In April 2007, five young men tortured and killed two Turkish converts and a German Christian at a Christian publishing house in the southeastern city of Malatya. When the resulting trial began in January 2008, the court and the Turkish public regarded it as a straightforward case of overzealous nationalists killing missionaries, whose activity was widely regarded as a national threat.
But in recent months, lawyers have tied the case to a more serious national threat. Prosecutors have expanded their investigation beyond the five assailants to local officials. The murders are now seen as a plot by the "deep state" group Ergenekon, a cabal of generals, politicians, and other prominent figures accused of trying to overthrow the government. Ergenekon is already accused of plotting a national coup and killing several people, including a Catholic priest.
"From the very beginning, it was clear that some other people were involved with this, because in Turkey you cannot do something on this scale without being noticed by state agents," said Orhan Kemal Cengiz, the lead prosecuting attorney for the Malatya case. He invited lawyers from across Turkey working on Ergenekon-linked murder cases to form "a common eye" on the Malatya murders.
"We are very close to the truth," said Cengiz, who has received numerous threats for his work on the case. "What could be a bigger motivation than this?"
Turkey's small Protestant community is hailing the work of the legal team, which now includes 18 top Turkish lawyers, as a victory in itself, said Zekai Tanyar, chairman of the Association of Protestant Churches in Turkey.
"These men and women are not Christians, and yet have voluntarily and tirelessly taken on this cause in the face of what they feel is a great injustice and human rights violation," said Tanyar. "They have carried the injustice, the cover-ups, and the trial into public awareness … much more than we could have dreamed."
The lawyers' biggest challenge has been to convince the court that masterminds were behind the murders, pushing past the prejudices of state attorneys who seemed to put Christianity and missionary work, not the assailants, on the stand.
"In the beginning, the court didn't believe there was something beyond the five youngsters," said Cengiz. "[Now] everyone believes that … some central figures in Ergenekon had a finger in the Malatya murders."
After reviewing files on the Ergenekon trial, which started this winter, the Malatya prosecuting team has compiled a list of nearly 20 witnesses who may make clearer the connection between the two cases. This will determine if the trial ends in a matter of months or years.
But the trial continues to trouble Turkish Christians as government figures have condemned Christians along with the murders when discussing the case.
"Public statements [on the Malatya murders], even by state ministers, showed that the state still sees Christian activities, lumped as 'missionary activities,' as a national threat," said Ziya Meral, a Turkish Christian who writes on religious freedom in the Middle East. "The Malatya murders were committed not only by the five young men caught red-handed, but also by [this] mindset."
The murders and the reaction to them have led Turkish churches to a deeper trust in God, Tanyar said.
"Two years after Malatya, the church in Turkey is probably a church more aware of the costs and its own frailty," he said. "In general, it is willing to stand up and challenge issues on religious freedom—and rooted enough to carry on pursuing its purpose in God's kingdom."
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Christianity Today has a special section on Turkey, which includes:
Milking Martyrdom | Turkish Mission accused of sending false report. (September 14, 2007)
Faith Perfected | Recent martyrdoms sadden us but cannot make us despair. A Christianity Today editorial (July 12, 2007)
Young Muslims in Turkey Murder Three Christians | Deaths mark first known martyrdom of Turkish converts since founding of republic. (April 20, 2007)
Read more articles on persecution of the church on our site.
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