Jerry Mattix remembers well his three friends who worked at a Christian publishing company in Malatya, Turkey: Uger Yuksel was baptized at his church in southeastern Turkey, and Necati Aydin often came to speak. The four of them worked together to coordinate events for youth in their area.
On April 18, 2007, his friends were brutally murdered at the Zivre Publishing House by a group of men feigning interest in Christianity in a tragedy that shocked the nation. “Frankly, it was a terrifying experience going up to Malatya to bury Tilmann [Geske] just days after he was killed by the people there. However, it was a uniquely rewarding experience in that it gave us new insight into the meaning of martyrdom and Christianity in general.”
Fast-forward nearly seven years: The trial drags on, and the courts released the five murder suspects on March 7, courtesy of a new judicial package passed by the Turkish Parliament on Feb. 2. The new law reduces the amount of time suspects waiting for a verdict can spend in prison from 10 years to five years.
Susanne Geske, the widow of German victim Tilmann Geske, said that she and her three teenage children, who still live in the eastern town of Malatya, would “act like normal people” if they met one of the men at the mall or somewhere in town since they have forgiven the killers. But the dysfunctional legal system is troubling to her. “The system is just hopeless,” Geske told me.
The ongoing “Malatya massacre” trial (as it has been dubbed in the Turkish press) underscores a deeper current in Turkey: Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is scrambling to tighten control over a country he feels is leaning westward. In the wake of a corruption scandal he blames on a cleric living in the United States and deadly summer protests against his government, Erdogan prepared for a series of crucial elections by banning Twitter and threatening further restrictions on social media he says promote “all kinds of lies.” The Islamist leader said he “cannot understand how sensible people still defend Facebook, YouTube and Twitter.”
Erdogan claimed victory for his Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) in the March 30 local elections, and the results may embolden the prime minister to run in the August presidential election (see "No more Turkish delight"). His term as prime minister is up in 2015, and after 11 years in power, Erdogan shows no signs of relinquishing control over this crucial country that links East and West.
IF ERDOGAN WOULD HAVE DONE THE MATH, he might have predicted the backlash from Turks when he denied them access to their Twitter accounts on March 21. Turkey ranks among the 10 top Twitter nations with 12 million users, and Turkish hashtags frequently appear in worldwide trends. Twitter users were quick to find a way around the ban, painting buildings and walls with instructions on how to change settings.
In an ironic twist, President Abdullah Gul tweeted his disapproval of the ban, highlighting the growing rift between the two former allies. “This is of course an unpleasant situation for such a developed country as Turkey, which has weight in the region and which is negotiating with the European Union,” Gul said during a press conference.
When the futility of the ban became apparent, Erdogan shut down Google Domain Name System—the most popular method to circumvent the Twitter restrictions—but Turks continue to dig for new ways to access their accounts. Ankara claimed the ban was in place to prevent the circulation of scandalous audio recordings allegedly of Erdogan’s inner circle.
The recordings could implicate Erdogan, his son, and members of his government for wiretapping and money laundering if proven authentic. Erdogan says they are fakes that were planted by Fethullah Gulen, a U.S.-based Islamic cleric and ally-turned-enemy (See “Turkey’s inside man,” July 27, 2013). In an election-night speech, the prime minister threatened to hunt down Gulen supporters who have infiltrated the police and judiciary in Turkey. Gulen is behind a global network of charter schools (including 135 in the United States) and lives in seclusion in Pennsylvania.
Less than a week after the Twitter ban, the government blocked YouTube in response to a leaked conversation between high-level government officials discussing the possibility of provoking war with Syria.
Social media was also instrumental in coordinating widespread protests last summer that were launched when the government fired tear gas at protestors trying to save Gezi Park in Istanbul. The brutality sparked nation-wide anti-government protests that claimed eight lives and resulted in thousands of injuries.
Erdogan’s supporters say the AKP has breathed new life into Turkey’s economy and that economic prosperity trumps the loss of certain freedoms. Others subscribe to an Islamist vision of a revived Ottoman Empire.
When I spoke with Mattix seven years ago, shortly after the murders in Malatya, he said the AKP appeared to be going out of its way to protect religious minorities and push back against the nation’s secular path—a trend that benefitted Christians to some extent. This is no longer the case.
“In the last three to four years they have been pushing a much more overt Islamist agenda. This has been evidenced by relaxing bans on head-scarfs and including religious curriculum in the school system on the domestic level and becoming chief antagonist of Israel and friends with Muslim regimes on the international level,” Mattix said. “All in all, the Turkish Republic has done an ideological U-turn in the past decade in which secularist Kemalism has been replaced by Islamist authoritarianism.”
RELIGIOUS MINORITIES HAVE SUFFERED under this shift. In early March, the country’s treasury returned less than half of the land it earlier had seized from the world’s oldest Syriac Orthodox monastery, Mor Gabriel. Erdogan announced last September that he would return the land as part of a “democratization package” after the controversial move became a stumbling block in Turkey’s bid for European Union membership. But the government is still holding onto 70 acres that belong to the monastery.
Mattix, who served as a pastor in Diyarbakir, Turkey, for 12 years, has had his own share of troubles. Foreigners in eastern Turkey were having problems getting the usual resident permits, so Mattix returned to the United States in February of 2013 to apply for a religious worker visa. The Turkish government denied his visa request, fined him for religious work despite his never having been paid by the local church, and refused his family entry into Turkey—even as tourists.
“I think they were simply looking for an excuse to get us out of the country,” he said. At least six other non-Turkish families have encountered similar problems in the past three years, according to World Watch Monitor.
Mattix and his family are currently serving the church in Northern Cyprus, a Turkish satellite, and hope to return to Turkey pending a favorable outcome of several court cases addressing their status.
There is also good news for the Turkish church. Geske—whose decision to stay in Turkey after her husband’s death has been an inspiration to Christians in the region—said their church in Malatya will soon move into a building after many years of meeting in homes. This would not have been possible seven years ago when foreigners were few in the region and it took six months just to open a bank account. Thanks to a nearby NATO base, they are no longer the only foreigners in Malatya.
“We know that when we finally open [the church] there will be people who come the first weeks and months and throw stones and do whatever naughty stuff. But this is normal so we are prepared for it,” Geske said.
The Malatya murder case was scheduled to reconvene on April 8, and the current judge is pushing for a verdict by June. But the new law also dismantled the special courts, and the case could be moved to the regular criminal court system—a change that would likely involve new officials and a review of more than 100,000 pages of documents from the trial’s 92 hearings.
Many Turkish Christians reacted with alarm at the release of the murder suspects, prompting local authorities to assign the men to house arrest with electronic bracelets. Geske emphasizes God’s sovereignty and notes that April 18—the day her husband and two friends were murdered—is Global Day of Prayer for Turkey.
Mattix says the journey they have walked together in this pivotal part of the world has given him a new perspective on life. “In the West it is easy to talk about dying to the world or self. But ultimately it is all metaphorical rhetoric until you have a chance to stand at the gravesite of a true martyr or try to comfort his widow and children,” Mattix explained. “All of a sudden the New Testament takes on full color and you realize that facing death is incredibly liberating.”