Islamic terror attacks that target Christians in Turkey are not uncommon. Around Christmas of 2011, a large-scale al-Qaeda plot to bomb “all the churches in Ankara” was exposed.Right before Christmas 2015, ISIS issued death threats, including “upsetting videos and pictures,” to at least 20 Protestant churches, and warned that “Koranic commandments… urge us to slay the apostate like you.”
More spectacularly, a gunman dressed as Santa Claus entered a nightclub in Istanbul during New Year celebrations, 2017, and massacred 39 people. A “heroic soldier of the caliphate,” the Islamic State (“ISIS”) later claimed, “attacked the most famous nightclub where Christians were celebrating their pagan feast.” The statement further characterized the government of Turkey as being the “servant of the cross.”
What to make of this? Are attacks on Christians limited to clandestine terrorist organizations operating in Turkey, a nation which otherwise behaves as a “servant of the cross”?
In fact, hate for Christians in once secular Turkey has come to permeate every segment of society—from the average Muslim citizen to the highest levels of government. The examples are many; a few follow.
In late 2019, a Muslim boy, aged 16, stabbed a Korean Christian evangelist in the heart several times; the 41-year-old husband and father died shortly thereafter. Months earlier, an “86-year-old Greek man was found murdered in his home with his hands and feet tied”; he was reportedly “tortured.”
Before that, an 85-year-old Armenian woman was stabbed to death in her Istanbul apartment. Lest anyone mistake the motive, her murderer carved a crucifix on her naked corpse. According to the report, that “attack marks the fifth in the past two months against elderly Armenian women (one has lost an eye).”
Perhaps most notoriously, in 2009, a group of young Turks—including the son of a mayor—broke into a Bible publishing house in Malatya. They bound, sadistically tortured for hours, and eventually slaughtered its three Christian employees. “We didn’t do this for ourselves, but for our religion,” one of the accused later said. “Let this be a lesson to enemies of our religion.” They were all later released from prison on a technicality.
Much more common than the targeted killing of Christians—but no less representative of the hate—are church related attacks. Most recently, on May 8, 2020, a man tried to torch a church in Istanbul; the church had been repeatedly attacked previously, including with hate-filled graffiti.
Similarly, when a man opened fire on the Saint Maria Catholic Church in Trabzon in 2018, it was just the latest in several attacks on that church. Weeks earlier, a makeshift bomb was thrown at its garden; in 2016 Muslims crying “Allahu Akbar” (Allah is greater) vandalized the church, including with sledgehammers; in 2011 the church was targeted and threatened for its visible cross; and in 2006 its priest, Andrea Santoro, was shot dead while conducting church service.
Also while shouting “Allahu Akbar” and “Revenge will be taken for Al-Aqsa Mosque,” another Muslim man hurled a Molotov cocktail at another church, Istanbul’s Aya Triada Orthodox Church, partially setting it on fire. In another incident, four Turks banged and kicked at the door of Agape Church in the Black Sea region—again while shouting “Allahu Akbar!” According to the holed up pastor, they wanted “to go inside and hit someone or attack in some other way.”
The growing brazenness of such attacks was on full display when a random gang of Muslims disrupted a baptismal church service in Istanbul. They pushed their way into the church, yelling obscenities; one menacingly waved a knife at those in attendance. “It’s not the first, and it won’t be the last,” a local Christian responded.
Threatening and/or defacing churches is especially common. In late 2019, while shouting abuses and physical threats against Christians gathered at the Church of St. Paul in Antalya, a man said he “would take great pleasure in destroying the Christians, as he viewed them as a type of parasitism on Turkey.”
In early 2019, hate-filled and threatening graffiti—including “You Are Finished!”—was found on the Armenian Church of the Holy Mother of God in Istanbul. Commenting on it, an Armenian activist tweeted, “Every year, scores of hate attacks are being carried out against churches and synagogues.”
One of the most alarming instances occurred in 2015: as many as 15 churches received death threats for “denying Allah.” “Perverted infidels,” one threat read, “the time that we will strike your necks is soon. May Allah receive the glory and the praise.” “Threats are not anything new for the Protestant community who live in this country and want to raise their children here,” church leaders commented.
Rather than threaten or attack churches, Turkish authorities have the power to simply confiscate or close them (here, here, and here, for examples). In one instance, police, not unlike the aforementioned thugs, interrupted a baptismal ceremony while raiding and subsequently shutting down an unauthorized church. “Turkey does not have a pathway for legalization of churches,” the report explained.
Other tactics are resorted to when no pretexts can be found. For example, in an apparent attempt to conceal the online presence of at least one church, authorities labeled it “pornographic,” and blocked it. The ban was “horrible,” responded a church representative. “It’s a shame. It really pains us at having this kind of accusation when we have a high moral standard.”
Even ancient churches that predate Islam by centuries—including Stoudios monastery, the oldest Christian place of worship in Asia Minor, founded a millennium before its Islamic conquest in the fourteenth century—are being transformed into mosques. After explaining how the Turkish government built nearly 9,000 mosques over one decade, while banning liturgy in the Sumela monastery—another historic site inaugurated in 386, about a 1,000 years before Asia Minor became “Turkey”—a report adds, “This arbitrary ban seems to be yet another demonstration of the ‘unofficial’ second-class status of Christians in Turkey.”
Hate for Christians in Turkey has reached the point that it pursues these “infidels” beyond the grave: attacks on Christian cemeteries are on the rise, prompting one frustrated Christian to ask: “Is it now the turn of our deceased?” According to a March, 2020 report, 20 of 72 gravestones in just one Christian cemetery in Ankara were found destroyed. In another recent instance, the desecraters broke a cross off a deceased women’s grave; days earlier, her church burial service was interrupted by cries of “Allahu Akbar!”
What is behind all these attacks on anything and everything Christian—people, buildings, even graves? An “environment of hate” was the recent response of a journalist in Turkey:
But this hateful environment did not emerge out of nowhere. The seeds of this hatred are spread, beginning at primary schools, through books printed by the Ministry of National Education portraying Christians as enemies and traitors. The indoctrination continues through newspapers and television channels in line with state policies. And of course, the sermons at mosques and talk at coffee houses further stir up this hatred.
In other words, once “secular,” Turks are now born and bred on hating Christians.
Interestingly, even this is not enough to prevent ISIS from accusing Turkey of being a “servant of the cross,” which prompts an important question: Just what, exactly, do so-called “radical” Muslims—between 63 and 287 million Muslims in just eleven nations support ISIS—deem as the “proper” treatment of Christians?