to three years in prison, Compass reported, noting that the first hearing for the trial is set for Nov. 23 in Silivri, 45 miles west of Istanbul along the Marmara Sea coast. Polat told Compass the trial could be expected to continue for a year or more.

Citing articles 301, 216 and 135 of the Turkish penal code, the indictment accuses the defendants of approaching grade school children and high school students in Silivri and attempting to convert them to Christianity, Compass reported.

According to the written charges, the three plaintiffs, identified as 23-year-old Fatih Kose, 16-year-old Alper and Oguz, 17, claimed the two Christians had called Islam a “primitive and fabricated religion” and had described Turks as a “cursed people,” Compass reported.

They also accused Tastan and Topal of opposing the Turkish military, encouraging sexual misconduct and procuring funds from abroad to entice young people in Silivri to become Christians. Tastan and Topal deny all charges, Compass reported.

Neither of the men knew they were under investigation until Oct. 11, when two carloads of gendarme officials appeared with a search warrant at Tastan’s home at 8 a.m., Compass recounted. The officers informed Tastan that a complaint had been made against him claiming he had unlicensed guns and was conducting illegal missionary activities, Compass reported. While Tastan and his wife and two small children looked on, according to the Compass report, the search team spent two hours combing their apartment in Buyukcekmece, on the western outskirts of Istanbul.

“Now let’s go to your office and find Turan,” the soldiers told Tastan, instructing him to call Topal and ask him to stay at the office until he arrived, without explaining why, Compass reported. Tastan was surprised that they knew his office address and the name of his office partner; he later learned that a Silivri prosecutor had given the gendarme written permission to follow, photograph and secretly tape them for one month, according to Compass.

After searching the small bureau in Istanbul’s Taksim district, the gendarme confiscated two computers and an array of books and papers, Compass reported. They then loaded the two Christians into their vehicles and drove them back to Silvri, the news agency said.

After hours of interrogation by military intelligence officials, the two men were released for the night and ordered to return the next morning to complete the investigation, Compass reported. By the end of Oct. 12, they reportedly had recorded their formal statements before the prosecutor.

Both men said they had categorically denied all the accusations against them, Compass reported, noting that the charges apparently are based on three or four trips they had made to Silivri months ago to meet a teacher and several high school students who had contacted an Istanbul-based Bible correspondence course requesting a visit.

“It’s all lies,” Topal told Compass. “Someone is trying to make us look like a Christian tarikat [banned religious sect].” He said one of the gendarme officials told him he was accused of having weapons, forming illegal cell groups, evangelizing children and trying to destroy the secular state of Turkey.

Topal, who became a Christian 17 years ago, told Compass that the gendarme interrogators that he was innocent, “but I am doing missionary work. I am a Christian evangelist and I don’t deny that. So you can put me in jail for that, if you want. But you know what I’m doing is not against the law.”

A Christian for 12 years, Tastan said he told the prosecutor, “I am a Christian and I am a Turk. I will keep on sharing my faith. We are not ashamed to be Christians and we are not hiding anything.”

Tastan said he worked part-time at a printing house and gave the rest of his time to Christian ministry, Compass reported.

Just four days after the two were released, the mass-circulation Hurriyet newspaper gave front-page coverage to the Silivri investigation under the headline, “Gendarme raid missionary office,” Compass reported.

Declaring that parents of Silivri students had complained that the two men were promoting missionary activities among grade school students, the Oct. 16 article claimed that their office, linked with the Taksim Protestant Church, had compiled names and detailed private data on 5,000 citizens in Turkey’s Marmara region.

Topal said the claims are absurd, but news clips based on the Hurriyet release were broadcast that same day on TGRT television and the local TV music channel, Compass reported.

The next morning, an article in the Islamic Zaman newspaper linked the Christians’ arrest and interrogations with a Turkish draft-dodger who had hijacked a Turkish Airlines plane two weeks before flying from Albania to Istanbul, Compass reported. Claiming he was a Christian and a conscientious objector, Izmir-born Hakan had appealed to Pope Benedict XVI for asylum, according to the news service.

According to Zaman, “… it was confirmed that the hijacker had ties with Tastan and Topal.” The Oct. 17 article stated that the men had confessed in their formal statements that they knew Ekinci and that he had led Protestant missionary activities in the Aegean region of Turkey.

After examining the legal file against Tastan and Topal, Isa Karatas, spokesman for the Alliance of Protestant Churches in Turkey, commented to Compass, “There is no legal proof. It only contains verbal allegations, without any evidence.”

Karatas told Compass he considered it “a violation of democratic rights” for the gendarme team to raid and search a private home and office “without a single piece of evidence –- and then pass on this destructive and unsubstantiated information to the media.”

Meanwhile, the European Union has reiterated its demand that Turkey either amend or scrap Article 301, which prohibits “insulting Turkishness.”

EU critics complain that the law fails to define “Turkishness,” allowing prosecutors to issue widely varying legal interpretations in a rash of cases against journalists, novelists, professors and other intellectuals, according to Compass. Turkey instituted Article 301 in June 2005 as part of the country’s package of reform laws to facilitate the overwhelmingly Muslim nation’s entry into the European Union, according to the news agency.

According to Turkish media reports, Rene van der Linden, chair of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, suggested in an Oct. 26 meeting with Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul that Europe’s objections to Article 301 could outweigh even the unresolved dispute over Turkey’s refusal to open its seaports and airports to traffic from EU member Greek Cyprus, Compass reported

But the government insists that the issue focuses on “implementation” of the law, arguing that the courts have yet to send anyone to jail for alleged speech restriction violations, according to Compass.

Although several prominent defendants have been acquitted, including this year’s Nobel prize-winning novelist Orhan Pamuk, dozens of trials still are pending in the courts. A number of cases focus on comments regarding the Turkish state’s denial of what it terms the “alleged genocide” of Armenians by the Ottoman Empire in 1915, Compass reported.

Another acquittal was handed down in May to two professors who prepared a controversial report for a parliamentary sub-commission regarding minority and cultural rights, according to the news agency. The report maintained that non-Muslims in particular were subject to discrimination in Turkey and sometimes treated as foreigners rather than equal Turkish citizens.

The report, accused by nationalists of being treasonous, was disowned by the government and never published, according to Compass Direct.
Compass Direct News, based in Santa Ana, Calif., focuses on Christians worldwide who are persecuted for their faith. Used by permission.

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