Turkey’s July 15 abortive coup has produced a show of cross-party support for the country’s elected government. All three major opposition parties explicitly denounced the attempt, and the government returned the favor by thanking them in parliament. That apparent spirit of unity, however, does not include everyone: The failed coup has sparked a wave of hatred and violence against religious minorities for their supposed “complicity” in the incident.
In the aftermath of the failed coup, Turkey’s religious minorities were quick to demonstrate their loyalty to their homeland. Although they have been targets of hate speech by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) for much of its 13 years in power, they stood behind the elected government without hesitation.
The day after the abortive coup, the religious leaders of the Jewish, Armenian, Greek-Orthodox, and Syriac communities denounced it in a joint declaration, joined later by representatives of the Alevi and Shiite faiths. These gestures, however, did not suffice to shield them from the rising anti-minority sentiment of government supporters.
On August 7, in a demonstration of solidarity, Turkey’s Jewish and Christian religious leaders joined the “Democracy and Martyrs” rally, the government’s million-strong anti-coup demonstration in Istanbul. In denouncing the coup plotters, however, three of the speakers insulted religious minorities by tarring the plotters as “seeds of Byzantium,” “crusaders,” and as a “flock of infidels.”
Indeed, there is an alarming trend among pro-government media to connect the coup plot to minorities. A pro-government journalist insisted two days after the abortive coup that Fethullah Gulen – a U.S.-based Sunni cleric whom Erdogan accuses of being the coup mastermind – has a Jewish mother and an Armenian father, and is a member of the Catholic clerical hierarchy. Another pro-government columnist claimed that the plotters may be hiding in churches. Unsurprisingly, it was not long before incitement led to physical attacks against minorities.
Churches in the Black Sea city of Trabzon and Anatolian city of Malatya – the scenes of lethal attacks against Christians a decade ago – were the first to be attacked after the coup. Later, an Armenian high school in Istanbul was vandalized. An Alevi worship hall there and homes in Malatya were next, and Christian tourists were harassed in Gaziantep.
These crimes point to an alarming trend of scapegoating Turkey’s minorities. The country already knows the effects of such scapegoating: The anti-Jewish, anti-Christian, and anti-Alevi pogroms of the 1930s, 1950s, 1970s, and 1990s together cost the lives of hundreds of innocent people. Turkey’s government, which insists that the failed coup was a victory for “democracy,” now needs to prove that Turkey’s dwindling religious minorities have a place in it, too.
Aykan Erdemir is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a former member of the Turkish parliament. Follow him on Twitter @aykan_erdemir