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Nation on trial

Religion | Murder case shows Turkey has a long way to go in protecting minorities

Issue: "Out from the shadows," Dec. 22, 2007

Seven months after the brutal torture and murder of three Christians in Malatya, Turkey, the nation continues to watch the victims' widows with intrigue and bewilderment. Semse Aydin and Susanne Geske have been both honest about their grief and steadfast in their faith. Two days after her husband's death, Aydin publicly declared she had forgiven the five confessed murderers.

The two women and their children captured the spotlight once again on Nov. 23, the opening day of the trial. "Mommy, when will they kill us?" read the headline in Turkey's largest newspaper the next day as pictures of the children at their fathers' funerals saturated the lead stories across the nation. "They are asking me if they will also be killed because they are Christians," Aydin told the court in a brief opening statement.

Geske, a native of Germany who has lived in Turkey for 10 years, said she believed Turkey's secular political system would pursue justice. "As a Christian, I view this nation as my own. I have established my whole life here."

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Despite hopes that the investigation and trial would be conducted fairly, there are only limited signs of justice on the horizon. Lawyers for the families are calling the investigation "sloppy," claiming prosecutors spent more time documenting the missionary activities of the victims than pursuing the web of Islamic extremism surrounding the murderers, who tortured and slit the throats of the three Zirve Publishing House employees on April 18.

"We waited seven months for what? After reading the file, I have come to the conclusion that we waited for nothing!" attorney Orhan Kemal Cengiz wrote in the Turkish Daily News in a Nov. 22 column. Cenzig is president of the Human Rights Agenda Association and is one of 20 lawyers-most working pro bono-representing the families and the Turkish Protestant Churches. "If a prosecutor sees missionary activity as criminal, then it is not difficult to understand how some people can become crazy and kill these missionaries," he said.

Cengiz noted that 16 of the 31 files focus on the victims-Necati Aydin,

Tilmann Geske, and Yuksel Ugur-and make public the contact information of other Christians connected to the ministry, placing them at great risk.

Despite the Turkish media's sympathetic portrayal of the widows and children, most reports sensationalized several far-fetched allegations, including claims that the three men forced girls into prostitution and had connections to the PKK-a Kurdish separatist group currently stirring up trouble on the southeastern border with Iraq.

The Malatya murders are preceded by several other notable attacks against Christians. Armenian Christian journalist Hrant Dink was murdered in January in Istanbul by a 17-year-old Turkish nationalist, and a Catholic priest was shot in February by a 16-year-old boy in the Black Sea port town of Trabzon.

The prison detention of the five Malatya suspects-ages 19 and 20-is scheduled to be reviewed on Dec. 18, and the trial was adjourned until Jan. 14 after lawyers for the defendants said they lacked adequate time to prepare. Seven other suspects who have not been arrested are being charged with allegedly "aiding and abetting" in the murders.

With denial and indifference pervading the country's judicial system, Turkey has a long road ahead to prove that it can protect its minorities, a condition for acceptance into the European Union. "There are no attacks targeting Christians in Turkey," the country's president, Abdullah Gul, claimed during an October meeting with the Council of Europe in France.

Geske and Aydin beg to differ.

"My children are missing their father," Aydin said, "and I cannot comfort them."

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