Just a few weeks after Turkish Christians received praise for spearheading earthquake relief efforts in the Izmit province (CT, Oct. 4, 1999, p. 22), police raided two Protestant churches in Izmir and Istanbul and hauled members of the congregations to jail.
In late September, Izmir's security police raided a Turkish Protestant church and arrested 40 Christians. Then, on October 3, Istanbul security police barged into another Sunday worship service and arrested 30 members of the Zeytinburnu Fellowship of Jesus Christ, along with 11 foreigners and their 5 children.
After videotaping the service, more than 20 policemen searched the church, detaining all members except for young mothers, children, and the elderly. Police initially claimed a "complaint" had been filed against the church, but Turkish members of the congregation said interrogators in the terrorism division at police headquarters accused them of conducting an "illegal" service.
Following the same pattern as the authorities in Izmir, Istanbul security police insisted that newly established churches were required to get written permission from the Turkish government for their meetings. According to Turkish church attorneys, this exceeds the existing legal requirement to inform authorities when a facility is designated as a place of worship.
Leaders of Zeytinburnu Fellow ship informed the proper authorities of their religious status six years ago, when they purchased their church building.
"Our city authorities have even recognized our legal right to exemption from utility charges, just like other churches and all the mosques in the country," one of the arrested church leaders says. "So why are they now deciding that we are illegal?"
Most of the 60-strong congregation are Protestants of ethnic Christian descent, mainly Syrian Christian and Armenian, although according to co-pastors Ilyas Anli and Orhan Ozcelik, there are some baptized Turkish converts.
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