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Caught in a dragnet

Americans and Christian minorities in Turkey are increasingly singled out as state-of-emergency laws turn the largest democracy in the Middle East into an authoritarian state

Caught in a dragnet

As if the hassles of international travel aren’t enough, Ryan Keating found himself flagged last October embarking on a routine flight from Turkey. For a decade the Yale University graduate and East Coast native has lived there, pursuing doctoral studies and church-based work. An officer seized his resident permit, telling him it had been canceled “for reasons of national security.”

Keating, 39, thought the disruption was a mix-up, and continued his journey, arriving in London hours later to teach for a week. But he did contact an attorney, suspecting he’d find difficulty upon his return to Turkey. His family—his wife and four children ages 6, 8, 10, and 12—had remained behind in Ankara.

“The only way to know if there was a ban on my return was to try to get back in,” Keating explained. Arriving from London at Istanbul’s Atatürk international airport, border officials escorted Keating to a small windowless room. A member of Turkey’s national security police told Keating the Interior Ministry had issued a lifetime ban barring him from ever entering Turkey again. The police seized Keating’s manual coffee grinder and coffeepot but allowed him to keep his cell phone and iPad.

In a matter of minutes, authorities had snatched from Keating hope of completing his doctoral studies along with his livelihood—years of investment to build a coffee business, a growing ministry to refugees, and a training program for young Christians. Keating was escorted to a locked waiting area and held through the night before another officer escorted him to a 7 a.m. flight back to London. He did not know when he would see his wife and children again.

Along with American pastor Andrew Brunson and several other Christian workers, Keating became a victim of draconian new laws in Turkey enacted following an attempted coup d’état last July. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared a state of emergency after surviving the military takeover. 

For a time it appeared the coup plotters might prevail, as military helicopters buzzed a resort along the Turquoise Coast where Erdogan was staying, while F-16s attacked Turkey’s Parliament building in Ankara. Tanks rolled into Istanbul, closing the airport and blocking bridges. But Erdogan himself escaped and marshaled supporters into the streets after addressing the nation via Facetime. Within 12 hours the uprising was over, with nearly 300 people dead.

Erdogan blamed the coup on the Gülenist Movement and called on the United States to extradite its leader Fethullah Gülen. The one-time Erdogan ally and Muslim leader has lived in self-imposed exile in rural Pennsylvania for 20 years (see “Turkey’s inside man,” July 27, 2013). 

Erdogan declared a state of emergency, and Turkish authorities rounded up thousands of alleged military plotters, members of the judiciary, journalists, and others suspected of Gülen ties. As the state of emergency deepened into a broad domestic crackdown, Erdogan’s forces suspended—and in some cases detained—more than 60,000 government-paid workers ranging from soldiers to teachers. 

Western leaders, initially supportive of Erdogan as the country’s democratically elected leader, became suspicious: The list of those arrested appeared prepared before unrest, charged Austria’s European Commission member Johannes Hahn. Had the whole coup been staged by Erdogan to consolidate his grip on power?

“It is exactly what we feared,” said Hahn. Erdogan was making Gülen a scapegoat to justify a growing move to one-man rule, with an Islamist agenda. He seemed determined to push the largest democracy in the Middle East—a member of NATO since 1952, with candidate status in the European Union, and a GDP slightly larger than Saudi Arabia’s and Switzerland’s—toward the ranks of despotic Islamic regimes.

Six months later, the crackdown has not eased. Besides jailing alleged opponents, Erdogan’s government is freezing bank accounts and confiscating property. After a New Year’s terrorist attack at an Istanbul nightclub claimed by Islamic State (or ISIS), Turkey’s Parliament extended the government’s state-of-emergency powers until at least May. 

Those powers allow the government to rule by decree, firing public employees and detaining terrorism suspects and other purported enemies of the state for up to 30 days without charges. In an overnight parliamentary session Jan. 11, lawmakers openly brawled in the chamber, throwing chairs and punching one another, as opposition members vowed to boycott further votes to limit freedom. Changes to the constitution, also under consideration in Parliament, would increase the power of the country’s head of state permanently.

