ISTANBUL, Turkey Turkey's decision to try two Christians under a revised version of a controversial law for "insulting Turkishness" has cast a cloud over the country's record of freedom of speech and religion.
A Turkish court received a go-ahead Feb. 24 from the Ministry of Justice to try Christians Turan Topal and Hakan Tastan under the revised Article 301 law that has sparked outrage among free speech proponents because journalists, writers, activists and lawyers have been tried under it. The court had sent the case to the Ministry of Justice after the government on May 8, 2008, put into effect a series of changes which critics have called "cosmetic" to the law.
The justice ministry decision came as a surprise to Topal and Tastan and their lawyer, as missionary activities are not illegal in Turkey. Defense lawyer Haydar Polat said no concrete evidence of insulting Turkey or Islam has emerged since the case first opened two years ago.
"The trial will continue from where it left off to be honest, we thought they wouldn't give permission [for the case to continue]," Polat said, "because there was no persuasive evidence of 'degrading Turkishness and Islam' in the case file."
A Ministry of Justice statement claimed that approval to try the case came in response to the original statement by three young men Fatih Kose, Alper Eksi and Oguz Yilmaz that Topal and Tastan were conducting missionary activities in an effort to show that Islam was a primitive and fictitious religion that results in terrorism, and to portray Turks as a "cursed people."
Prosecutors have yet to produce any evidence indicating the defendants described Islam in these terms, and Polat said Turkey's constitution grants all citizens freedom to choose, be educated in and communicate their religion, making missionary activities legal.
"This is the point that really needs to be understood," Polat said. "In Turkey, constitutionally speaking, it is not a crime to be a Christian or to disseminate the Christian faith. However, in reality there have been problems."
The lawyer contended that prosecutors have politicized the case by baseless accusations rendered in a nationalistic light.
"From their point of view, missionary activity carried out by missionaries of imperialistic countries is harmful for Turkish culture and the country overall," Polat said.
Tastan said that although he has always been confident he and Topal will be acquitted, the decision of the Ministry of Justice to try them under Article 301 left him deeply disappointed in his country.
"After this last hearing, I realized that I didn't feel as comfortable as I had been in the past," Tastan told Compass Direct News. "I believed that surely the Ministry of Justice would never make the decision they did."
Tastan said he was uneasy that his country would deem his Christian faith as insulting to the very Turkishness in which he takes pride.
"This is the source of my uneasiness: I love this country so much, this country's people, that as a loving Turk who is a Christian to be tried for insulting Turkey has really cut me up," Tastan said. "Because I love this nation, I've never said anything against it. That I'm a Christian, yes, I say that and I will continue to do so. But I think they are trying to paint the image that we insult, dislike and hate Turks. This really makes me sad and heartsick."
If nothing else, Tastan said, the trial has provided an opportunity for Turkish Christians to show God's love and also make themselves known to their compatriots.
Describing the Ministry of Justice decision as duplicitous, Tastan said, "A government that talks the European Union talk, claims to respect freedom, democracy and accept everyone, yet rejects me even though I'm a Turkish citizen who is officially a Christian on his ID card, has made me sad."
At the time of their arrests, Tastan and Topal were volunteers with The Bible Research Center, which received official association status in mid-March and is now called "The Society for Propagating Knowledge of the Bible." In the last court hearing, prosecutors demanded that further inquiries be conducted into the nature of the association since the defendants used their contact lists to reach people interested in Christianity.
"Because they think like this, they believe that the Bible center is an important unit to the missionary activities," Polat said. "And they allege that those working at this center are also guilty."
The court has yet to decide whether police can investigate the Christian association.
Polat and the defendants said they believe the case should come to a conclusion at the next hearing on May 28 because no evidence has been presented.
"From a legal standpoint, we hope that they will acquit us, that it will be obvious that there is no proof," Tastan said. "There have only been allegations.... [N]one of the witnesses have accused us in court. I'm not a legal expert, but I believe that if there is no proof and no evidence of 'insulting,' then we should be set free."
The initial charges prepared by the state prosecutor against Tastan and Topal were based on "a warning telephone call to the gendarme" claiming that Christian missionaries were trying to form illegal groups in local schools and insulting Turkishness, the military and Islam.
Despite a court summons sent to the police headquarters requesting six officers to testify as prosecution witnesses, none have stepped forward to do so. At a June 24, 2008, hearing, two witnesses for the prosecution declared they did not know the defendants and had never seen them before facing them in court. Several witnesses including one of the original complainants have failed to show up on various trial dates.
"We believe the case has arrived to a concluding stage, because all evidence has been collected and the witnesses have been heard," Polat said. "We believe the accused will be dismissed. The inverse would surprise us."
While Polat said the case shows that human rights violations in Turkey remain a "serious problem," he said it is also true that Turkey's desire to join the European Union has brought sincere efforts to improve democratic processes. Establishing a true democracy, he acknowledged, can be a long process that requires sacrifices.
"It is my conviction that there is no other way for people to believe in and establish democracy than through struggle," Polat said.
Tastan said he sees hope that the notion of being "Turkish" means being Muslim is breaking. Due to exposure to media coverage of the murder trial of the April 18, 2007, slaughter of three Christians in Malatya, he said, Turks are becoming aware that there are fellow citizens who are Christians and are even dying for their Lord.
"This makes me happy, because it means freedom for the Turkish Christians that come after us," Tastan said. "At least they won't experience these injustices. I believe we will accomplish this."
For now, though, the Ministry of Justice's decision that Tastan and Topal can be tried under the revised Article 301 law appears to contribute to the belief that to promulgate a non-Islamic faith in Turkey is tantamount to treason. As Turkish online human rights magazine Bianet headlined its coverage of the decision, "Ministerial Edict: You Can Be a Christian But Do Not Tell Anyone!"
Compass Direct News, based in Santa Ana, Calif., provides reports on Christians worldwide who are persecuted for their faith. Used by permission.