This blog is Part 1 of an International Religious Freedom 101 series providing an overview of religious freedom challenges in countries around the world.
David Byle had lived in Turkey for 19 years, boldly and consistently sharing the gospel in Istanbul while raising his children and building a life there. Now, authorities have forced the Canadian-American pastor to leave.
Byle first noticed a marked increase in harassment by local police in 2007. The government tried to deport him in 2016, but he challenged the decision in court and was allowed to remain. Then, in October 2018, authorities instructed him to leave within 15 days, calling him a security threat and permanently banning him from the country.
“Whenever we spoke in public, people were excited to listen and learn. For a long time, we were successfully able to fight the government attempts to stop our ministry, because we were only making use of our right to religious freedom, protected by the Turkish constitution. The government did not want us in Turkey, but plenty of people do. God called us there, [H]e wants the Turkish people to hear about Him and to know that He is doing wonderful things,” Byle told ADF International.
The Turkish government’s increasing pressure on Christians has made its religious freedom violations more obvious. At the end of January, ADF International filed an application on Byle’s behalf with the European Court of Human Rights. This legal recourse is a long shot, but many Turkish Christians do not even have that.
Rise of Religious Nationalism
The backdrop of Turkey’s religious freedom violations is an increasingly hostile political scene. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has become bold in pronouncing his dream of a neo-Ottoman state, growing aggressive with dissidents at home and assertive in the region. This has consequences for many people in Turkey and throughout the Middle East, including Christians, Kurds, and other minorities.
In 2020, much of the Christian world expressed outrage over Erdogan’s plans to convert the ancient Hagia Sophia cathedral into a mosque. Ottoman conquerors had previously converted the church into a mosque once before, after the fall of Constantinople in 1453. Erdogan declared, “Hagia Sophia became a mosque again, after eighty-six years, in the way Fatih the conqueror of Istanbul had wanted it to be.” This harkening back to the time of Ottoman sultan Fatih Sultan Mehmet (known as Mehmed the Conqueror) paints a picture of a renewed conquering Turkish state.
The beginning of 2021 has seen an increase in religious freedom violations concerning historic Turkish churches, according to International Christian Concern. Violations committed by the government include turning old churches into museums and destroying old churches despite their historic designations.
The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has increased the Turkish government’s authoritarianism and Islamization of institutions. Erdogan’s power was further consolidated after a 2016 coup attempt that provided the government with an excuse to crack down on perceived opponents. Andrew Brunson, an American pastor of a small Turkish church and a resident of Turkey for 23 years, was caught up in this crackdown. In 2016, Pastor Brunson was imprisoned and then placed under house arrest for a total of two years on false national security charges in the wake of the coup attempt. He was released following pressure from the U.S. government.
Legal Pressure on Foreign Christians
Over 98 percent of Turkey is Muslim, while Christians comprise less than one percent of the population. This tiny Christian minority faces very high government restrictions and high social hostilities, according to Pew Research reports.
The U.S. State Department’s 2019 international religious freedom report found that “Multiple monitoring organizations and media outlets... reported entry bans, denial of residency permit extensions, and deportations for long-time residents affiliated with Protestant churches in the country.” Most training for Protestant leaders in Turkey is conducted by foreign workers on long-term residence visas. Restrictions on foreign nationals participating in ministry are a direct attack on Protestant churches’ existence and growth in Turkey.
American Christian Joy Subasiguller has lived in Turkey for the past 10 years. Her husband, Lutfu, is the pastor of a small Turkish church, while Joy is a stay-at-home mom with their three young children. All of that was suddenly threatened when Turkey’s Ministry of the Interior revoked Joy’s residency permit without warning or explanation. The Subasigullers have appealed the decision, but appeals in similar situations are typically rejected by the government.
Joy, like David Byle, will most likely be forced to leave. If the family wishes to remain together, they must all go together. For their children, that means leaving the only home they know. For Turkey, it means one less Christian minister. “Turkey is my home. I love Turkey and the Turkish people very much,” Joy said. “My family has very strong ties with Turkish friends here and especially with Lutfu’s family, who would be devastated if we had to permanently relocate to another country.”
Concerns for the Future in the Middle East
Turkey’s recent military involvement in the region, including conflicts in Nagorno-Karabakh, Northeast Syria, and Northern Iraq, demonstrate Turkey’s assertiveness in the region and eagerness to expand its influence in the Middle East, often to the detriment of minority communities.
Family Research Council closely followed the situation in Northeast Syria in the Fall of 2019, when Turkey sent forces to occupy land across its border governed by a Kurdish administration that had allowed religious freedom to flourish for the diverse groups living there. The invasion resulted in hundreds of thousands of people fleeing, including Christian communities. Many of the displaced people have yet to return. As Turkey continues expressing this interventionist bent, its meddling in Middle Eastern affairs is bad news for religious minorities.
Turkey increasingly presents challenges to religious freedom within its borders and across the region. Western countries should take note of the changes happening under Erdogan’s leadership. If left unchecked, the religious freedom violations occurring in Turkey will not be confined to that country alone.