Turkish police on October 7 detained the American pastor Andrew Brunson and his wife Norine – residents of Turkey for the last twenty years – for “activities against national security.” Authorities held the couple in isolation for twelve days, with no access to an attorney or U.S. consular officials. Although Turkey’s Directorate of Migration Management ultimately released the pastor’s wife, Brunson has been held in solitary confinement with no access to legal counsel for over 40 days. As appalling as the couple’s treatment is, it is best understood as part of a wider campaign by the ruling Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) to intimidate and scapegoat Turkey’s Christians.
In the aftermath of the July 15 failed coup, government-held rallies and pro-government media have incited against Turkey’s religious minorities. Pro-government dailies slandered the Greek-Orthodox ecumenical patriarch for “plotting” the coup with the CIA, and published a fabricated Vatican passport to show the coup’s alleged mastermind was a Catholic cardinal. In the ensuing wave of violence, vigilantes targeted Protestant and Catholic churches and Armenian schools.
The AKP government’s involvement in the crackdown is disconcerting. On October 8, authorities banned the Protestant church in Antioch – an ancient cradle of Christianity – for conducting Bible study “without a permit.” Soon after, two officials of Turkey’s Association of Protestant Churches reported they had been questioned by the police concerning their pastoral work. On October 17, airport officials denied entry to an American Protestant who headed the Ankara Refugee Ministry, insisting that – like the accusations against the Brunsons – he was a “national security threat.” Earlier this month, authorities handed control of the Syriac church in the city of Urfa to a nearby university’s Faculty of Islamic Theology.
Turkey’s Christians are no strangers to intimidation. Brunson himself was the target of an armed attack in 2011. Assailants killed a Roman Catholic priest and bishop in 2006 and 2010 respectively. A German Protestant and two Turkish converts were tortured and brutally massacred in a Bible publishing house in 2007, three months after the assassination of the editor of Turkey’s main Armenian weekly.
Authorities have also been lenient towards assailants who target Christians. The five culprits of the publishing-house massacre were released in 2014, and the murderer of the priest walked free last year. The Armenian editor’s assassin received a hero’s welcome when brought into the police station, where officers praised his courage and asked him to pose with the Turkish flag.
Unless the AKP government introduces safeguards against hate crimes, tackles the culture of impunity, and stops incitement against Christians, Turkey risks joining the long list of Middle Eastern states where ancient Christian communities are disappearing. Religious minorities are historically canaries in a country’s coal mine – once Turkey’s religious pluralism disappears, it likely will not take long for its political pluralism to evaporate alongside it.
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.