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Turkey’s Protestants under threat as ‘danger to security’

Suspicions that an evangelical pastor was linked to the 2016 coup attempt have led to the forced exodus of dozens of longtime residents, Hannah Lucinda Smith writes

A diplomatic crisis and the fate of a man they never met upended the lives of Andrew and Cathryn Hoard. The American couple had lived in Turkey for three decades, moving there on a business posting in 1990 and staying because they loved the country. They raised their children there and never had problems with the Turkish government.

In January last year, however, as they returned from a trip to the UK, they were stopped at the border and became the latest subjects of a forced exodus of Protestants whom Turkey deems a danger to the country.

Ms Hoard, 64, was detained for three days and then put on a flight out of the country, her file having been marked by the Turkish intelligence services with a notice that declared her a threat to national security. Mr Hoard, 65, began packing up their lives in Ankara.

“It did not come completely out of left field,” he said. “In general, after 2013 the situation began turning. But we still hope that we will be able to go back. We have spent most of our adult life there.”

Like at least 65 other couples, including Britons, who have been forced to leave Turkey over the past two years, the Hoards are practising Protestants, part of a tiny community meeting in a handful of low-key churches.

The whole community, including Turkish citizens and foreign residents, numbers only about 10,000 and over the years has been a regular target for nationalist violence. In the early 1990s, the building where the Hoards held their prayer meetings was firebombed.

It was only in President Erdogan’s era that Protestant communities began to gain some legal rights, as he sought to bring Turkey up to the human rights standards required to join the European Union.

The community was still threatened. In 2007, three Turkish Protestant converts were murdered at a biblical publishing house in the Anatolian city of Malatya.

In recent years, though, the circumstances for Christians in general have begun deteriorating again as Erdogan has abandoned his European ambitions and become more stridently Islamist in his rhetoric and policies.


The pastor Andrew Brunson was detained for suspected involvement in the 2016 coup attempt. He prayed with Donald Trump at the White House after his release in 2018

The problems for Protestants in particular appear to have started after Erdogan’s row with the US over Andrew Brunson, an American evangelical pastor who had been living and preaching in Turkey for more than two decades.

Brunson was arrested in October 2016 and accused of working with the Gulenists, the Islamist fraternity blamed for a coup attempt against Erdogan three months earlier.
Erdogan then proposed releasing Brunson in return for the extradition of Fethullah Gulen, a cleric alleged to be the mastermind of the attempted coup, who has been living in the US since the 1990s.

Donald Trump waded in. He imposed sanctions on two Turkish ministers and raised trade tariffs, sending the lira into a nosedive and forcing Brunson’s release in October 2018.
The pastor flew back to the US, prayed with Trump, and gave his first interview to Breitbart, the alt-right news site that publishes sensationalist and often inaccurate anti-Muslim stories.

Trump’s heavy-handed approach appears to have enraged Erdogan, prompting him to take revenge on the country’s Protestants, even though most have no connection to Brunson or his church. All of those who have been banned from Turkey have been given the same security notice as Cathryn Hoard.

“We feel the US response was hamfisted. Shaming Erdogan was not a good idea,” Mr Hoard said. “And now the Protestant community in Turkey is at risk of wrongly being connected with Trump.”

The Times has spoken to five couples, all of whom gave matching accounts of how they were expelled from Turkey. Although deemed security threats, they were not immediately detained but were instead informed of their position as they left or entered the country. One man, a British citizen, said that he was granted an extension to his residency in the same month that the security order was put on his file.

Many of those barred own property in the country and had set up businesses there. Hans Jurgen, 59, and his wife Renata, 61, ran guesthouses and a farm in the Aegean province of Mugla, where he also led tours of the local biblical sites.

When they discovered that they were going to have to leave their home of 22 years, a Turkish Muslim neighbour came straight to their house. “And he cried — a 50-year-old man,” Mr Jurgen said. “We hugged each other and we cried.


President Erdogan has become more stridently Islamist in recent years OZAN KOSE/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

Some had been preaching in Turkey and were involved in charitable work with children and refugees but insist they were never involved in politics.

At least five of those who were banned from the country last year are foreign women married to Turks.

Lutfu Kerem Subasiguller, 38, who converted to Christianity a decade ago and is married to Joy, 39, a US citizen whose residency was revoked, has had to leave his home country to stay with her and their three children, who have dual nationality. The family are now in America.

“We tried to get residency in north Cyprus so that we could stay close to his family but it was denied. They are devastated,” Ms Subasiguller said.

“At the moment the justice system is not working in Turkey and for that reason it is impossible for us to go back,” Mr Subasiguller added.

None of those targeted were members of Brunson’s congregation, and most did not know each other. The thread connecting them was that almost all had attended one of two Protestant community meetings held in 2019 and last year.

Their lawyer, Orhan Kemal Cengiz, said he had been unable to access the information on their files that led to their bans, and that identically-worded decisions had been given in their separate court cases.


Fethullah Gulen, a cleric alleged to be the mastermind of the attempted coup, has been living in the US since the 1990s CHARLES MOSTOLLER/REUTERS

“This is an unprecedented development in Turkey in the past couple of years,” Cengiz said. “There were similar cases in the late 1990s but then the court would request the documents, and as a lawyer I could see and make comments. But we now have a uniform state policy, which includes the judiciary, executive and others — they are all acting in a uniform way.

“As a human rights defender I find this alarming, in terms of democracy and freedom of expression. The situation we are in now is far worse than the military tutelage following the 1980 coup.”

For now there seems little hope that the Turkish legal system, decimated after the 2016 coup attempt and now reconstructed with little space for independence, will return the couples’ right to return to their adopted country.

One case has been heard in the constitutional court, which ruled that the couple’s “victimhood had not been explained”.

Once the appeals process has been exhausted in Turkey, they are planning to go to the European Court of Human Rights, although Ankara has not recognised any of the recent rulings against it.

Now mostly back in their home countries, they say they often feel like foreigners there and yearn for Turkey, despite their ordeals.

“One person said to me, ‘I’m sure you’re glad to be home,’” said Ken Wiest, a US citizen who had lived in Turkey for 35 years. “I started crying. Turkey is my home. I’m 63, I don’t expect to live there again. But it would be nice to be able to go to say goodbye.”


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