Turkey sees a revival of hatred for religious minorities

There has been a revival of hatred for religious minorities, spearheaded by the Turkish government which has incited it, said Nadine Maenza, president of Patriot Voices where she focuses on religious freedom and working family policy, in an article she penned for Newsweek together with Aykan Erdemir. 

According to the analysts, the Turkish government has been portraying Christians and Jews as fifth columnists in the service of Western meddling.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan targeting his political opposition by saying they did the bidding of the “gavur” (infidel), a pejorative designation for non-Muslims, stunned the country’s Christian and Jewish communities in mid-April.

Before the most recent spat, Pastor Andrew Brunson of North Carolina -who spent almost two years in a Turkish prison on false charges of military espionage, terrorism and coup plotting- had become the public face of the harassment Christian faith leaders have experienced since the country's failed coup attempt in 2016.

Brunson was not the only Christian faith leader targeted by such government-orchestrated smear campaigns. Turkey's pro-government dailies also slandered the Greek Orthodox ecumenical patriarch with accusations of plotting the 2016 failed coup alongside the CIA.

Although almost five years have passed since Turkey's abortive coup, the harassment of Christians has not waned. In fact, the deportation of Protestant faith leaders has picked up steam. Since 2016, Ankara has intensified its use of the N-82 code—designating foreign nationals as a national security threat—to deny entry or residence permits to Protestant faith leaders. Turkish authorities expelled 30 Protestants in 2020 and 35 the year before.

The Turkish government also seems to be discouraging the return of members of various Eastern Christian denominations to their ancestral lands in the country's Kurdish-majority southeast. On April 8, a Turkish court imposed a 25-month prison sentence on Syriac Orthodox priest Sefer Bileçen, known as Father Aho, a longtime Istanbul resident who had returned to Mardin to become the caretaker of the 1,500-year-old Mor Yakub Monastery. Turkish authorities first arrested Father Aho in January 2020 on charges of membership of a terrorist organisation, but released him on parole after public pressure.

The Erdoğan government’s conversion of Hagia Sophia from a museum into a mosque last July was one of its most threatening moves with regard to Turkey's religious minorities. The Turkish president's evocation of the so-called Ottoman spirit of conquest and officials’ references to the “right of the sword” to legitimise the conversion of the Byzantine cathedral - as well as several other churches - have relegated Turkey's Christian citizens to the inferior status of conquered minorities.