ISTANBUL, Turkey A criminal trial against two Turkish Christians accused of "insulting Turkishness" and inciting hatred against Islam grabbed national media coverage as religious tensions mounted before the visit of Pope Benedict XVI, who arrived in the country Nov. 28.
A cluster of TV cameras, microphones and clamoring Turkish journalists waited for more than an hour outside the Silivri Courthouse in northwestern Turkey for Hakan Tastan, 37, and Turan Topal, 46, to emerge from their opening hearing Nov. 23 before the Silivri Criminal Court.
Tastan promptly stepped up to the mikes, stating, "We are being accused because we are Christians and because we have done missionary work."
Formally the two Christians are charged with violating Article 301 of the Turkish penal code, under which scores of Turkish intellectuals and writers have been prosecuted in the past 18 months for allegedly denigrating "Turkish identity."
The former Muslims also are accused under separate statutes of reviling Islam (Article 216), as well as secretly compiling files on private citizens for a Bible correspondence course without the individuals' knowledge or permission (Article 135).
"We don't use force to tell anyone about Christianity," Tastan said. "But we are Christians, and if the Lord permits, we will continue to proclaim this."
Describing himself and Topal as "citizens of the Republic of Turkey who love its democratic, secular system," Tastan emphasized that he and Topal had nothing to hide in defending themselves in court. "We are not ashamed to be Turks. We are not ashamed to be Christians."
Tensions outside the courtroom were heightened by the unexpected appearance of ultranationalist Kemal Kerincsiz, a fiery attorney who intervened in case against the Christians to lead a team of four other prosecution lawyers at the hearing. Kerincsiz has gained national notoriety by filing dozens of Article 301 cases against prominent intellectuals for defaming "Turkishness."
Moments after Tastan and Topal walked away with their lawyer, Kerincsiz launched an impromptu press conference from the courtroom steps.
"Christian missionaries working almost like terrorist groups are able to enter into high schools and among primary school students," Kerincsiz told reporters. "They deceive our children with beautiful young girls."
At this, one Turkish Christian in the crowd shouted, "He's lying!" Several nationalist demonstrators reacted violently, starting to shove the converts' supporters and hitting one. But police promptly intervened to detain and remove the attacker, releasing him a few minutes later.
The Christian who had been struck also was detained briefly by the authorities, who questioned him and then photocopied his identity card before releasing him.
"Unfortunately, in this country, because missionary activities have been made legal, we are not able to intervene," Kerincsiz continued. "What they are doing is a crime. It is a crime within the scope of the anti-terrorism laws."
By this time, a group of local nationalists had unfurled a banner in front of the cameras reading, "Missionaries: Keep your hands off our schools and children."
Although defense lawyer Haydar Polat told Compass Direct News he had expected his clients to be tried in an open court, on the morning of the hearing the presiding judge refused to admit the press or any observers into the courtroom.
The hearing had been scheduled to last just a few minutes to complete normal court formalities and allow opening statements from the prosecution and defense attorneys. But instead, the hearing went on for more than an hour as the judge allowed Kerincsiz to question and cross-examine the defendants at length.
Kerincsiz also demanded that the case be tried under Turkey's anti-terrorism laws, claiming that documents confiscated from the men's office indicated they were part of an illegal organization.
If Kerincsiz's demand is accepted at the next hearing, set for Jan. 29, the case would be sent up to a higher criminal court with potentially stiffer penalties.
At the Silivri Criminal Court, the two Christians face possible sentences up to three years in prison for each of the three alleged offenses.
The prosecution has been ordered to turn over to the converts' lawyer a copy of the CD submitted to the court as evidence against the two Christians. "We will get a copy of this in the next week," Polat told Compass, "so we can examine the so-called evidence against my clients contained on this CD."
Four Turkish TV channels broadcast footage on the Silivri case on the Nov. 23 evening news. The next day, newspapers focused on Pope Benedict XVI's upcoming visit to Turkey, giving scant coverage to the trial.
The nationalist Tercuman daily, however, carried headlines of claims that the two Christians had been caught with files of private information on 5,000 Turkish families. But lawyer Polat noted that the computerized list copied by investigating officials contained only 60 names of local Turkish citizens who had contacted a legally registered Bible correspondence course in Istanbul to request information or a personal visit.
Three days before the trial, the national Sabah newspaper and its sister ATV channel began a campaign of sensationalized reports on the pending case. Dubbing the authorities' investigation of the case "Operation Crucifix," Sabah claimed in the subhead of a front-page article that "an estimated 150,000 people" were affected by the Christians' missionary activities.
The Nov. 20 article declared that "it had been proven" by investigators that in an attempt to entice people to convert to Christianity, the two "missionaries" had promised them money, jobs and education. It also claimed they had been assigned to influence youth by developing sexual relationships with 17- to 18-year-old girls.
In a disclaimer released by the Christians' lawyer, Polat declared the Sabah article to be "full of lies and ugly slander" and "absolutely untrue." He warned the newspaper that his clients would use their legal rights under Turkish press laws to force the paper to retract its false report. Under Turkish law, they cannot open a libel case until their current trial is concluded.
The converts' only adult accuser, 23-year-old Fatih Kose, appeared repeatedly on ATV's morning and evening news broadcasts on Nov. 20 and 21, denouncing the two men.
"Basically, they were working to Christianize Turkish Muslims en masse," Kose was quoted as saying. Their two other accusers are teenagers under 18 who claim that the defendants tried to convert them to Christianity. All three plaintiffs failed to appear at the first hearing.
According to a Nov. 23 report by the semi-official Anatolian News Agency posted on the Turkish news website HaberX, Kerincsiz blamed the European Union (EU) for encouraging Christian missionary activities in Turkey.
"These people are acquiring power from the insistent EU harmonization process," HaberX quoted Kerincsiz as saying. "According to the EU, missionary activities are not considered a crime. However, this case does not concern missionary activities, but insulting Turkishness."
Part of a growing, influential faction of nationalists in Turkish society, Kerincsiz openly opposes Turkey's bid to enter the European Union, warning it will impose Western values and reforms on overwhelmingly Muslim Turkey.
Although most Article 301 defendants have been acquitted eventually, the EU has demanded that Turkey scrap or amend the restrictive law to meet European standards of freedom of speech.
Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul told the Italian daily Corriere della Sera that the government would soon amend the debated article. "If it was in my hands, Article 301 would already have been changed," he said in the Nov. 26 article.
Last December, Gul had admitted that the rash of cases opened under Article 301 had hurt Turkey's image as much as the 1978 film "Midnight Express," featuring a U.S. drug smuggler subjected to torture in a Turkish prison.
Compass Direct News, based in Santa Ana, Calif., provides reports on Christians worldwide who are persecuted for their faith. Used by permission.