TURKEY: Even the dead cannot escape persecution

ORTAKÖY, Turkey – On 14 February, the Ortaköy Christian Cemetery in Ankara was vandalized, destroying 20 of the 72 tombstones. Six people were arrested but all were released shortly thereafter.

Turkish-based Ahval News reported that Christian cemeteries throughout Turkey have been targeted many times recently. “These attacks against cemeteries are making the Christian community across Turkey feel incredibly sad and desperate,” Ankara-based Rev. İhsan Özbek told Ahval’s Uzay Bulut. “Nobody can watch over the graves of their loved ones like a guard.”

Despite the repeated attacks on Christian cemeteries, few arrests are made. On multiple occasions, wooden crosses atop graves have been burned.  “The cemeteries offenders should be punished, and material and moral compensation should be paid to the Christian families,” Rev. Özbek concluded.

These incidents of vandalism are just one expression of the suspicion and disdain for Christians in wider Turkish society. After urban warfare destroyed large parts of Diyabakir in Turkey’s southeast in 2016, the Turkish state declared all six of the city’s churches as state property.

Since the first century when Christianity appeared, Christians have existed in the area that is modern Turkey. Many Christians in Jerusalem fleeing persecution fled north and settled in towns around western, central, and southeastern Turkey.

However, a century of genocide and persecution have taken their toll. The percentage of Christians in Turkey has declined from nearly 25% in 1914 to less than 0.5% today.

In modern Turkey, conspiracy theories about non-Muslim minorities dominate the popular imagination. Christians are often depicted as traitors to the Turkish state and foreign agents seeking to undermine Turkish identity.

The seeds of Christian persecution in modern Turkey are planted in primary school. Textbooks approved by the Turkish Ministry of Education depict Christians as enemies and traitors.

In “Human Rights or Militarist Ideals? Teaching National Security in High Schools”, anthropologist Ayşe Gül Altınay, having travelled Turkey observing classroom education, noted there was almost no discussion of peace, coexistence, dialogue, or nonviolence. Instead, students were encouraged to fear differences and view their non-Muslim peers as “other”.

“The environment of hate in Turkey is the reason for these attacks,” journalist Seyfi Genç, who reported on the attack on Çolak’s grave for Hristiyan Haber, told Ahval. “And even more disturbing is the fact that the perpetrators are either not caught, or not brought to account even when they are caught.”

The increase in religious extremism in Turkey, and the government’s inaction (and sometimes approval), has many Christians concerned about their safety. With Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan strengthening his hold on power and increasingly voicing Islamist rhetoric, the situation for Christians in Turkey is unlikely to change anytime soon.