Features

Turkey's U-turn

"Turkey's U-turn" Continued...

Issue: "What price conscience?," April 19, 2014

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 “All in all, the Turkish Republic has done an ideological U-turn in the past decade in which secularist Kemalism has been replaced by Islamist authoritarianism.”

TIMES ARE CHANGING: Coptic Christians worship in Turkey.
Tarek Wajeh/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
TIMES ARE CHANGING: Coptic Christians worship in Turkey.
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.”

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