Group of young Muslims murders 3 Christians in Turkey

ISTANBUL — In a gruesome assault against Turkey's tiny Christian community, five young Muslim Turks entered a Christian publishing office in the southeastern province of Malatya April 18 and slit the throats of the three Protestant Christians present.

Two of the victims, Necati Aydin, 36, and Ugur Yuksel, 32, were Turkish converts from Islam. The third man, Tilmann Geske, 46, was a German citizen.

The Turkish press reported that four of the five young men, all 19 to 20 years of age, admitted during initial interrogations that they were motivated by both "nationalist and religious feelings."

"We did this for our country," an identical note in the pockets of all five young men read, Channel D television station reported. "They are attacking our religion."

According to the Hurriyet newspaper, one of the suspects declared during police questioning, "We didn't do this for ourselves. We did it for our religion. May this be a lesson to the enemies of religion."

In a demonstration against the Zirve Publishing office in Malatya two years ago, local protestors had claimed its publishing and distribution activities constituted "proselytism" among Muslims and should be closed down. Turkish law, however, guarantees the right to engage in religious evangelism if it does not contain proven political motives.

The three Christians were found tied hand and foot to chairs in the liaison office of Zirve Publishing in Malatya's Niyazi Misr-i district. Their throats had been cut and their bodies marred by multiple stab wounds.

Both Aydin and Geske were already dead when local police discovered their bodies. Police had received a call from a nearby office in the building about a "disturbance" happening in the Christian publishing house's third-floor office.

Although Yuksel was still breathing and rushed to a nearby hospital for massive blood transfusions, he died soon afterwards.

When police stormed the building, one of the killers threw himself from the third story to the street, suffering a broken leg and severe head injuries. The other four suspects were apprehended as they tried to flee the building, still holding their bloodied knives.

During interrogation, the four confessed killers claimed the attack had been planned by the fifth suspect, now hospitalized in serious condition. But Malatya Gov. Halil Ibrahim Dasoz announced that five additional suspects had been arrested in the police investigation.

Turkish government leaders were quick to denounce the murders and promise a full investigation. The police, meanwhile, fielded conjecture that the suspects were linked to the Turkish Hizbollah, a Kurdish Islamic movement calling for a Muslim state in southeastern Turkey.

According to Zirve Publishing's general manager, Hamza Ozant, the company's Malatya staff had received death threats in recent months. All three of the men worked in the office and attended the local 30-member Kurtulus Protestant Church pastored by Aydin.

Aydin is survived by his wife, Semse, and a son and daughter, both preschool age. Geske with his wife Susanne had two daughters and a son, ages 8 to 13 years. Yuksel was engaged to be married within a few months.

Forensic authorities surrendered Yuksel's body to his family, who buried him in his home village in Elazig.

Aydin's funeral was April 21 at the Anglican Church in Izmir, his home city in western Turkey.

It is not yet known whether Geske's widow will decide to inter his body in Malatya or Germany.

In a bold initiative, Pastor Ihsan Ozbek, chairman of the Alliance of Protestant Churches in Turkey, led a press conference broadcast live from Malatya by CNNTURK and shown simultaneously on several other TV channels.

Flanked by the churches' legal representative, Orhan Kemal Cengiz, and Istanbul pastor Bedri Peker, Ihsan distributed a forthright press release to the Turkish media headlined, "A Horrible Brutality, But Not a Surprise."

"Yesterday, Turkey was buried in the darkness of the Middle Ages," Ozbek declared. He compared the nation's ongoing conspiracy theories and missionary phobias to the witch-hunts of the Middle Ages.

"We know this will not be the last [martyr]. But with all our hearts we wish it would be the last," Ozbek said.

The deadly attack was the first known martyrdom of Turkish converts from Islam since the founding of the Turkish Republic in 1923.

But it was the third tragic incident targeting Christians in Turkey in the past 15 months to spark major international media coverage. Last year an Italian Catholic priest was shot to death while kneeling in his church in the Black Sea port city of Trabzon. This past January, a prominent Turkish journalist of Armenian Christian descent, Hrant Dink, was murdered in Istanbul.

Over the past three years, top government officials have been accused of fanning growing hostility against non-Muslims by openly criticizing Christian missionary activities. Local prosecutors and police authorities are often reluctant to pursue reported incidents of vandalism or threats against church buildings or personnel.

Compass Direct News, based in Santa Ana, Calif., provides reports on Christians worldwide who are persecuted for their faith. Used by permission.

Published, May 2007