The government is using the state-of-emergency laws to tar Christians, particularly resident workers from the United States. The police officer who denied Keating’s re-entry last October “did not have any documents, anything to support the charges,” Keating said. The officer, part of the national security police terror division, held only one sheet of paper claiming Keating was a “G82 threat,” a blanket code used under the state of emergency.

Keating first came to Turkey as an exchange student in 1993. He learned the language and began what he calls “a long season of my life dedicated to Turkey.” Besides continuing postgraduate studies when he moved there with his family a decade ago, he fostered a program for training Christian students, launched a coffee company with three locations in the country, and helped start with his church a food distribution and community service program now serving 6,000 Syrian and Iraqi refugees living in Ankara.

Each of those efforts will continue, Keating said, despite his abrupt departure: “Part of our strategy from the beginning was to have long-term sustainability, because always in the back of your mind is the reality that you may have to get quickly out. We know that it’s dangerous being openly Christian.”

For Keating, the deportation began weeks of separation from his family and months of legal wrangling, hopscotching from Turkey to Britain to the United States before being reunited with his wife and children. Now living temporarily in Virginia, Keating and his family at least are safe from the dragnet that’s snagged others.

“I think the state’s interest in us has increased, but not from a positive perspective,” Ihsan Ozbek, Keating’s pastor in Ankara and the chairman of the Association of Protestant Churches, told Al-Monitor. “If you look at the investigations of foreigners in our churches, you won’t find anything illegal. They are not openly accused of anything. Until today we haven’t heard of a single solid accusation.”


Keating (Handout)

ONE DAY BEFORE Keating’s deportation, authorities in Izmir detained Andrew Brunson and his wife Norine. The Brunsons worked in Turkey for 23 years and have three children now studying in the United States. They were held in isolation for two weeks, denied contact with U.S. Embassy officials and an attorney, but slated for deportation on G82 “national security” grounds. 

The Brunsons lead Izmir Resurrection Church, a Protestant congregation of about 40 worshippers in the Aegean coastal city. Turkey’s third-largest city, Izmir also is home to a strategic U.S. air base in the war against ISIS.

The Brunsons have been involved in church planting, prayer, and discipleship work in Turkey for two decades, according to their U.S.-based pastor, Richard White of Christ Community Church in Montreat, N.C. In the past year they also have worked to provide shelter and other necessities for refugees at the Turkey-Syrian border. Unlike other Muslim-majority countries, Turkey has not made such activities illegal.

“They have had ministries full of blessings and harvests … all without conflict with authorities for more than 20 years,” said White.

After two weeks’ detention, Turkish police released Norine. They continued to hold Andrew Brunson without charges or contact with outsiders for two months, including two days spent in solitary confinement. On Dec. 8 he was transferred to a prison. The next day he was brought before a judge and charged with “membership in an armed terrorist organization.”


Norine and Andrew Brunson (Handout)

The case documentation, seen by an attorney assigned to the case but not publicly identified, provides no evidence to back up the charges, nor does it say which terrorist organization Brunson is allegedly part of. The attorney, who is Turkish, has been allowed only limited visits.

Brunson currently is the only American Christian imprisoned, but several others like Keating face deportation. Brunson faces “a serious, yet completely unfounded, charge,” said Jordan Sekulow, executive director of the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), the U.S. legal advocacy firm helping to navigate the case. Norine, who remains in Turkey, referred my request for an interview to ACLJ, and the group responded with a written statement by Sekulow.

Authorities for the first time allowed Norine to visit her husband on Dec. 28. She posted a photo of the sprawling prison facility on Facebook and said she found her husband “very down and discouraged.” He did not know his wife was still in the country, she said, and her letters to him had been withheld. The next day, a court denied Brunson’s appeal of the terrorism charges—which could carry serious penalties. Brunson, denied most mail and all books, has been held in a small room lined with bunk beds along with 11 other Muslim male prisoners. This month the number in the same room grew to 20 prisoners, leaving almost no space to walk, according to his wife’s Facebook post. “Day after day is empty and long,” she said.

