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Country at a crossroads

The nation that straddles Europe and Asia is also torn between secular and Islamic views of government, between cultural stability and terrorist violence.

Country at a crossroads

BODRUM and ISTANBUL, Turkey--It is 10:19 pm in the bustling resort town of Bodrum on the southwestern coast of Turkey, and the call to prayer sounds from a small mosque surrounded by several couture shops. Less than 10 men-summoned for the last of the five prayers said each day by devout Muslims-are praying inside its open doors, and those on the streets pay scant attention to the beckoning loudspeaker.

A few blocks down the street, the Bodrum Marina Yacht Club begins a call of its own. Popular Turkish and American tunes draw more than a -hundred people to an outdoor stage to listen to a five-piece jazz band and a popular Turkish singer. Like other night clubs in Turkey, its music will pulse several hours past midnight. Although Bodrum lies in the Asian portion of Turkey, this town feels more a part of the West than the East.

Yet Turkey inhabits a pivotal place somewhere in the middle: It's a beacon to its Muslim neighbors struggling to find stability or sorely lacking in basic rights, but the nation has not yet been invited to join the European Union (EU). History and culture make Turkey an attractive tourist destination, but several high-profile murders during the past two years-including that of three Christians in southeast Turkey-and a recent terrorist attack in front of the American consulate in Istanbul mean some potential tourists may decide not to come.

Turkey's secular republic is unique for a majority Muslim nation, but an underlying fear that the government could turn Islamist has led to several soft coups and the arrests of dozens of Turks suspected of plotting to overthrow the Islamist-leaning ruling party in Turkey. Yet pride and determination continue to propel this unique nation forward, and some political strategists say Turkey has the potential to be the glue that binds East to West.

East and West

Istanbul is the only city in the world that straddles both Europe and Asia.

In the evenings, visitors line the European shore of the Bosphorus-the strait that divides Istanbul in two-and wait to board one of the river's small boats that shuttle hungry patrons to Istanbul's famous seafood restaurants on the Asian side of the city. The decorative lights of the Bosphorus Bridge create a soothing glow on the water, and fireworks in the distance further enhance the magical ambiance.

Travel and Leisure magazine ranked Istanbul the world's third-best city-behind Rome but ahead of Paris-in 2007, and it recently won the bid for the prestigious title of European Capital of Culture in 2010. But Turkey's tireless efforts since 2005 to gain acceptance into the EU have yet to gain real traction, and the country is increasingly distracted by unrest.

Two back-to-back bombs ripped through a working-class Istanbul neighborhood on July 27, leaving 17 dead-including five children-and more than 150 injured. The terroist attack was the worst case of violence in five years and came just hours before the Constitutional Court in Ankara narrowly decided not to ban Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) for alleged Islamism.

Prime Minister Erdogan has linked the Kurdish separatist PKK group to the bombings, but several PKK leaders have denied involvement. The group has -carried out scores of terrorist bombings since 1984, but Islamist militants and ultra-nationalists have also been active in the region.

In addition to domestic troubles, Turkey is addressing tension with EU member Cyprus. Turkey must open its ports and airways to Cyprus, the EU says, before it can be considered for membership.

Clashes in 1974 between the island's Greek Orthodox and Muslim Turks resulted in the threat of Greek annexation. Turkey invaded and took control of one-third of the island, naming the territory the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. This political entity is recognized by Turkey alone (the Republic of Cyprus claims sovereignty over 97 percent of the island), but Cyprus remains de facto partitioned into separate Turkish and Greek -territories with a United Nations--controlled Green Line in between.

Leaders from both territories met on July 23 to discuss a resolution, and -full-scale negotiations are expected to begin in September with the goal of -ending the division of the island by the end of 2008. The other looming task assigned to Turkey is that of bringing its laws up to European standards-a challenge that centers on improvements in free speech and minority rights.

Secularism and Islam

The population of Turkey is nominally 99 percent Muslim, but the country has no official state religion. A stark contrast from a number of other Muslim countries where Islamic law has become part and parcel of the state, Turkey has created a system that prevents just that.

Political parties suspected of becoming too Islamic are disbanded or overthrown by the military, and wearing a religious head covering in many of Turkey's public institutions is against the law. Visitors often remark that they see more Islamic dress in London or Toronto than on the streets of Istanbul.

But the rise to power of the AKP has stoked the embers of apprehension among many Turks. The party's Islamist roots, coupled with its recent change to the Constitution that lifts the headscarf ban at universities, have led to fears that Erdogan and fellow AKP member President Abdullah Gul are on a mission to turn Turkey into an Iranian-style theocracy. Erdogan claims he is committed to a secular model of government.

While some Turkish Christians say the AKP has shown a deeper affinity with minority religious communities than the wary secular parties, other believers say its leadership shows signs of trouble on the horizon.

