Washington Times
October 06, 2004

Christian church may hold key to European Union

By Julia Duin
THE WASHINGTON TIMES

DIYARBAKIR, Turkey - When a mentally deranged Turk showed up at Diyarbakir
Evangelical Church one hot July day quoting verses from the Koran and waving
a butcher knife, it took police a half-hour to get there.
By that time, Medet Arslan, 27, had broken several windows, threatened
the Christians who were inside the church, and burned New Testaments and
other Christian literature, curtains, bookshelves, tapes, compact discs and
whatever furniture he could find in the reception hall. Had church members
not locked him inside the room, he might have gone to the sanctuary on the
second floor to do more damage.

Known in Turkish as Diyarbakir Kilisesi, the 11-year-old congregation just
inside the ancient white-and-gray basalt city walls is the only evangelical
Christian group in all of eastern Turkey. The closest similar church is at
Adana, in central Turkey near the southern coast. House prayer groups exist
in the cities of Sanli Urfa and Gazi Antep, which are respectively two- and
three-hour drives west of Diyarbakir.
However, this small congregation is playing a minor role in today's
announcement in Brussels on whether talks can start regarding Turkey's
admission to the European Union. Some governments - among them those of
Britain, Greece, Finland and Poland - favor Turkey's admission to the union.
Others, including Denmark and Austria, oppose it. Turkey's lackluster human
rights record, especially regarding political prisoners, and slowness to
allow religious freedom are two of the sticking points in the debate.
Istanbul, formerly Constantinople, was the capital of the Byzantine
Empire and a center of Christianity centuries before the birth of Islam.
Scattered Armenian, Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic and other churches,
monasteries, cathedrals and pilgrimage sites of the early centuries of the
Christian era remain in use as places of worship.
Sami Turgut, a diplomat at the Turkish Embassy, defended his country's
actions.
"We have already made huge changes," he said, "and we are still making
some changes in our laws and [penal] code."
Turkey's eagerness to be part of the European Union has dampened
religious harassment aimed at evangelical Christians. In recent years, the
national Committee of Culture and Protection of Historical Sites has filed
two lawsuits to shut down the Diyarbakir evangelical Christian congregation.
Now the church is being watched by Europeans - namely German, Dutch and
British lawmakers, embassy officials and ambassadors who have visited - to
gauge whether Turkey is serious about human rights for religious and ethnic
minorities. Minor matters, such as slow police response to an attack on the
church, concern them.
Diyarbakir Kilisesi is made up of both Christians and Kurds, Turkey's
main ethnic minority. Diyarbakir is in the heartland of a region known for
its uprisings seeking self-rule for about 15 million Kurds packed into
cities such as Diyarbakir, Van and Mardin.
These cities became sanctuaries after the government destroyed hundreds
of villages in the 1990s in search of members of the Kurdistan Workers
Party. Caught in the middle were villagers who sided with neither group but
who, after their homes were bulldozed by the government, had to leave their
farms and live in urban ghettos.
Because of their sufferings, the Kurds tend to be more open to
Christianity, said Jerry Mattix, an American pastor who has been assisting
the 40-member Diyarbakir Kilisesi since he moved his young family there in
2001.
"Kurds tend to be freethinkers," he said, "and they are more open than
the Turks, who have a lot of baggage and preconceived notions about
Christianity."
Mr. Mattix, who acts as a church consultant and Bible teacher to the
congregation and to chief elders Ahmet Guvener and Cengiz Bayram, estimates
the country has 70 evangelical Protestant churches, comprising 5,000
believers. Many meet in homes.
A decade ago, there were 20 such churches, he said, and most of those
gatherings were held in secret. The political atmosphere in Turkey has
improved enough, he added, to allow Christians to meet openly, to have
summer camps attracting several hundred people and to have public baptisms
in the Mediterranean Sea.
Some fears remain. During lunch at a local restaurant, several members
of his church were openly nervous about being asked - within earshot of
other patrons - how they had become Christians.
One said he was directed in a dream to seek out the church. Others said
they had responded to newspaper ads offering a correspondence course in
Christianity. Respondents are directed to contact persons in nine Turkish
cities.
"We are relatively free and we are tolerated now," Mr. Mattix said.
"What attracted me to Turkey is that here's a Muslim country that's
relatively open to evangelism. We [evangelical Christians] ought to be all
over this."
Turkish churches have an abundance of single men, who do volunteer work
daily at the church because of the lack of jobs in what is considered an
outlaw province by other Turks. Bookshelves at the Diyarbakir church are
loaded with free Christian books and tapes, and copious numbers are handed
out to the 20 visitors the church sees on an average day.
The two-hour Sunday service in an upstairs room with upholstered beige
chairs and a blue tile floor look like any similar house of worship in an
American storefront. Worship is led with a guitar, a narrow Turkish drum and
a "saz," an instrument shaped like a mandolin.
But conversions to Christianity are few. Of the 20 to 30 baptized
members, Mr. Mattix says, maybe 10 are mature Christians.
"There isn't a huge outpouring of the Holy Spirit here yet, but we are
praying for it," he said.
Unlike other mainly Islamic countries, Turkey does not follow provisions
of Islamic law that forbid Muslims to change their religion or exact the
death penalty on those who do. But conversion to Christianity is
discouraged, and Diyarbakir Kilisesi has endured two lawsuits filed by the
local governor's office to shut it down.
The church won one lawsuit that accused members of interfering with the
Meryamana Kilisesi, a third-century Aramaic church and convent across a
narrow alley.
A second lawsuit accused the evangelicals of illegally setting up a
church in a home. Although Mr. Guvener does not live in the three-story
building the church occupies, construction was halted for a few months until
a court awarded the church the right to occupy its building last year.
Before that, the congregation met in private homes.
"But the laws aren't in place to make us fully legal," Mr. Mattix said.
"We need full legality to function as a church and to run a children's
program. But any work with children needs permission from the Ministry of
Education. But this will take massive rewriting of Turkish law," involving
directives that affect mosques as well as churches.
The problem with legalizing religious buildings is that many of the
mosques function illegally as well, he said, meaning that Muslims would have
to join the Christians in making their ministries compliant with the law.
Thus, Diyarbakir Kilisesi functions in a gray area between legality and
illegality where any group that feels threatened by the church can file a
lawsuit. Although Turkey has been a secular country since 1923, 98 percent
of the populace is Muslim. Christians are mainly Armenian and Greek
Orthodox, or evangelical Protestants who are converts from Islam.
Events in Europe have tempered the religious harassment, Mr. Mattix
said, which may be why the church has won in court lately.
"We are optimistic," said Tuluy Tanc, another spokesman for the embassy.
"We feel we will have fulfilled the Copenhagen criteria - demands made of
Turkey by the EU several years ago - as a result of the wide-scale reforms
we have undertaken. There may be some misgivings, but those aren't enough to
put off negotiations."