ISTANBUL (BP)–In a bizarre twist in the criminal prosecution of two Turkish Christians for “insulting Turkish identity,” an administrative district authority in Istanbul has ordered the converts from Islam fined for “illegal collection of funds.”
Hakan Tastan and Turan Topal, facing charges for insulting Turkishness under the nation’s notorious Article 301, were summoned to Istanbul’s Beyoglu police headquarters on Sunday morning, July 1, just before church services began at the Taksim Protestant Church where Tastan is a member.
“Three plainclothes policemen were waiting for me at the church,” Tastan told Compass Direct News, “saying I was wanted at the police station.” With their lawyer out of town, Tastan telephoned Topal, and the two agreed to go to the police station.
“I thought probably the police were acting on last week’s Interior Ministry decree,” Tastan told Compass, referring to a June 28 directive sent to all the nation’s governors ordering extra security for Turkey’s religious minorities in the wake of rising violence against non-Muslims. “But it turned out to be something entirely different.”
The two Christians were both presented with a separate “penalty” sheet from the security police division linked to the Beyoglu district, ordering each one to pay 600 Turkish lira (US$461) for breaking a civil law.
According to the one-page court papers, the two men were guilty of violating section 29 of civil administrative code 2860, which forbids the collection of money without official permission from local district authorities.
Evidence of the alleged misdemeanor, the papers noted, was in the hands of authorities in Silivri, 45 miles west of Istanbul, site of the two Christians’ trial for allegedly insulting Turkish identity.
The men were shown no documents or alleged evidence of the accusations against them.
“What is this? Just more harassment,” Topal told Compass. Both he and Tastan have been subjected to surveillance and even secret filming by Turkish authorities over the past year.
“This is ridiculous,” the men’s attorney, Haydar Polat, told Compass July 3. “It has nothing whatever to do with the original case against my clients. Now we will have to open a case against this administrative order within 15 days, and it will take at least a year to get these unsubstantiated charges dropped.”
At a previous hearing in January, leading prosecution attorney Kemal Kerincsiz had accused Tastan’s church of breaking Turkish laws by collecting offerings without official permission from local civil authorities.
Tastan and Topal, former Muslims who converted to Christianity more than a decade ago, were arrested for two days last October and then put on trial before the Silivri Criminal Court in late November.
In addition to charges under Article 301’s restrictions on freedom of speech, the two Christians are accused of reviling Islam (Article 216) and secretly compiling files on private citizens for a local Bible course (Article 135).
More than 300 of Turkey’s writers, journalists, historians and other intellectuals have been indicted under Article 301 for defaming “Turkishness,” a concept which remains undefined.
A majority of the country’s influential nationalist factions supporting the law also oppose Turkey’s bid to enter the European Union (EU), warning that Europe wants to force Western values and reforms onto Turkey which are contrary to its Muslim heritage. The EU has demanded that Turkey either scrap or amend the restrictive law to meet European standards of freedom of speech.
Before the Christians’ third trial hearing on April 18, prosecutor Kerincsiz spoke at length to journalists gathered outside the Silivri courthouse about the case.
Deploring changes in Turkish law that he said “removed missionary work from being a crime” in Turkey, the lawyer called the two Christians part of a “dangerous group.”
“They have a large amount of money from an unknown source,” Kerincsiz was quoted as saying in an April 18 report from Ihlas News Agency. Claiming they had “poisoned hundreds of youth” over the last two years, the lawyer demanded that the government take action against them.
Kerincsiz claimed the defendants lived luxurious lives, using everything from expensive cars to sexual temptations to deceive young people in grade school and high school into converting to Christianity. In court, however, Kerincsiz has failed to produce any solid evidence of these allegations.
During the hour-long hearing April 18, a representative testified from the regional gendarme headquarters that ordered the initial investigation, along with one of the teenage boys accusing the converts.
A 17-year-old identified as Oguz Y. took the witness stand for the prosecution, although he admitted under questioning that the defendants had never forced him to change his religion or join in their activities.
At the close of the hearing, the presiding judge warned local police that he would open a contempt case against them if they failed to produce all three of the plaintiffs at the next hearing, set for July 18. The trial will take place in the tense run-up week before Turkey’s parliamentary elections on July 22.
Despite a large media contingent on the scene, national coverage of the Silivri trial was muted the following day, after news broke that same afternoon of the brutal murder in Malatya of three Christians. The two converts from Islam and a German Christian had been tortured for several hours at a Christian publishing house office before the five young attackers slit their throats.
But two days later, the nationalist Yeni Cag newspaper reported on the Silivri trial with a front-page banner headline, “Missionary Fear,” followed by an inside page headlined, “The trial that scares the [Justice] Ministry.”
According to a Justice Ministry communiqué partially reprinted in Yeni Cag’s April 20 edition, the Turkish government warned the Silivri court that news about the case in the international press could cause the European Union to “call us to account.”
The Silivri court reportedly was asked to send copies of the indictment and the complete case file to the Justice Ministry in Ankara.
Compass Direct News, based in Santa Ana, Calif., provides reports on Christians worldwide who are persecuted for their faith. Used by permission.