When WORLD met with a Turkish Christian in Istanbul who requested that her identity not be revealed, she expressed concern over Erdogan's response to the murder of three Christians-two converts from Islam and one German believer-in southeast Turkey last year: "He said, 'A proper person will not convert.' So how do I feel toward my prime minister as a Christian?"

She said that tensions have increased since the Malatya murders in April 2007 and claims her local congregation now locks its doors during worship while several others have hired private security firms. Two plots to kill several pastors have been uncovered, and she believes Turkey's Intelligence Services have created a file on her because of her Christian-related work in the country. "We try to be open," she added. "We are not doing anything to divide the country."

Reports from the hearings of the accused Malatya murderers have detailed lackluster efforts by local court officials to follow promising leads. Defense lawyers for the seven men on trial attempted to shift the focus of the eighth hearing on July 4 to Christian missionary activity in the region.

"Please, show a little respect," attorney Erdal Dogan declared, according to reports from Compass Direct news service. "This case is about three savage murders, not an inquiry into the Christian faith and its practices! Don't be ridiculous!" Although missionary activity is not against the law in Turkey, local media have often portrayed it as illegal, and some government officials have labeled it a security concern.

With rural eastern Turkey under the watchful eye of human-rights groups for abuses against women and with religious tension escalating to dangerous levels, Turkey has some work ahead in order to meet European standards.

Peace and Terror

Pictures of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the famed founder of Turkey's secular republic, line the historic streets of Istanbul. Its residents proudly point them out, and one tour guide WORLD encountered claimed Turkey would be like Afghanistan if it weren't for Ataturk.

Although this distinctive country has much to be proud of, it has also entered a new season of trials and tests. How the country deals with acts of terror and suspected plots to overthrow the current government could play a major role in the EU's decision and become a shaping factor for Turkey's future.

On July 9 four gunmen pulled up to the American consulate in Istanbul and began a shooting rampage that left six dead-three Turkish police officers and three of the attackers. Several Americans WORLD spoke to changed their travel plans after the attack at the consulate and flew home through Athens rather than return from island hopping in the Aegean through Turkey, fearing further attacks on Western outposts in the region.

The U.S. Embassy in Ankara issued a warning to American visitors that terrorists may seek softer targets, including "facilities where Americans and Westerners are known to live or congregate, especially hotels, restaurants, housing compounds, places of worship and resort areas." The warning urged Americans to keep a low profile.

The attack revived memories of a 2003 suicide bombing at the British consulate in Istanbul, which was followed by the bombing of a local HSBC bank and two synagogues, leaving 58 dead and hundreds injured.

More than 70 men were tried and found guilty in the 2003 terrorist attacks, and prosecutors uncovered a home-grown extremist network with loose ties to al-Qaeda. Several men said they attended training camps in Afghanistan. Although local media were quick to assume that the latest attack was also al-Qaeda related, others say the haphazard attack did not reflect the terrorist group's involvement.

Just days after the July shooting in front of the American consulate, 86 members of the "Ergenekon gang," a clandestine nationalist group, were charged with allegedly forming an armed terror network and plotting a military coup. The group is widely believed to be behind more than a decade of assassinations in Turkey, including the murders of Catholic Priest Andrea Santoro in February 2006 and Turkish Armenian journalist Hrant Dink in January 2007.

Many Turks believe the prestigious title of European Cultural Capital and the wave of tourists expected in 2010 will boost the country's image as a moderate and peaceful nation and ease some of the tension among wary Europeans. Political analysts say Turkey's accession process will take at least 15 years because of the country's size and population (close to 70 million people) and the vast chasms between religious and cultural differences.

As Turkey continues to seek closer ties to the West, its political and economic ties to the East-particularly the countries of the Middle East and Central Asia-remain strong.

Turkey's geo-strategic importance is an attractive claim, and those in favor of Turkey's acceptance into the EU say it could help forge a bond between the Islamic world and the West, spreading stability to Turkey's southern and eastern borders.

But Turkey's Christian population is proceeding with caution. Christians in the West "should know that this is going to be a long, difficult struggle for us," the Turkish believer in Istanbul said. Christians in Turkey are small in number (an estimated 3,000 people), not deeply rooted, and lacking in finances.

"There are difficulties, and there are opportunities," she quickly added with a measure of optimism. The same could be said about Turkey as it continues to tackle the ripples of extremism while becoming increasingly confident about its pivotal place in the world and the bounty it has to offer the West. Acceptance into the European Union could become both a source of pride and an avenue of accountability for Turkey as it enters a new era in the years ahead.

Jill Nelson

Jill Nelson

Jill is a correspondent for WORLD. She is a graduate of World Journalism Institute and the University of Texas at Austin. Jill lives in Orange County, Calif., with her husband, two sons, and three daughters. Follow her on Twitter @WorldNels.