Country at a crossroads

"Country at a crossroads" Continued...

Issue: "Summer of '68," Aug. 9, 2008

Political parties suspected of becoming too Islamic are disbanded or overthrown by the military, and wearing a religious head covering in many of Turkey's public institutions is against the law. Visitors often remark that they see more Islamic dress in London or Toronto than on the streets of Istanbul.

But the rise to power of the AKP has stoked the embers of apprehension among many Turks. The party's Islamist roots, coupled with its recent change to the Constitution that lifts the headscarf ban at universities, have led to fears that Erdogan and fellow AKP member President Abdullah Gul are on a mission to turn Turkey into an Iranian-style theocracy. Erdogan claims he is committed to a secular model of government.

While some Turkish Christians say the AKP has shown a deeper affinity with minority religious communities than the wary secular parties, other believers say its leadership shows signs of trouble on the horizon.

When WORLD met with a Turkish Christian in Istanbul who requested that her identity not be revealed, she expressed concern over Erdogan's response to the murder of three Christians-two converts from Islam and one German believer-in southeast Turkey last year: "He said, 'A proper person will not convert.' So how do I feel toward my prime minister as a Christian?"

She said that tensions have increased since the Malatya murders in April 2007 and claims her local congregation now locks its doors during worship while several others have hired private security firms. Two plots to kill several pastors have been uncovered, and she believes Turkey's Intelligence Services have created a file on her because of her Christian-related work in the country. "We try to be open," she added. "We are not doing anything to divide the country."

Reports from the hearings of the accused Malatya murderers have detailed lackluster efforts by local court officials to follow promising leads. Defense lawyers for the seven men on trial attempted to shift the focus of the eighth hearing on July 4 to Christian missionary activity in the region.

"Please, show a little respect," attorney Erdal Dogan declared, according to reports from Compass Direct news service. "This case is about three savage murders, not an inquiry into the Christian faith and its practices! Don't be ridiculous!" Although missionary activity is not against the law in Turkey, local media have often portrayed it as illegal, and some government officials have labeled it a security concern.

With rural eastern Turkey under the watchful eye of human-rights groups for abuses against women and with religious tension escalating to dangerous levels, Turkey has some work ahead in order to meet European standards.

Peace and Terror

Pictures of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the famed founder of Turkey's secular republic, line the historic streets of Istanbul. Its residents proudly point them out, and one tour guide WORLD encountered claimed Turkey would be like Afghanistan if it weren't for Ataturk.

Although this distinctive country has much to be proud of, it has also entered a new season of trials and tests. How the country deals with acts of terror and suspected plots to overthrow the current government could play a major role in the EU's decision and become a shaping factor for Turkey's future.

On July 9 four gunmen pulled up to the American consulate in Istanbul and began a shooting rampage that left six dead-three Turkish police officers and three of the attackers. Several Americans WORLD spoke to changed their travel plans after the attack at the consulate and flew home through Athens rather than return from island hopping in the Aegean through Turkey, fearing further attacks on Western outposts in the region.

The U.S. Embassy in Ankara issued a warning to American visitors that terrorists may seek softer targets, including "facilities where Americans and Westerners are known to live or congregate, especially hotels, restaurants, housing compounds, places of worship and resort areas." The warning urged Americans to keep a low profile.

The attack revived memories of a 2003 suicide bombing at the British consulate in Istanbul, which was followed by the bombing of a local HSBC bank and two synagogues, leaving 58 dead and hundreds injured.

More than 70 men were tried and found guilty in the 2003 terrorist attacks, and prosecutors uncovered a home-grown extremist network with loose ties to al-Qaeda. Several men said they attended training camps in Afghanistan. Although local media were quick to assume that the latest attack was also al-Qaeda related, others say the haphazard attack did not reflect the terrorist group's involvement.


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