An American missionary facing deportation from Turkey for being a “danger to public order” has been released.
“Praise God, I was released from the deportation center this afternoon, and just arrived home,” David Byle wrote on Facebook. “Thanks to all who prayed and did advocacy for me, also to my tireless lawyer and most of all to our lord and savior Jesus Christ, who never left side [sic], and never will.”
Byle works with a successful Bible correspondence course, which suffered an arson attack in 2014 that destroyed thousands of New Testaments. But he has garnered more controversy within Turkey for his street evangelism.
Declaring Byle “a danger to public order,” authorities in Turkey took him into custody on April 6 after asking him to report to the immigration office in Istanbul regarding his application for a residency permit.
Byle, 46, was told his application had been denied; he was immediately taken into custody and then transferred to the Fatih police station in Istanbul. Police held him for two days before transferring him last Friday (April 8) to a holding center for foreigners awaiting deportation, the sources said.
Byle’s wife, Ulrike, said he was told when he arrived at the immigration center that there was no deportation order against him. Normally the center would have no authority to imprison someone without a deportation order. But because Byle was taken there under police custody, immigration officials had the authority to hold him for 48 hours.
The next day, Byle’s attorney informed him that the immigration department had filed a deportation order against him upon direct recommendation from the Ministry of the Interior, which had claimed in a report to the department that Byle was a “danger to public order” and a flight risk. There was no indication of what the “danger to public order” accusation was based on, Byle’s wife said.
Byle was also informed that the government had filed a “no-reentry order” forbidding him from coming back into the country once deported. It is unclear when the order was filed or the length of time the order is valid.
Finally, and of particular concern to Byle and his family, authorities claimed that because of the alleged potential danger he posed to Turkey, the government had the “right to supervise” him for 30 days—meaning they could hold him for a month without filing charges against him.
Ulrike Byle said the thought of her husband being a flight risk or a danger to the country was laughably absurd. “I feel it’s funny,” she said before his release.
Byle is known for being mild-mannered, polite and calm. He has no criminal record, she said.
“I think the reason he [was] being held is because of his evangelistic activities,” she said.
The arrest took place days before Byle was set to teach a class to a group of Turks on how to tell people about the gospel, though there was no public indication of a link between the arrest and the scheduled training.
Byle is part of a small number of Christians in Turkey, and an even smaller number of expatriate Christians, who openly evangelize in the country.
A ministry leader at US-based International Christian Response (ICR), which provides aid to persecuted Christians, said Byle lives in a sacrificial way totally immersed in his mission.
“He’s a very bold person, and I look up to him,” said the leader, who requested anonymity. “I wish there were more people like him.”
The organization Byle volunteers with, the Holy Book Information Association, also known as the Bible Correspondence Course in Turkey (BCC-Turkey), gained official recognition in 2009 but has existed in various forms since 1961. It normally focuses on educating the Turkish public about the Bible. This alone is controversial in Turkey.
But Byle also conducts “street evangelism” outreaches. These outreaches have garnered the most attention from the government, which at times has identified Christian missionary activity as a security threat.
Police first arrested Byle for street evangelism on April 25, 2007, in the Beyoglu District of Istanbul after officers said people complained about aggressive evangelism, especially on the part of a South Korean missionary worker. Byle said police charged him with “forceful missionary activity” and disturbing the peace.
Authorities kept Byle in custody for two nights. Before releasing him, they made him sign a document stating that if he wanted to continue doing public outreach, he would need to have some sort of work permit or else be deported. The demand for a work permit was perplexing, since it appeared they were requiring him to obtain one from a Turkish sponsor for an activity they told him was illegal.
A prosecutor dropped the first charge on May 8, 2007, because Byle’s literature did not insult other religions and because “missionary activity” is not a crime in Turkey. On Nov. 1, 2007, a judge threw out the final charge of disturbing the peace. After the final charge was dismissed, Byle wrote a letter to the Ministry of the Interior inquiring about the document he was forced to sign. He never received an answer.
Police detained Byle a second time on November 18, 2009, in the Pendik District of Istanbul, along with several members of a BCC street evangelism team. While in custody, Byle was made to give a written statement about what he was doing, and then he was released. In February 2010, police told Byle his upcoming application for residency would require further investigation, and less than a month later, on March 9 at 10:30 p.m., two plainclothes police officers arrived unannounced at his door and took him into custody for deportation. Officials in the Pendik District had filed a report of charges into a confidential record system but never through the court system for prosecution.
Byle retained a lawyer, who was able to temporarily block the deportation order until an Ankara court granted a decision in April 2011. It found that because he had never been found guilty of committing any crime, and because he was conducting activities in accordance with the constitution of BCC, which the government approved, the Ministry of the Interior had tried to deport Byle in violation of the law. It ordered the deportation order be cancelled.
Since his first arrest, Byle has been plagued by problems with Turkish authorities, including a five-year court battle for residency that ended, seemingly, in January 2015, when a court ruled that the government had not shown significant evidence that he was “a threat to national security and public morals” or that he had ever even committed a crime.
If a court granted a temporary injunction against the deportation order, Byle would be thrown into a legal battle on three fronts, his attorney said before his release. The first battle would be against the deportation. The second battle, at least for the upcoming month, would be against the detention order. The last would be against the reentry ban. If the court refused to grant the injunction, and if the reentry ban remained, Byle would be forced to leave Turkey, and his wife and five children would eventually be forced to follow.
According to Ulrike Byle, her husband was not being mistreated in jail and remained in good spirits. After guards at the detention center became aware of potential safety issues that Byle might face from suspected Islamic State (IS) members held in the detention center, he was moved to another floor.
Byle has been jailed or detained several other times by Turkish authorities and has dealt with this term of incarceration by preaching to other detainees and finding ways to get donations from others of much needed clothing for those held with him. He also wants to start teaching Turkish and English to other detainees.
“He’s much more relaxed than he was last time,” his wife said before his release. “He said to me the other night, ‘I am just so thankful to the Lord. He has given me strength and ideas.’”
The family was allowed limited visitation. His family was holding up well, except for his youngest child, a 10-year-son who “isn’t himself,” Ulrike Byle said before the release. “I think he is angry.”
She said she felt a sense of peace in spite of the arrest and detention.
“I’m a very ordinary person and not ‘spiritual,’” she said, “but I feel like the Lord spoke to me through Psalm 37, ‘Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him; do not fret when people succeed in their ways, when they carry out their wicked schemes.’ I really feel, because so many people are praying, there is a peace about this. Which doesn’t mean I am not worried about whether we will have to leave–but I sense an incredible peace.”
The arrest came at an awkward time for the Turkish government. Four days before the arrest, the government opened the Diyanet Center of America, a sprawling 15-acre site complete with a 20,236-square-foot mosque, fellowship hall and Turkish bath, all paid for with state money, which touts itself as the biggest Islamic campus “in the Western Hemisphere.”
The ministry leader at ICR said the opening of the center and Byle’s detention indicates religious freedom in Turkey is a “one-way street.” Turkish President Recep Erdoğan presided over the opening, telling a crowd of Muslims, “We should struggle against hate and prejudice, which are our common enemies, in cooperation with US citizens of different beliefs. Together with the US people, we should demonstrate to whole international community the true face of Islam.”
Correction: An earlier version of this blog overstated Byle’s role with the Bible Correspondence Course.