Turkey's targeting of Protestants intensifies

Legal proceedings against Protestants in Turkey are intensifying, with a stack of arbitrary legal cases piling up against members of this tiny community in the predominantly Muslim country.

On March 9, The Sunday Times ran a report detailing the situation of foreign Protestants in Turkey who have lived there for decades. The newspaper spoke to five couples who described, in similar detail, how they would be informed by the authorities that they were under suspicion and sometimes be barred from returning to their homes.

Last month, International Christian Concern, a non-profit organisation, released a report that documented the discrimination faced by Protestant Christians in Turkey that included deportations, entry bans, and surveillance by Turkish intelligence.

Also in February, Arab News said that another Christian organisation, The Association of Protestant Churches in Turkey, released a report that included allegations that community members were being encouraged to spy on one another.

Orhan Kemal Cengiz is a human rights defender representing a Protestant man and his wife who have been denied re-entry to Turkey despite living there for three decades. He described the legal processes they faced.

“It is so arbitrary. I cannot find any current word which would meet the gravity of the situation,” Cengiz said in a podcast interview with Ahval News.

Cengiz said that the Turkish authorities have cited what is known as code N-82 to block Protestants’ entry to Turkey. N-82 is issued by the Ministry of Interior in cooperation with Turkey’s intelligence service, MIT. It requires a foreigner to seek pre-permission to enter the country. In practice, this creates an effective entry-ban, he said.

Cengiz said the authorities provide no real clarity concerning why N-82 is imposed.

“At no stage during these case proceedings do you ever learn the exact reasons why these codes have been imposed on the person concerned,” Cengiz said. Often the only allegation is a vague allusion to a national security risk, he said.

Cengiz likened the current situation in Turkey to the years following a military coup in 1980, when a civilian government operated under army tutelage. Then, Protestants also faced legal scrutiny but Cengiz said that the authorities at least made clear the reasons for their actions.

The situation for Protestants and other religious minorities in Turkey had improved when President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan initiated a series of judicial reforms as part of a push for Turkey to join the European Union in the first decade of the century.

However, the status of religious minorities once more grew tenuous as Turkey’s bid for EU membership floundered and Erdoğan’s rule grew more authoritarian, Cengiz said.

“You have a huge step backward for Turkey in terms of rule of law and the state of democracy,” he said.

The current plight of Turkey’s Protestants brings to mind the case of American pastor Andrew Brunson, who had lived in Turkey for decades, running a Christian congregation, before he was arrested in 2016 on espionage charges.

Brunson was only released from custody after U.S. President Donald Trump imposed sanctions and tariffs on Turkey’s economy in the summer of 2018. In response, a court issued a guilty verdict against Brunson and deported him to the United States, rather than quash the charges.

Cengiz said he does not see the legal problems faced by Turkey’s Protestants as rooted in the Brunson case. Instead, he describes it as a continuation of a pattern of behaviour with increasing ethnic and religious nationalism as the backdrop.

After exhausting all domestic legal options for the client he is representing, Cengiz has taken the case to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). Cengiz has requested that the court consider the case as part of a wider trend, rather than as an isolated incident.

As the legal proceedings continue, Erdoğan has announced a human rights action plan that he says is designed to bolster democracy and freedoms in Turkey and to resolve procedural problems in the judiciary. But the roadmap, which the president outlined in early March, contained no pledge to abide by the decisions of the ECHR, which Turkey has failed to respect in several high-profile cases, including those of philanthropist Osman Kavala and Kurdish opposition leader Selahattin Demirtaş.

Cengiz, who said his client was detained in Turkey on the day of Erdoğan’s announcement, dismissed the human rights plan as a “practical joke”. But in the end, Turkey will have no choice but to comply with the ECHR’s decisions or risk expulsion from the Council of Europe, he said.

“If you do not implement ECHR decisions, in the end the final sanction is to be expelled from the Council of Europe. Even Erdoğan cannot take this risk,” he said.