Ibrahim Konutgan, a 27-year-old Assyrian Christian, has been jailed since June 8 for taking home videos in an ancient churchyard in Turkey's heavily militarized Southeast. Arrested on suspicion of attempting organized propaganda, he has been ordered released by Diyarbakir's State Security Court.

A formal statement is expected from the state prosecutor's office on the case within the next few days, his lawyer Kadir Pekdemir confirmed.

Konutgan was arrested by Turkish security police in Idil, a town in Sirnak province some 12 miles north of the Syrian border. Although born in Idil and still a Turkish citizen, Konutgan has lived in Europe since he was 10 years old.

Together with two others, Konutgan was reportedly observed videotaping in the graveyard of Idil's St. Mary's Church, located adjacent to facilities of the Sirnak 2nd Border Battalion of the Turkish army.

The Assyrian Christian's companions were his nephew Musa Konutgan, 20, a Swiss citizen visiting Turkey; and 18-year-old Bilal Gulec, son of the Public Registration Office director in Idil.

According to their families in Europe, the two young Assyrians were taking footage with Musa's video camera for their relatives who had immigrated from Idil to Switzerland and Germany. "It was just for nostalgic reasons," Musa's father Cebrail Konutgan said. "We wanted them to take it for our children, who have never been back there to see our home village."

Both Ibrahim Konutgan and Gulec were jailed in Midyat during an official investigation into the case by the state prosecutor's office. Although Musa Konutgan was questioned and required to sign a formal statement for the authorities, his foreign passport proved an asset. As a Swiss citizen he was released the same day, under orders from the police to leave Turkey within two weeks.

"If Musa was a Turkish citizen, they would have kept him under arrest all these weeks, like Ibrahim," Cebrail Konutgan commented.

Konutgan and Gulec were discharged without bail from the Midyat Central Prison and allowed to return to Idil.

Pekdemir said his client was in good spirits when he was allowed a prison visit with him 10 days after his arrest, although the detained Christian could not understand any reason for his arrest.

Konutgan was in his fifth semester as a law student in Konstanz University in southern Germany until last November, when his family said he was deported back to Turkey "by mistake."

According to his brother Ishak Konutgan, judicial attempts to reverse the deportation and clarify a legal channel for Ibrahim's return to Germany have been in process for the past seven months.

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"Anyone who looks at these video clips understands that they were just playing around," Gulec's initial court-appointed lawyer Kemal Ayyildiz told leftist newspaper Radikal. "There is no ideological content to the film footage at all; they were completely joking around." The lawyer said the film included footage of historic and tourist places in Idil and Midyat, with no military locations except for the battalion situated next to St. Mary's Church.

"But because the church is exactly adjacent to the army there," Ayyildiz said, "wide-angle shots taken there included the military site." Another video clip reportedly showed Ibrahim Konutgan lighting a candle inside a church, inviting "all our people in Europe to return to Mesopotamia."

Thousands of Assyrian Christians living in Turkey's war-torn Southeast immigrated to Europe during the late 1980s and 1990s, fleeing the civil war launched in 1984 by PKK separatists against the Turkish state. At least 37,000 lives were lost in the conflict, which since the capture, trial and death sentence of PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan two years ago has been reduced to sporadic fighting.

But some 200,000 Turkish soldiers still patrol the region, with all the main roads dotted by recurring roadblocks. Village guards armed and hired by the state in effect control the villages and towns, some of them occupying lands occupied since the 5th century by Assyrian Christians.

In a June 15 opinion piece in the Turkish Daily News, columnist Mehmet Ali Birand complained about "hard-nosed" decision-makers in the government who "brazenly rough up the minorities" for so-called "security" reasons.

"They do not accept that there could be Syriacs [Assyrians], Kurds, Greeks or Armenians living in Turkey that have exactly the same rights as anyone known as a Turkish citizen," Birand declared. The columnist said he was referring not to measures curbing terrorism, but to "the general treatment meted out to anyone not of Turkish origin."

"We should know that as long as we cannot escape seeing minorities as the enemies of the Turkish state, we will not be able either to leave them in peace, or ourselves. It is not laws, but heads that should be changed," Birand concluded.

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Related Elsewhere

The U.S. Department of State's Annual Report on International Religious Freedom for 2000 gives more background on religious freedom in Turkey.

The Turkish Daily News is online with Mehmet Ali Birand's June 15 editorial.

For more articles, see Yahoo's full coverage on Turkey.

Previous coverage in Christianity Today of religious persecution in Turkey includes:

Turkey Releases Jailed Christians After 30 Days | Witnesses admit gendarmarie pressured them to sign complaints. (April 10, 2000)
Two Turkish Christians Jailed | Judge refuses bail during 'religious slander' investigation (March 13, 2000)
70 Christians Arrested While at Church | Police detain service attendees claiming a "complaint" had been filed against the church. (Nov. 15, 1999)