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Interview with Zekai Tanyar, the Chair of the Association of Protestant Churches

Zekain Tanyar: "The authorities lack knowledge about Constitutional and human rights and their obligations and instead their approach is often based on an attitude of “how can I block this?” The Directorate of of Religious Affairs cannot have decision making power over non-Muslim religious communities, yet, for whatever reason, some public authorities seek their approval."

The Association of Protestant Churches in Turkey which represents most of the churches of the small Protestant community has published its 2011 Report on rights violations faces by Protestants in Turkey. We talked to the Chair of the Association, Zekai Tanyar, about the Report and the problems of Protestants in Turkey.

Last week, the Association of Protestant Churches published its report on rights violations experienced by the Protestant community throughout 2011. The report shows that almost every month verbal or physical attacks were carried out against Christians.  What are your thought on this? In comparison to previous years, can you observe any changes? 

Just as one is thinking “maybe somethings are changing, maybe the mentality about fundamental human rights is changing” you find one is again facing the incitements of prejudice and intolerance. In the Bible it says that “the mouth says what comes from the heart”. When one looks at the statements of our country’s leaders, reactions of public authorities and many newspaper articles, one can, unfortunately, clearly see negative attitudes towards Christians. You frequently find that even when they try to appear tolerant in their discourse, their words pierce more than they heal. It is clear that any positive administrative and legal change is not really the result of minds committed to justice. But regardless of their reason, we are grateful for the positive changes. We hope that the opportunities provided by these changes will, in time, create deep   rooted change. As long as these outlooks do not change, you will get the same answer to  this question be it in one, five or ten year’s time.

What do you think the reason behind these attacks is? Is it systematic or just individual attacks?

My answer is connected to my first response. There are various components at the root of such aggressiveness, such as a struggle for supremacy among different beliefs, a sense of historical wrongs and prejudices, fears, political interests, etc.  These lead to both systematic and individual attacks. Indeed, considering the common negative propaganda and stirmongering, one could reasonably say that the individual attacks are also produced by systematic initiatives. Democracy requires one to be open to differences, but if the state and society cannot accept these differences, how are they going to react? So, even if they do not wish to appear systematic, they resort to inciting organized or individual anger. For the attacks one has to look at what is instilled in the people, and the ugliness of all that is instilled is blatantly before us.

Can you tell us about the Protestant community in Turkey? How may people, where do the lives most etc.?

There are local and foreign Protestant fellowships. We don’t know the exact number of the local fellowships but we think it is about 100, about 50% of these consist of a handful people meeting in homes. The majority of the churches are in the three big cities, but there are churches in various parts of Turkey. The number of local Protestants is about 4000-5000. These are not foreigners, they are local people, and most are not from the traditional Christian communities.

Foreign fellowships  are few in number and they are more for expats working in Turkey, residents and visitors.  I don’t know the exact number but I don’t think there would be more than 10-15 churches. These are located in the three major cities and a few tourist regions.

It appears from your report that the Protestant community has great difficulty establishing places of worship. Have you been in dialogue with the authorities to find a solution.  How do you think this problem can be solved? 

This is a huge problem. But it is no surprise that this problem has not been solved when you consider the mentality of the state that does not accept the Alevi community’s own definition of its “places of worship”, and their community numbers tens of millions! There has been dialogue several times but with no result. There is need for more talk. However,  these visits do not go beyond polite stalling as long as the attitude  I mentioned is present. Churches find themselves shuttled between municipalities and governorships in their search for a solution to this problem.   Even if one municipality responds positively, often the state Governor does not give approval. Sometimes the authorities respond with ridiculous  excuses saying “ there are not enough Christians in the neighbourhood”. So are we supposed to do te head counts and form ghettos?! The solution is for Turkey to respect its own constitution and international human rights law.  It is religious communities themselves who determine their “place of worship” in accordance with their traditions, and not political institutions.

The authorities lack knowledge about Constitutional and human rights and their obligations and instead their approach is often based on an attitude of  “how can I block this?”  The Directorate of  of Religious Affairs cannot have  decision making power over non-Muslim religious communities, yet,  for whatever reason, some public authorities seek their approval.   Permission for places of worship should be given in line with the country’s and community’s reality (the needs, the small numbers etc.). It is not possible to find a solution by continuously creating obstacles, without giving it a try.

There is no educational facility in Turkey to train Christian ministers.  How do the Protestant community meet their needs in this respect? How would you like this problem to be solved? What are the demands within the Protestant community in regards to this issue?

Since the Protestants  do not believe in having a central administration to control their activities, there are differing approaches. Generally speaking the training of ministers  is carried out within each church community according to its own tradition.  The key issue is that there should be a legal way of training religious ministers without this being controlled by the Ministry of Education.  Supervision is one thing, controlling it is another thing. This issue clearly demonstrates how “freedoms and rights” are not really comprehended.

