Lela Gilbert: Christian minorities in Turkey experience increasing persecution as government repression escalates

In an article published in the latest issue of Newsweek magazine, an expert in religious freedom at the Hudson Institute, Lela Gilbert, wrote that Christian minorities in Turkey are suffering from increasing persecution with the escalation of government repression.

Gilbert noted that the conversion of the Hagia Sophia Museum into a mosque was the most visible example of this new policy in which the government aggressively targets non-Muslim religious minorities.

In her article, she drew attention specifically to the plight of Christian refugees who fled Iraq and Syria in recent years. Many of these newcomers to Turkish society struggle to find work, learn the Turkish language, and struggle to find places to safely practice their faith.

“Christian refugees in Turkey have been treated with contempt, consigned to remote locations, far removed from existing churches or co-religionists,” writes Gilbert. “Neither Turkish speakers nor Muslims, the Christian men could not legally find employment, while language and religious issues sidelined women and children struggling to work or attend school.”

Gilbert also explained that foreign Christians in Turkey are often expelled, sometimes even labelled threats to security:

“… since 2019, some 73 foreign Christians have been expelled from the country, including spouses of Turkish pastors, thus tearing innocent families apart. Some of these workers are denied re-entry at passport control upon arrival. Others receive N82 visa stamps on their travel documents, falsely labeling them as a threat to public health, safety and/or order and making their return to Turkey impossible.”

Native Christians are also subjected to the security whims of the Turkish government and view as a threat to security. The latest example being the conviction of Syriac Orthodox monk Sefer (Aho) Bileçen of the Mor Yahqup d-Qarne Monastery on charges of “supporting terrorism”.

Monk Aho was arrested on 9 January 2020 on charges of “membership of a terrorist organization” but released on parole also after public pressure. He was charged with having given food and water to members of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) which is designated a terrorist organization in Turkey. In his testimony the Syriac monk does not deny having given food and water but that he did not know that the people were members of the PKK organization.

After his arrest and a meeting with members of the Urfa Bar Association and Human Rights Commission, monk Aho shared the following message through his lawyers:

“In 2018, two organization members came to the monastery. They asked me for food which I gave them. This incident was later determined and the Commander of the Metropolitan Gendarme at the time met with me. I did not deny the incident. I asked for security measures to prevent the incident from happening again, but no security measures were taken.

I thought the matter was closed after my testimony was recorded. I will give food and water to anyone who comes to my door. I have to give it out of my religious and philosophical beliefs. I cannot lie because I am a monk-priest. I gave food not to help any organization, but out of my beliefs. From a religious and philosophical perspective, I cannot report it. I can’t leave the monastery anyway.”

The Washington, D.C.-based International Christian Human Rights Organization, stated in its 2021 report, that the Christian minority is slowly suffocating due to the discrimination it faced.

A report prepared on request of the British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt last year had warned that religious persecution of Christians was approaching the level of genocide in some parts of the world, especially in the Middle East, including Turkey.