“Christians in general and Protestants in particular are really at the top of the government’s list of targets,” said Aykan Erdemir, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a former member of the Turkish Parliament. 

“Christians in general and Protestants in particular are really at the top of the government’s list of targets”

Erdemir believes “scapegoating religious minorities” is essential to the crackdown. Targeting Protestants fits with a campaign that “is anti-American, anti-Western, and anti-Christian.”

Erdemir, who left Parliament in 2015, said the pace of change in his homeland “is surreal.” That year he attended Easter services at St. Giragos Armenian Church in Diyarbakir, the largest Armenian church in the Middle East. In early 2016, the government expropriated the church and its property, along with five other historical congregations in the city, and St. Giragos was nearly destroyed in fighting between Turkish forces and Kurdish militants. The confiscations and destruction went little noted before the coup attempt. 

Authorities also have closed the Church of St. Peter in Antakya, a church visited by the Apostle Paul and Barnabas, according to the book of Acts, and where believers in Jesus Christ were first called Christians. The cavernous church, built into a mountainside overlooking the city (once Antioch) is a popular tourist destination in addition to holding active services. 

The crackdown has drawn a muted response from the Obama administration and European officials. Neither Barack Obama as president nor State Department officials have made public statements challenging Brunson’s arrest, and in Obama’s final six months in office, the administration has made little of Turkey’s state-of-emergency procedures.

Representatives for Brunson have met with U.S. officials and Turkish diplomats in Washington. But Keating said he contacted the U.S. Embassy in Ankara following his deportation and never received a response. “It would have been nice to hear from them,” he said.

Erdemir believes Western attempts to appease Erdogan or downplay the crisis have been disastrous: “Erdogan’s relations with the U.S. and the EU have deteriorated precisely because he’s lost respect for them. If you see your counterpart as an equal, you will be more demanding. You won’t look the other way while it is transgressing. Erdogan sees appeasement as a form of disrespect.”

Left unchallenged, Turkey’s continued anti-Western policies will threaten the NATO alliance and other partnerships. In addition to NATO, Turkey is a member of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the Council of Europe, which includes the European Court of Human Rights. 

“It’s appalling that a country so firmly entrenched in the transatlantic world could have so quickly become anti-Western,” said Erdemir.

A new Trump administration, he said, should “engage Turkey as a genuine partner in the transatlantic alliance, and hold it to transatlantic values.”

Christianity has a long history in Turkey. The seven churches of Revelation were located within its modern-day boundaries, and much of Paul’s missionary journeys were centered in what was then Asia Minor. The Council of Nicaea met near modern-day Iznik in A.D. 325 to establish one of the earliest church creeds. Constantinople, long the seat of Eastern Christianity, fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, ending Christian domination over the area and ushering in an Islamic caliphate with the city, as Istanbul, its stronghold.

“Turkey’s transformation from guardian of Christendom to unevangelized nation has been almost comprehensive,” notes Operation World in its 2010 prayer guide. The country’s evangelical community, seemingly obliterated by 1960, has more than tripled in the last 20 years and is believed to number about 7,000 people (out of a population of 80 million). But American workers detained or expelled in the last year, along with forcible church closures and harassment of local pastors, could again squeeze out Protestants.

Keating isn’t giving up on his long dedication to Turkey. He said there is “good precedence” for being hopeful a lifetime ban on his entering the country may be lifted. And he believes Turks deserve religious options: “Religious freedom is a component of human rights, and people ought to be free to make religious choices.”

Mindy Belz

Mindy Belz

Mindy wrote WORLD Magazine's first cover story in 1986 and went on to serve as international editor, editor, and now senior editor. She has covered wars in Syria, Afganistan, Africa, and the Balkans, and she recounts some of her experiences in They Say We Are Infidels: On the Run from ISIS with Persecuted Christians in the Middle East. Mindy resides with her husband, Nat, in Asheville, N.C. Follow her on Twitter @mcbelz.


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  • VT
    Posted: Fri, 01/27/2017 05:30 pm

    I will pray.