Before we Turks came to Anatolia, there were Christian communities and many of the churches in Turkey are connected to these historical churches. Their ways of training clergy are clear and they were pretty much able to carry it out until 40-50 years ago.  What was the logic of changing this? How can the Ministry of Education, which changes curricula every year because they cannot decide on educational policies, administer a group whose religion they do not even understand. Solutions existed in the past and are straightforward, the real issue is whether there is the will to grant these rights?

The local Protestant churches are still exploring the best way to train their ministers and they need to clarify the  best approaches. But even if their demands were clear, currently in Turkey, the state has neither the legal framework not desire for this.

What are your thoughts about the new Constitution? Generally about Turkey and in particular for the Protestant community, what changes in the new Constitution would solve the existing problems? 

I cannot comment generally on the Constitution, but will touch upon the right to believe and express one’s thoughts and opinions.  I do just want to say though that the more one makes elaborate statements, the more the conflicts.  The Constitution should be clear and liberal, and the basic approach should be to prevent injustices rather than to claim to grant rights.  The current Articles 10, 24, 25 and 26 which deal with the rights to freedom of expression and belief illustrate these points. Many statements in them are clear and fine, but problems arise when these Articles also lay down precise applications.  For example, the new Constitution should definitely not include “compulsory religious education” as is stipulated in the current Article 24.  A Constitution should not lay down any requirement for “compulsory lessons”, as the detailed content of education and particular courses should be regulated in legislation and statutes.

We have to be careful about some new proposals. For example one proposal includes this phrase, ”…for whatever reason, religious feelings or those that are deemed holy by religion, cannot be exploited or abused… ” This seems reasonable at first, but such statements are open to interpretation and can open the way for witch hunts which have the effect of reducing the freedoms the Constitution should defend.

The Zirve trial, concerned with the killing of three Christians in Malatya in 2007, is in its 5th year. Does the progress of the trial satisfy you (Protestants) and the families?

The progress is extremely slow but just recently the court has at least started to look at the persons or organizations behind the young men who brutally killed these three Christians. Only after more than four years of court hearings, the information and notices that had been presented at the start of the trial are being taken into account!  This shows how the aims of the judiciary can wander away from the quest of justice.  We live in a world of competing interests and power.

Whether or not there is “deep state” or something else behind these murders, the root of the problem is related to the mentality and core attitude I mentioned in answer to your first questions. This mentality is: “the person who views things differently than me does not have the right to freedom of opinion or belief, they do not even have the freedom to live!” The change (to consider the persons or organizations behind the murderers) that took place in the process of the Zirve trial is a miracle. We do appreciate the efforts of the lawyers, but if the trial ends with transparency and real justice, it should be classified as a miracle.

There is a particular sensitivity about “missionary activities” in Turkey. In the school curricula we find that missionary activities are identified as national threat.  What are your thoughts about that?

The presentation of missionary activities as “a national threat” is like the efforts of a mother to scare her child with horror stories because she cannot guide the children with love and understanding. You know like threatening them that “if they misbehave the doctor will give them an injection, the policeman will imprison them, that the lady over there will beat them”; and likewise the missionary will divide the country.

Who is a missionary? This is a human being who believes in the significance of his/her belief and that all of humanity should know about it.  Actually, the person selling goods in the market, the politician, hodjas, imams all are missionaries, and advertisers are probably master missionaries! The Turkish (or rather the Arabic) for this act is “Tebliğ” (to inform, notify, pass on). When it is Islam being promoted it is to Tebliğ, to inform, and is acceptable, yet when it is someone of another belief doing the promoting he/she is labelled with this mysterious and scary name “missionary”. Why is that? Because for years in our society, this ‘foreign’ term has been intentionally given a very negative scary meaning and the people have swallowed this twist and thus fear it. So now, if a certain belief group, and in particular Christians, are to be ostracised all you need to do is simply label them “missionaries”. This is the way to show the target without using the term “Christian”. Isn’t the aim after all to silence the child, numb them and rule over them? The fact that th doctor, the policeman or other persons are not evil and will not carry out the claimed threat is not important. It is not important that in this process, innocent people are hated, ostracised, their rights violated or even killed!

The aim of the scare stories is not so much to protect the country, but to have an excuse to  limit people’s freedom of belief and expression.  A Muslim should be able to share their belief in a predominantly Christian culture and indeed Muslim missionaries do. Then, why should a Christian, Buddhist etc. not be able to share their belief in our country? The Constitution says they can!  “How are we going to stop them then? Oh let’s call them missionary. That mysterious frightening word we have termed!”


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