A lone gunman fired a shot Tuesday evening through the window of the Saint Maria Catholic Church in Trabzon, a city on Turkey’s Black Sea coast. This is the fifth confirmed attack against the church since the assassination of its priest Andrea Santoro in 2006. Mobs also targeted Saint Maria, attacking its gates with hammers and breaking its windows, in the immediate aftermath of Turkey’s 2016 abortive coup, which led to wide-scale scapegoating and intimidation of Turkey’s Christians. Ankara’s culture of impunity and the systematic incitement in pro-government media continue to put Turkey’s religious minorities at risk of hate crimes.
Last month, an incendiary device damaged Saint Maria’s front door a day ahead of the anniversary of the assassination of Father Santoro. Bishop Paolo Bizzeti, who assumed office as the vicar apostolic of Anatolia in 2015 – a seat vacant since the murder of his predecessor Bishop Luigi Padovese in 2010 – referred to the arson attempt as “one of the many episodes of intimidation and vandalism that affect the Trabzon church every week.” Bizzeti complained about assailants who regularly damage the gates and desecrate church grounds with trash. When Trabzon’s local media published the bishop’s concerns, the governor’s office denied that there were weekly attacks and claimed that authorities had been taking necessary precautions.
Since Turkey’s July 2016 abortive coup, government-held rallies and pro-government media have systematically incited hatred against Turkey’s Christians. In the “Democracy and Martyrs” rally held three weeks after the putsch attempt, three of the speakers insulted Christians by referring to the coup plotters as “seeds of Byzantium,” “crusaders,” and as a “flock of infidels.” Newspapers belonging to a pro-government media conglomerate run by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s son-in-law and his brother were at the forefront of the anti-Christian smear campaign. While Star claimed that the plotters might be hiding in churches, Takvim published a fabricated Vatican passport to show the coup’s supposed mastermind was a Catholic cardinal. Another pro-government columnist alleged that the mastermind has a Jewish mother and an Armenian father, and is a member of the Catholic clerical hierarchy.
Meanwhile, Turkey’s culture of impunity continues to make Christians an attractive target for hate crimes. A month-and-a-half after the coup attempt, Turkey granted an early release to Father Santoro’s murderer. The killer, who refused to express remorse for his crime in court and even attempted a short-lived escape from prison in 2012, managed to walk free after serving only ten years of his 18-year sentence. He also bragged in a 2011 letter to a relative that he was treated like a king in prison, and even vowed to kill the Pope. He added that he wanted to become even more famous than Mehmet Ali Agca, the Turkish assailant who shot and critically wounded Pope John Paul II in 1981 only to walk free from a Turkish prison in 2010. In a 2017 interview with the Turkish media, Santoro’s killer stated, “I only feel regret for putting my state in a difficult situation.”
Turkey’s Islamist government can and needs to tackle the worrying trend of hate crimes targeting Christians. Erdogan can start by asking his mouthpiece media to end scapegoating and incitement. The Turkish courts, meanwhile, should stop providing parole to murderers of Christian clergy while issuing aggravated life sentences to journalists who expose such hate crimes.
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.
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