Pastor Emre Karaali beams as he discusses the number of first-time visitors at his church’s Easter service – less than three months after a foiled plot to assassinate him that involved two visitors who pretended to be church members for a year.
Police have released all but one of the 14 people arrested in mid-January in connection with the foiled assassination plan against the gregarious pastor of the 20-member church in Izmit, an overwhelmingly Muslim city 62 miles (100 kilometers) east of Istanbul.
Of the two suspects who attended the fellowship for a year, one acted amiable – “like a Christian” – and visited the pastor’s house a number of times, according to Karaali. The second one documented everything that happened in the church and wrote a detailed account of Karaali’s activities. When Karaali went to the police station to give a statement following their arrest, an officer showed him the suspect’s account. It logged all his activities hour-by-hour, such as when he left his home, when he arrived at church, and what he did publicly with his family (see Morning Star News, Jan. 18).
Since the assassination attempt, the church has been determined to continue as usual, though members are more suspicious of newcomers – particularly those who take pictures of them or the building, the pastor said.
“Some wonder if newcomers are fake Christians as well,” Karaali said. “But I remind my congregation that the apostles and early church went through similar troubles. Satan is angry, and he is trying to attack us.”
Karaali does not have any information about the whereabouts of the conspirators, who had reportedly planned to murder the pastor during a week of evangelistic meetings before authorities intervened. He and his congregants will not know anything until details of the police investigation are released at trial, which has not yet been scheduled.
Nevertheless, Karaali remains open to visitors who drop by the church and ask questions about religion. He estimates 30 such visitors a week stop by, and he explains to most of them the gospel of Jesus’ redemptive suffering for a sin-filled world.
On one overcast Wednesday morning (April 3) in the coastal city off the Sea of Marmara’s Gulf of Izmit, he encouraged a visibly agitated man in his early 20s with promises of God’s faithfulness. The young man had become a Christian a few weeks prior and was fleeing the antagonism of his Muslim family in Istanbul. Passing through Izmit, he wanted to talk with Karaali before moving eastward.
That the pastor keeps an open door is quite a statement of trust in God, considering that all but one of the conspirators were set free days after their arrest. The suspect who befriended him most closely is still in jail, and two others must remain in Kocaeli Province until the trial.
The church has made only small changes to its security since January. A new lock was installed on the door, as one of the alleged conspirators had a key to the building.
Before the attempted assassination, the building already had a sophisticated security system in place due to past attacks. Three security cameras monitor the perimeter, and chicken wire covers the windows to defend against projectiles. During the Christmas 2006 season, an unknown arsonist started a fire outside the wall of the church building. Molotov cocktails have also been thrown against the building in the past.
Five years ago, 28 people were taken into custody on charges of forming a criminal organization involved in violent extortion, and among their objectives was to assassinate Izmit Protestant Church’s then-pastor, Wolfgang Hade.
Since the foiling of the planned assassination, Karaali, his wife, and their two small children have moved from a ground-level apartment to a more secure apartment complex. Police offered him protection, but he turned it down.
“I would be too uncomfortable with this,” he said, “particularly when doing things like helping out with another house church.”
At the same time, as a security precaution he would not allow members of his congregation to be interviewed for this article.
The assassination plot was a harrowing reminder of the vulnerability of Turkey’s miniscule Christian population – threatened not only by a sometimes antagonistic Muslim majority, but by anti-government elements trying to destabilize the administration by portraying it as unable to contain violence aimed at religious targets.
Such elements include the suspected “masterminds” in the murder of three Christians – German national Tilmann Geske and two Turkish converts, Necati Aydin and Ugur Yuksel, who were tortured and slaughtered at the Zirve Publishing House in the eastern city of Malatya on April 18, 2007. The prosecution team in that case believes there is a connection between those murders and the 2006 killing of Father Andrea Santoro in the Black Sea city of Trabzon; the 2007 killing of Armenian-Turkish journalist Hrant Dink in Istanbul; and the 2010 killing of Father Luigi Padovese in the southern district of Iskenderun.
In early March, a witness and suspect in the Malatya murder case gave new details of how Turkish military members orchestrated the attack as part of a wide-ranging plan to topple the government. Ilker Cinar told prosecutors that the alleged masterminds of the murder planned to frame the attacks as an example of radical Islamic and anti-missionary sentiment in Turkey’s provinces.
He said that Col. Mehmet Ulger, a former Malatya gendarmerie regiment commander and leader of a local branch of a clandestine organization within Turkey’s military, wanted to use the murders as an example of a deteriorating social order that the military would then step in and “solve.”
The Turkish military views itself as the guardian of secularism in Turkey, a majority-Muslim country that has a troubled relationship with its religious identity. Many former officers are charged with attempting to remove from power the democratically elected Justice and Development Party, which they perceive to be a Trojan Horse of Islamism.
Judge Hayretin Kisa noted the similarities in profile between the suspected Malatya murders and those of other non-Muslims in recent years, suggesting a conspiracy.
“The one who killed Father Santoro in Trabzon was 17 years old, just as the convict in the Hrant Dink murder,” he said. “Also, the five assailants who committed the Malatya Zirve Publishing House massacre were of the same age group.”
Some 14,500 evangelical Christians live in Turkey, a nation of 75.7 million that is 96.6 percent Muslim, according to Operation World. Christians can legally practice their religion, but converts face significant informal social discrimination from family members, the government, and work places.
Only 30 to 40 Protestants are estimated to live in Izmit, a city of nearly 303,000 people. The Izmit Protestant Church’s unassuming two-story church building is located in the backstreets of the city, near a school. The church also supports a house church of 10 in the nearby city of Adapazari.
For a church of Turkish Christians outside Istanbul, the congregation is considered large. Obtaining legal permission for new church buildings is difficult in provincial areas, and converts from Islam in such areas are more often targets of persecution and violence.
The biggest problem that such provincial churches face is prejudice, as different groups in the city perceive them as a threat, said Carlos Madrigal, leader of the Istanbul Protestant Church Foundation. In Izmit, these threats have gone as far as attempts to set the church building on fire.
Madrigal, one of the most prominent members of Turkey’s Protestant community, told Morning Star News that Karaali has helped the small congregation to maturity from its humble beginnings in 1999 despite “bumpy periods” in which members frequently came and went.
At the same time, relations are slowly starting to improve with those who live in the church’s neighborhood, he said.
“Due to the years-long relationship with neighbors and the patience and love of the mature believers, these prejudices are slowly starting to change,” Madrigal said. “They rejoice in faith that God’s love will have victory over all this hate.”
Karaali shares this enthusiasm. While his congregation is small and under persecution, he sees it as part of the larger narrative of Christian history. Izmit is located on the grounds of Nicomedia, an ancient Roman capital and the site of intense persecution before Emperor Constantine removed legal restrictions against practicing Christianity.
An archeological excavation of a Roman-era palace is underway fewer than 100 meters from the doors of the church building. Emperor Diocletian killed thousands there in the early fourth century, and Karaali believes that God is blessing his congregation by remembering the ancient church’s sufferings.
He concluded: “It’s as if to the degree Satan destroys something, God puts up something new right next to it.”
c. Morning Star News. Used with permission.
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Publication date: April 11, 2013