The day began like any other. On his way out the door, 35-year-old Turkish native Necati Aydin, a pastor and father of two, kissed his wife goodbye and departed for a morning Bible study. In another part of Malatya, Turkey-known for its apricots-46-year-old German missionary and father of three Tilman Geske said his morning farewells. Ugur Uksel, a 32-year-old Muslim convert to Christianity like Aydin, was the third man joining the group for the study at the church office, which doubled as a Christian publishing company.
What unfolded between the hours of 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. on April 18 could add another chapter to Foxe's Book of Martyrs. As the three men joined together for Bible study, a dozen assailants tied them to chairs, then brutally interrogated and tortured them for two hours about their church activities. A videorecording made with a cell phone shows the men being disemboweled, dismembered, and stabbed hundreds of times. Their throats were slit when police arrived. Copies of a letter found in the pockets of the killers gave a glimpse into the motives behind the atrocity: "We did it for our country. They are trying to take our country away, take our religion away."
Although the number of Christians has grown rapidly in the past two decades, they remain a small minority in Turkey. The Malatya murders appear to be part of stepped-up efforts by Turkish nationalists and Muslim radicals to eradicate believers. But they scar Turkey's Western image just as it aims to join the European Union (EU). Pope Benedict XVI warned the country during his visit last November that acceptance into the EU was contingent upon the nation's protection of religious freedom.
Fikret Bocek-also a Turkish convert from Islam-pastors a congregation in the coastal town of Izmir and was a close friend of Aydin. He was driving his children home from school when he heard on the radio news of his friend's murder: "I couldn't even hold the steering wheel. I had to pull over and just wait."
When Aydin told him in the winter of 2003 that he felt called to leave Izmir and plant a church in Malatya, Bocek cautioned his friend, but not about the personal risk; both men had already been imprisoned for their faith. "I told him to wait until the summer because Malatya can get a lot of snow in the winter." Aydin was determined to go immediately and began leading a small group of believers that included 15 Turkish converts from Islam.
Bocek is familiar with the risk involved in professing one's faith in a Muslim land. Shortly after his conversion in 1980, he was imprisoned and tortured for five days when the country's Minister of Internal Affairs arrested all Protestant Christians: a mere 80 people among Turkey's 71 million. Although their numbers were initially halved after the sweep, the persecution eventually had a multiplying effect: They now number almost 4,000.
Evangelism is legal in Turkey, which officially has a secular government, but many locals are wary of church activity. Persecution is growing, Bocek told WORLD. The Westminster Seminary (Calif.) graduate says he has witnessed an increase in attacks against churches and pastors in the country since Turkey's National Security Council issued a ruling in 2001. It grouped missionary activity, such as church planting, together with communist and Islamic terrorism as national threats. When Bocek arrived at police headquarters to help translate testimony pertaining to Aydin's death, he noticed a list of terrorist groups on the wall, including Hezbollah, al-Qaeda, and several churches, including his own.
The men believed responsible for the murders of Aydin, Geske, and Uksel are under the age of 21. Five attended the church's by-invitation-only Easter service and were considered "seekers." Bocek believes the men were a part of a local tarikat-a fraternity-style group of Muslim believers. Five of the men have been jailed, six have been released pending trial, and a 12th remains hospitalized after jumping from the fourth-story balcony of the publishing company.
The future will be hard for Malatya's remaining believers. Made up primarily of "underground" Christians, the group is now without its leaders and two of its contributing members. But Susanne Geske has decided to remain in Turkey with her children despite her husband's murder, and Bocek believes the church will only grow. "People who had a fear of sharing their faith will start sharing," he said. "I believe that Necati, Tilman, and Ugur's blood will be seed in the Turkish church. Now we cannot look back. We cannot deviate from preaching the gospel."
(Editor's note: The three Christians who were murdered in Malatya, Turkey, in 2007 were tortured and their throats were slit, but two of them, at least, were not disemboweled or dismembered, according to individuals who saw two of the bodies. Early reports of the murders included these details and those reports have been repeated since, but individuals who saw the bodies confirmed to WORLD that those two details of the reports were inaccurate.)