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.
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.
Improved standing for Mr. Guvener and his church in the community could have regional payoffs in the war on terror. But legitimacy comes one tender step at a time, and with careful and caring relations with neighbors, including Muslims.
Mr. Guvener, 39, grew up in a Shiite village near Diyarbakir. His dad built a mill to which Sunni Muslims from surrounding villages came, and Mr. Guvener left school at age 15 to work at the mill. Through a translator he explained what he learned from the Sunnis: "They were always asking, 'Why aren't you a good Muslim? Don't you wash your hands before prayer?' I became sick of those questions, so I asked, 'What do I need to do? I'll do everything.' They wrote a list. It took me two months to learn how to do everything, but I did. I told my mother, 'Now I will fulfill all the requirements.'
"In 1987 I came back from military service. My boss at work saw that I knew a lot but had still not read the Quran, so he gave me a copy in Turkic as a gift. I respected him so I read the Quran several times and researched it. It seemed so wrong to me that I decided to become an atheist. I argued with my father, quoting verses and asking whether God would ever write such a verse. He said, 'No, but your copy is not in Arabic; the infidels have added that verse.'"
Mr. Guvener wanted to get away: "I saw a little ad in the newspaper: 'Do you want to read the New Testament?' I thought, 'What can I get out of this?' and wrote a letter asking for a copy. A letter came back from Istanbul with a book and questions at the end of a chapter. . . . One question was, 'Who is Jesus?' I had just read, 'Jesus is the savior,' so I wrote, 'Jesus is the savior.' I tried to answer all the questions perfectly so I could get to America. I would have said 2+2 is 10.
"I wrote to [the evangelist in] Istanbul, 'I have some questions, I'd like to meet you.' A letter came back, 'I'll come to Diyarbakir.' I had great expectations and went out in a suit and tie. I thought the missionary would come in a Mercedes. Instead, a man with torn jeans and a beard came on a bus. I felt bad for the guy, so I took him to my village and he stayed for three days. He took three books, stood two of them up and said, 'This one is man, this one is God.' Then he put a book on top of the two and said, 'This bridge is Jesus Christ.' I thought he was crazy. I had thought Americans were smart. I felt like laughing at the guy, but I wanted to keep the relationship, so I said, 'Whatever.' I could see he was speaking from his heart.
"For a year we stayed in contact. Then I invited him to come again, and he came with two others. I asked them how much a truck driver makes in America. They were patient with me. They knew what my motivation was and they could have kicked me out. But because of their warmth and affection I read the New Testament seriously. In 1991 I became a believer. . . . I saw that we cannot be saved by fulfilling the law, only by the promise God made to Abraham. The Quran says do this and do that and maybe you'll be saved. The Quran gives a guarantee of salvation only to those who die while on jihad. The Bible says you are saved for sure by the grace of God.
"Here it's common to yell at your kids and curse them. Now I've learned it's about loving them and showing mercy. The New Testament says, 'God loves sinners and cares for sinners.' The Quran makes it clear that God hates sinners. The New Testament said when I sin, which is inevitable, I can go to God. In the Quran you can't do that. It's hard to approach and have a relationship with a God who is cruel. . . . One religion uses a fear of punishment, the other shows that God brings sinners to Himself through grace."
As Mr. Guvener's ideas changed, he started thinking not about going to America but about explaining to others the difference between the religions. Charity began at home: Five of his nine brothers and sisters are now Christians, and his wife also became one in 1995. His father did not convert, and tensions rose: "I was very excited and sometimes very unwise in how I talked with my father. I was distributing New Testaments in the village. It was very embarrassing for him, a man of greatest prestige in the village. But he saw that my life changed. Before I was always cursing God, now I was praising. Now he has come to a point of trusting me."
The village imam was also hostile at first: "He'd say bad things and take verses out of context. He says John the Baptist was talking about Muhammad, not Jesus. But I found out that his relations with his Islamic congregation were really bad. Since everyone in the village saw that my life has changed . . . that I had not cheated anyone in my work, I was able to talk with those who opposed the imam. I told them, 'If you go with pride, saying "I'm right," you won't be able to solve the problem with the imam.' So they went with humble hearts to solve the problem. Then the imam had respect for me. He said, 'Come here, sit on my right-hand side.' To ask an 'infidel' to do that was a sign of acceptance.
"In 1997 the church asked if I would serve full-time, which meant giving up my well-paying job. Funny: I went into this thinking I would go to America, and now I was earning less." Mr. Guvener also began receiving threats. Local security forces put Christians under surveillance. At one point police even surrounded his house, guns drawn. "My 3-year-old daughter opened the door and police rushed in. They said, 'Show us your weapons.' Our only weapon was a box of Bibles. It was just to scare me." But police did jail Mr. Guvener for a short time.
As more people in Diyarbakir became Christians and wanted to worship together, the need for a place to meet became urgent. The church paid $3,000 for land and for $150,000 constructed a building that is both worship center and Mr. Guvener's home. He noted, "In the plans we made it clear that it was to be a church," but by making the meeting room part of a home church, leaders gave local officials deniability in the face of hardline Muslim critics.
Life for Mr. Guvener and other evangelicals remained frustrating at times, particularly when they saw two-facedness among neighbors: "Talking with an individual is very different from talking with someone in a group. On a personal level, he might even agree with you. Talk to him in a group, he might start slandering you and saying you've sold out to the Westerners."
But even that isn't surprising, since "Christian was used as a curse word for many years. A typical parent might say, 'I wish you had become a prostitute. I wish you had killed someone-that's better than becoming a Christian.'" On the other hand, some Turks fake theological interest because they hope to use Christianity as a means to an economic end: "They may come wanting to get money, or a ticket to Europe, or a passport."
Nevertheless, Mr. Guvener says, the positives have easily outweighed the negatives. He enjoyed hosting Muslim schoolteachers who brought in their classes so students would learn what Christianity is. Visitors came for advice. "Mothers came crying, 'My kids are rebelling,'" Mr. Guvener relates.
Nationwide the number of Turkish Muslims who have become evangelicals has probably increased from fewer than 100 to 10,000 over the last 20 years, according to Barbara Baker. They make up some 75 evangelical churches or fellowships. Only 45-less than two-thirds -have buildings.
Since that success evidently worries some Muslims leaders, Mr. Guvener found himself the subject of a lawsuit for illegally having a church building. Zoning regulations were also a weapon against the church. A house of worship in Turkey is supposed to be at least 2,500 square meters in size; 80 percent of Turkey's mosques are technically illegal, but no one raises a fuss.
The zoning issues are not yet fully laid to rest, but on May 12, 2004, the state prosecutor declared that sufficient grounds to bring formal charges against Mr. Guvener did not exist. The prosecutor said that, with Turkey having signed European human-rights agreements and Parliament eager for entry into the European Union, international agreements now took precedence over national laws: That means all Turkish citizens have the right to worship and teach about their faith. The judge of Diyarbakir's Third Criminal Court immediately declared Mr. Guvener acquitted: case closed.
What caused the change? The government of Turkey is relaxing religious harassment as a means to its own political and economic ends. After 10 years of trying to gain entrance to the European Union, Turkish leaders are desperate to appease EU politicos by showing more respect for individual rights, including religious ones, than they have in the past.
Ahmet Guvener speaks not of international politics but God's hand at work: "God is using Turkey's desire to join the EU. The European leaders don't even believe in God but they believe we should be free to do what we're doing. God does these things."