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Failed coup leaves Turkey’s Christians on edge

NASHVILLE (BP) — In the aftermath of a failed military coup, Christians in Turkey are likely to face increased scrutiny and more persecution, an international security expert told Baptist Press.

An estimated 50,000-60,000 people — soldiers, police, judges, prosecutors, civil servants and teachers — have been fired or detained since the July 15 coup attempt, according to news reports.

The coup is widely seen as move by elements of the military opposed to the increased political influence of Islam in the constitutionally secular country. Turkey’s president, Tayyip Erdogan, has declared a three-month state of emergency, allowing him to bypass parliament to enact new laws and restrict or suspend freedoms, the BBC reported.

Some observers have argued that Erdogan himself staged a fake coup to strengthen his grip and accelerate Islamification of the country, although a spokesman for the president labeled the conspiracy theory “nonsensical.” The scope of the post-coup crackdown nevertheless indicates the government is taking advantage of the situation to persecute citizens on its lengthy lists of enemies, observers say.

“This is a brazen move on behalf of Erdogan and the Justice and Development Party (JDP),” said Scott Brawner, president of Concilium, a Christian nonprofit organization that specializes in security training and analysis.

“The JDP has eroded the personal rights of minority religions, especially Christians. This includes the confiscation of church properties, assaults and attacks on Turkish Christians that go unprosecuted by the state, and real and tangible threats against Muslim-background believers from society and the government,” Brawner said.

Turkey’s Christian community accounts for about 0.2 percent of the country’s total population of about 81 million, according to the 2014 International Religious Freedom Report compiled by the U.S. State Department. Turkey is an ally of coalition forces fighting the Islamic State in neighboring Syria and Iraq. Tensions within the country have been heightened by the influx of more than 2 million refugees fleeing Islamic State terror.

Christian workers living in Istanbul described the coup aftermath as “the worst-case scenario for Christians living in Turkey,” said Sandra Elliot, program coordinator for International Christian Concern, a U.S.-based nonprofit that advocates for persecuted Christians.

“When the president addressed the people during the coup, he called on them as ‘Turks’ and as ‘believers in God’ — equating the two,” Elliot said. “The government may very well see [Christians] as a threat due to their lack of adherence to Islam.”

During the attempted coup, two churches were vandalized in cities in eastern Turkey where Christians have been killed in the past, according to the World Watch Monitor news service. In Malatya, unidentified assailants broke glass panels in the door of Malatya Protestant Church. In Trabzon, the windows of Santa Maria Catholic Church were smashed; a group of Muslim neighbors was credited with driving the vandals away.

President Erdogan blamed the coup attempt on Hizmet, a moderate Islamic network that sponsors secular schools, tutoring centers, hospitals and relief work. Hizmet is led by Fethullah Gulen, a former Erdogan ally who began feuding with the president in 2013 and now lives in exile in the United States. Erdogan has vowed he will purge the “virus” responsible for the plot.

The United Nations’ high commissioner for human rights, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, reacted with “serious alarm” to the widespread arrests and called for fair trials and the rule of law, the Reuters news service reported. “In the aftermath of such a traumatic experience, it is particularly crucial to ensure that human rights are not squandered in the name of security and in the rush to punish those perceived to be responsible,” al-Hussein said.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom noted earlier this year that the “overall landscape for democracy and human rights in Turkey has deteriorated over the last several years. The government has increased restrictions on social media and cracked down on journalists and individuals or groups that criticize the government, especially President Erdogan.”

The commission lists Turkey as a “Tier 2” country in which “religious freedom conditions do not rise to the statutory level that would mandate a [country of particular concern] designation but require close monitoring due to the nature and extent of violations of religious freedom engaged in or tolerated by governments.”

Since the secular state was founded in 1923, Turkey has weathered several military coups and subsequently segued back to civilian governance.

Turkey straddles a peninsula in western Asia and serves as crossroads between the continents of Europe and Asia. The country is bordered by Syria and Iraq, as well as Greece, Bulgaria and Georgia, with the Mediterranean Sea to the south, the Black Sea to the north and the Aegean Sea to the west.

Turkey figures prominently in the Bible, both the Old Testament and New Testament. Two of the apostle Paul’s letters — Galatians and Ephesians — were written to Christians in what is now Turkey. The Bible also mentions specific places located in Turkey, including Mt. Ararat (Genesis 8:1-5), Haran (Genesis 11:31), the lands of the Hittites (Genesis 15:19-21), Tarsus (Acts 9:11), Iconium (Acts 13-16 and 2 Tim. 3:11) and Antioch in Pisidia (Acts 13:14).

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  • Mark Kelly