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A Christian opportunity?

International | After the earthquake, evangelicals in Turkey strive for a better standing-benign neglect would be just fine-in a Muslim-dominated world

Issue: "The new school year," Sept. 11, 1999

in Izmit, Turkey - In Turkey's earthquake zone last week, good news was still traveling in packs with the bad. The good news for Christian workers in Izmit began just hours after the quake struck on Aug. 17. A fledgling evangelical congregation with a history of run-ins with local authorities suddenly found itself on call as one of the main distribution points for food, medicine, and other emergency supplies. Church workers were suddenly too busy meeting the needs of the hard-hit community to notice the irony: Local officials who had repeatedly blocked permits and registration for the church building were now turning to it in their hour of need. Turkey's tiny Christian minority has itself been burdened to a breaking point by the immense needs of quake victims, the zeal of outside organizations to assist, and the church's uneasy position in Muslim areas. For all intents and purposes, Turkey is entirely Muslim. Some churches in the quake zone have struggled for years to attain five members; others grow under foreign tentmakers who never advertise their Christian beliefs; and no one estimates the evangelical Christian population to be larger than 2,000 nationwide. If compression and tension in concrete and steel were thrown into deadly imbalance by the quake, the same kinds of forces are testing the tiny minority in the aftermath. One week after the quake, good community relations for the church in Izmit ended. Local police detained and beat two workers connected with it. When church organizer Philip Benstead, a British worker, went to petition for their release, police were "extremely belligerent" and threatened him. A day later, police showed up to inspect the distribution center. They threatened to charge the church with proselytizing children, according to Mr. Benstead. While they were there, one officer urinated all over a newly painted bathroom. Unlike many foreign workers, Mr. Benstead is unafraid of publicity or confrontation. "Everything we have done has been legal," he said. So, with beans, rice, food tins, and diapers all still flowing out of Protestant Church Relief headquarters in Izmit, Mr. Benstead filed a letter of complaint with local officials. He told WORLD he would like his group to be governed by the laws of the land (which technically allow freedom of religion) rather than by the vagaries of local harassment. "The pressure is heavy, but we would like to stay here," Mr. Benstead said. "We have friends who died and we feel we are needed." Mr. Benstead's own home was destroyed by the quake and his young children have been traumatized by the disaster and continuing aftershocks. His was not the only report of anti-Christian patrols. Soldiers in Adapazari stopped street distribution of Incil, the Arabic New Testaments that are supposedly lawful to read under the dictum of the Koran. Visiting summer mission teams were handing out the testaments to tent dwellers, along with plastic groundcovers. What most plagues church agencies and local Christian workers battling to get disaster relief underway in northwestern Turkey is what plagues non-Christian relief workers, too-stubborn bureaucracy. Government crisis centers have proliferated but failed to organize services. Officials have been slow to designate sites for tent housing; and officials admit that the tents Turkish soldiers provided were not waterproof. Medical help has been turned away, too. Lauren Barron, a general practice physician and a Mennonite from Texas, flew to Turkey immediately after the earthquake, carting along with her wound kits, antibiotics, and other supplies. Dr. Barron, who runs an indigent care clinic in Waco, hoped to provide emergency medical care for the more than 200,000 people injured in the quake. But in Izmit, she was told by Red Crescent medical personnel, "'Thanks but no thanks for coming,'" she said. Dr. Barron was not deterred because she saw a medical scene at odds with what the media were reporting. Rumors of epidemic in the aftermath masked more widespread needs: "There is no cholera in this area, for instance," Dr. Barron told WORLD. "And fears of typhoid may not pan out." Only one case of typhoid has been reported, and quickly quarantined. Ample bottled water supplies are evident everywhere. Other, less exotic medical needs lurk. Scabies, a skin mite, is taking off among people living in tents. "This seems like a normal thing after an earthquake, but it spreads very rapidly in families and the itching can drive people crazy. Also, many superficial wounds from the quake have the potential for infection. They don't need any of that right now," said Dr. Barron. Ultimately, Dr. Barron and another physician set out on their own, providing everyday first aid and looking for flare-ups of chronic ailments like asthma and heart conditions, particularly among older quake survivors. They covered the streets of Gölcük and other quake-tormented cities, without sanction of local officials or hospitals. They administered bandages and other treatment well into the night. Texas Baptist Men, an auxiliary group supported by Southern Baptist churches, sent two pre-approved portable kitchens to Turkey. Days after they arrived in Ankara, the capital, Turkish officials still could not decide where TBM's workers should set up the mess. The Turks initially agreed to a site in Gölcük, but five hours into a meeting with city officials, representatives for TBM were no nearer to finalizing a feeding station. Two days after the group hoped to have the kitchen up and feeding hundreds of quake survivors, it was still in a packing crate. The most important casualty of government ineptitude was the search-and-rescue effort. On Aug. 26, the private Turkish rescue team Arkut and others were pulled away from a live rescue of a small child, believed to be a four-year-old boy still missing. Turkish soldiers confiscated the team's equipment and took over the rescue operation. Hours later, with rescue teams sidelined and officials calling the shots instead of the experts, there were no more signs of life. The rescue was called off. "A German team had already rescued two people from this building," Mustafa Solmaz, one of the Russian physicians who heard the boy's cries, said. "I believe they [the officials] killed him." Neslihan Berberoglu, a 19-year-old rescuer phenom, who saved 50 people from beneath the rubble just after the quake, told WORLD that officials too often diverted her team to burial tasks or to carrying water, thereby preventing rescuers from saving lives while they could. "With so many missing, there were a lot of live people that should have been saved, but organizations of the government kept us from getting to them," she said. A lingering image of police brutality and martial law in Turkey-along with lack of procedure-has led many humanitarian organizations to stay away from the disaster. Christian relief agencies that would otherwise be on the scene are instead lending support through World Relief, the Wheaton-based outreach of the National Association of Evangelicals. When World Relief's president Clive Calver organized with others a meeting in Istanbul of Turkish evangelical pastors and relief workers, they hoped for a new level of cooperation and outreach for the church groups. One pastor, however, walked out of the meeting. Others said they were overwhelmed by the large sum of American dollars coming in for disaster relief, with only a small church to oversee the distribution. Ultimately, the group did form Protestant Church Relief, a first-ever evangelical coalition for Turkey, and agreed on ways to share funding and to focus recovery efforts. World Relief is assisting the distribution center in Izmit, as well as overseeing construction of up to 1,000 tents outside the city. Mr. Calver said church workers need a broader goal than individual evangelism of victims. "If we can win even the grudging respect of government agencies, that is what we want," he said. "It would be the first time since the Sultan of Turkey signed the treaty of Paris in 1856 that Turkey would have a positive response to the churches." As disaster conditions wear on and the staying power of other organizations wears thin, Turkish officials may find they can tolerate church-based relief efforts. The devastated area is the size of New Jersey. It has been hit with 1,000 aftershocks since Aug. 17. The strongest, on Aug. 31, measured 5.2 on the Richter scale, killing at least one man and injuring hundreds more. More than half a million people have lost homes. While many are moving in with relatives, thousands will need something more than a tarp or a government-issue tent when Turkey's cool, rainy fall arrives. For them, recovery trumps bureaucracy.

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Mindy Belz
Mindy Belz

Mindy travels to the far corners of the globe as the editor of WORLD and lives with her family in the mountains of western North Carolina. Follow Mindy on Twitter @mcbelz.

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