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Frontier evangelism

Religion | Turkey's geopolitical desires propel a fledgling church work poised in the middle of a resurgent war on terror

Issue: "2004 Election: GOP's encore," Aug. 28, 2004

DIYARBAKIR, Turkey - When a young Turk with a long butcher knife last month invaded the new Diyarbakir Evangelical Church, it was only the latest skirmish in a city close to Iraq that has been fought over for centuries. When he was arrested without anyone being injured, it was one of the rare times that blood hasn't flowed.

Romans, Parthians, Byzantines, Muslims, and many others have attacked this city: Persians took it after a 93-day siege in a.d. 359 and were so irritated by the wait that they killed probably 80,000 locals. The Persians crowded male prisoners into an amphitheater and kept them there for weeks, until they died of hunger. They fed the women to keep them available for repeated rape.

Diyarbakir could sometimes withstand attack because of its three-mile-long, 39-foot-high wall, made of huge blocks of black basalt. Inside the wall are bazaars filled with jostling shoppers speaking Turkish, Arabic, and Kurdish and donkeys weighed down by merchandise. Three-story homes sometimes overhang twisting, eight-foot-wide alleys with drainage ditches running down the middle.

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In that maze of alleys stands the newly constructed Diyarbakir Evangelical Church, which seats 75 in a big upstairs room. That's where WORLD met in June with Ahmet Guvener, a thin man who grew up a Muslim and now serves as church pastor. That's where 27-year-old Medet Arslan stopped on July 19 and then began loudly quoting Quranic verses and saying he wanted to kill people.

One member of the church staff called the police, but-according to Barbara Baker of the Compass news service-Mr. Arslan pulled out his butcher knife "and chased after a youth who dashed out of the room, managing to hold the door shut until keys were found to lock the man inside.

"After several more telephone calls, local police arrived a half-hour later. Arslan barricaded the door, and . . . cursing loudly, the man began burning up New Testaments, bookshelves, curtains, and whatever else he could find in the room. He also smashed and broke out all the windows in the room.

"A fire truck finally came to the scene . . . but even hosing down Arslan through the windows failed to dissuade him from his standoff." Three hours later, though, when heavy smoke from burning cassette tapes and CDs filled the room, Mr. Arslan begged to be let out of the room. Police led him away.

Diyarbakir Christians know better than to take as random such acts of violence. For two decades this region has been a hotbed of Kurdish terrorism, as a Kurdish workers party once known as PKK-but recently reconstituted as Kongra-Gel-waged a war for autonomy against the Turkish government. Its toll: about 37,000 deaths since 1984. Both Turkish officials and the United States fear potential partnership between jihadist groups in neighboring Iraq and the long-violent PKK.

Two months ago the PKK announced an end to a five-year hiatus of fighting, and declared it had reinserted 2,000 militants to strike government targets from the mountains around Diyarbakir. In July a remote-controlled bomb killed three and wounded 24, but narrowly missed the provincial governor. A similar attempt in August also failed when the bomb went off prematurely, killing one PKK rebel and wounding another. Again this month, both Kurdish and Islamic militants claimed responsibility for an Aug. 11 bombing at two tourist hotels in Istanbul, which killed two and injured a dozen.

Increased tension isn't news to Pastor Guvener, who was not in the building at the time of the Arslan incident. But if Diyarbakir's evangelicals worry about jihadists on both sides of the nearby border, the Turkish government is no automatic ally. It charged Mr. Guvener a year ago with opening an "illegal" church. Three months ago Diyarbakir courts dropped charges against him and said the church could legally conduct worship services.

But a right to exist is only one step on the road to legitimacy. Mr. Guvener and his church are long accustomed to harassment from Muslim extremists as well as the Muslim-dominated, if secular, government. Diyarbakir is the gateway to a crucial stretch of border between Turkey and Iraq. Mostly sealed by Turkish forces before the Iraq war, it remains highly militarized and tense. U.S. officials are closely allied with many ethnic Kurds in northern Iraq (one is deputy prime minister in the current interim government; another is foreign minister); yet the United States stands against Kurdish separatist movements in Turkey. Coalition forces are pledged to arrest PKK members discovered in Iraq.

"Turkey has had no better friend than the United States over the past 20 years in the struggle against the PKK," the U.S. embassy in Ankara reiterated just last week in a statement issued after a U.S. diplomat met with the mayor of Diyarbakir.

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