Challenges in Malatya

Alison Stendahl - Turkey On Wednesday April 18th, three Protestant Christian men were brutally murdered in the eastern city of Malatya. Two of the men were converts to Christianity and one man was a German missionary.

On Wednesday April 18th, three Protestant Christian men were brutally murdered in the eastern city of Malatya. Two of the men were converts to Christianity and one man was a German missionary. They were working with the small Protestant Church in Malatya and were in their Christian bookstore when they were killed. This makes the third incident of murders of Christians in Turkey in the past year and a half. Last year an Italian Catholic priest was murdered as he prayed in his church in Trabzon. This was probably a nationalistic reaction to the cartoon of the prophet Mohammed. The second murder was this year in January when the Turkish Armenian journalist Hrant Dink was murdered in front of his newspaper office. This was a nationalistic reaction to alleged statements insulting "Turkishness".  These most recent murders were probably a result of an accumulation of statements made by politicians and journalists concerning the "threat" Christian missionary activity poses to the stability of the Turkish nation and the perceived insult to Islam missionary activity represents to some people. For more information on these recent murders you can read an article written by a journalist friend of mine at http://www.compassdirect.org/ (News Archive for April 19th).

When the Jewish synagogues were bombed a couple of years ago as well as the HSBC Bank and the British Consulate here in Istanbul, the common reactions of the press and the people were that these bombings were probably the result of "foreigners". As it turned out, there was a connection to international terrorist groups but the perpetrators were Turkish. With the recent murders of Christians, again the initial reactions were that these killers must be connected to groups "trying to undermine the stability and tranquility of the Turkish nation" or "trying to upset the traditional tolerance of all peoples established during the times of the Ottoman Empire" or "must be connected to Hizbullah" which is a Kurdish-Islamic group that operated in Turkey some years ago. The common reaction has been that these murders could not possibly be carried out by ordinary Turks. What has been truly shocking to the normal Turk is that all of these murders were carried out by young men in their late teens or early twenties. All these murders were rationalized by the murderers as attempts to preserve the sovereignty of the Turkish nation or to avenge a perceived insult to "Turkishness" or to Islam. All these murders were not just carried out by a few individuals but were carried out by groups behind a few individuals.

As it turns out none of those murdered were any threat to either Turkey's sovereignty or to Islam itself. If anything those murdered were men of God and of peace who loved this country and the potential that lies within the soul of this country. Many countries of the world have never been very good at self examination and that includes Turkey. Its history books like the history books of so many countries serve to only glorify the past and to boost the self perception of its people. There are indeed many things the Ottoman Empire should be praised for. European history books tend to overlook those elements when they continually slander Turkey. But a history built on self delusion can only create an insecure people who perceive every action and every element that may be slightly different as a threat. The problems of today are a result of mis-education and misperceptions of self and of others. They are a result of a national identity or a national history that cannot compare and contrast itself objectively to others. It holds a double standard that it does not even seem to understand that it has. It has always mystified me how statements can be made about the treatment of Turks in other countries yet the same things are happening to minorities within this country? But truly, many just do not see it.

This is starting to gradually change. Most Turks are very tolerant and very caring people. Most Turkish Muslims I meet are not negative to those of a different ethnic background or of a different faith. Some journalists are starting to ask the questions "How can these types of murders be happening in this country?" "What factors are causing an element of our youth to hate so much?" Why are Turks free to build mosques in Germany yet we get so excited when a small number of Turks choose to become Christian in Turkey? Some of the factors, of course, are poverty and unemployment. Some factors are the continual statements issued by politicians and some members of the press about "dangerous elements threatening Turkishness".

Change must come from within the heart of this nation. Turkey is currently fighting for its very soul and this struggle must be waged by its own people. Foreign interference at this point would only prove non-profitable, since so much of what seemed to go wrong at the end of the Ottoman Empire was due to a great deal of foreign interference. So what can we as Christians do for Turkey? We can pray for the people of this country. We can be aware of all that is happening in this country and express our concern. We can encourage those Turks who are asking the appropriate questions to further the process of internal dialogue. We can try to engage in productive dialogue with Turks that live within our own lands. In terms of human rights abuses, we can encourage the appropriate legal processes and practice what we preach. We ourselves can try to be as objective as possible and refrain from massive labeling and stereotyping. Statements such as "All Turks are ... "are not ever true and are not very helpful. We must acknowledge and hold up for others to see those elements within the society that speak boldly. These people are courageous and risk far more than most of us can ever be aware of. Keep these people in your prayers. They are the people who walk silently in large processions such as the thousands who walked in the funeral march for Hrant Dink last January. They are the hundreds of people who attended the funeral of Necati Aydin in Izmir last week. They are the people who carry signs saying that they are all Armenians or are all Christians, symbolizing their solidarity with these minorities. They are Muslims or Jews or Christians or agnostics or atheists. They are the educated and the less educated, the wealthy and the poor, women and men, traditional and worldly. They are the people who know deep down inside that something in Turkey today is deeply wrong and they must struggle to make it right. They are the ones who want a future for their children in a country that is tolerant, prosperous and at peace with its neighbors and within itself. They stand against intolerant nationalism and narrow religiosity that feels it has a duty to annihilate the "other".

Pray for those who mourn and pray for those who are so filled with rage and hatred. Pray for those who work for change within this land that is fighting for its very soul.

Selam / Shalom
Alison Stendahl

Alison Stendahl serves as a missionary with the Near East Mission, Istanbul, Turkey.  She is Academic Dean of and a math teacher at Uskudar American Academy in Istanbul Turkey.