Day One: Christianity in Turkey

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Editor's Note: Father Jonathan just returned to New York after a trip to Turkey, and can now publish portions of his diary written during that trip. In light of the recent torturing and killing of three Christians in Turkey, he went to investigate the real status of religious liberty there and how the upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections (July 22) could affect the struggle between two distinct visions for Turkey’s political future: Islamist or secular. He will also be reporting on these topics on FOX News Channel.

Last week, when I wrote about the precarious political and religious situation of this country and what the outcome may mean for world peace, I didn’t know that just a few days later I would be experiencing Turkey up-close and in person ... but here we are. Welcome aboard; I will try to be your eyes and ears.

Day 1

I am plane-bound for Asia and Europe, or more precisely, the only major city that straddles the two. Istanbul is the city of grand duplicity and, as such, a spectacular case-study for the challenges and opportunities of globalization — in particular, the integration or eventual confrontation of Muslim and Christian civilizations.

In Istanbul, suspension bridges connect the geography of east and west, but also highlight the deep cultural and religious divides of the very people they seek to unite. These days, Turkey — all of it — also hangs in suspense, as if on one of the bridges in its flagship city.

When I took this same Al-Italia flight last November, my mission was well-defined: fill out with color commentary the news that others would make. The simplicity of it all was comforting. Pope Benedict XVI would depart a day after me, from the same Roman airport, at the same time, and on the same airline.

Sure, he was arriving to this 99 percent Muslim country fresh from his news-making Regensburg address, in which he infamously related Islam and violence, but I knew the Turkish officialdom was awaiting this "German shepherd" with open and safe arms. No, they had not forgotten or forgiven, but they were determined to overlook the diplomatic flap (and unfortunately the content and deep meaning of the speech too) with the goal of garnering moral support for their entrance into the European Union.

In such important company and circumstances, I felt secure. Five months later, I’m on my own.

Day 2

We hit the ground, and now we’re running. On any story, you try to get things in order before heading out. My producer was on the phone for days, organizing the crew, itinerary, and all the production details. But it isn't until you touch the local reality that you really get the important things done.

You meet people and let them talk. You ask questions and connect the dots between what you have studied before coming and what you are now hearing. Sometimes what you thought was a great idea for an interview while sitting in the office, turns out to be less important when you are steeped in local realism. On the ground, preconceived notions fade away and the simplistic slogans you’ve heard and read so many times before reveal themselves for what they are — partial truths and unstable foundations for meaningful reporting.

Often, something happens unexpectedly and takes over the story. You meet someone or learn something that invites you — I would even say commands you — to take another direction.

That’s happening now. One of the readers of this blog lives in Prague — without knowing I was making plans to come to Turkey, he wrote to me with inside and fascinating information about the small Christian communities in Turkey and how they are reacting to increased violence and persecution by some radical elements within this country. You may remember that a Catholic priest was killed last year, then later an Armenian journalist, and finally, just three weeks ago, three Evangelicals were tortured and brutally murdered because they professed belief in Jesus.

I responded to this reader’s informative note, now we are now working as virtual co-workers on this story. I hope someday to meet him in person. It’s the positive power of the Internet — I’m based in Rome, FOX News in New York, this reader in Prague, and together we are working on a story in Turkey.

It was through this reader that I was immediately connected with the major leaders of the tiny Evangelical and Protestant communities throughout the country. I assumed these Christians would be hesitant to talk on camera, and thinking first of their safety, I certainly wasn’t going to push. But I was interested in hearing first-hand from them what the status of religious liberty is in their homeland, whether there is concern about future violence against them, and what the government is doing about it.

My assumption that they would prefer silence was wrong. They talked freely and fearlessly about their faith and the situation in which they live. “This is real martyrdom,” said one Christian from the city of Izmir, with whom I spoke only by phone. “When you, a loyal citizen, are killed for your faith, and for no other reason. It’s not the fake martyrdom of killing other people in the name of God. But we are not afraid. The early Church flourished in times of persecution. We will flourish too.”

Today, we made our way through winding streets in a commercial district in search of an Evangelical church, where we planned to interview the pastor. My crew is mostly of Muslim origin. They look Arabic or Persian and around these parts, that’s a plus. I, on the other hand, stick out like a sore thumb. People on the streets look at me. Some of them point. I don’t mind; I guess I am staring too, if I notice all the stares.

Looking for a Christian church in Turkey is like finding an apartment in Manhattan — not because there are so many of them, but because they literally look like ordinary apartments. Here, there are no high spires, beautiful facades, or church bells to draw you into Christendom. The churches just blend into their surroundings, so you have to have the exact address to find one.

We almost missed it. The entrance to the church looked more like that of a prison — a closed iron gate, behind which stood a stern guard with a clipboard to welcome you … and to take your name.

Pastor Behnan met us on the street. There were no formalities, and barely an introduction. “This can’t be the man I’ve been talking to on the phone over the last few days” I thought to myself. “He would have greeted me in a different way.” But it was. He was just nervous. “Come with me,” he said.

The church was in an upper room. Once inside, it could have been a Methodist, Lutheran, or Baptist church in a small town in Middle America: white walls, a simple cross, big lectern, and dark wooden pews.

“Where do you buy church pews in Turkey?” I wondered to myself.

The crew set up the portable lights and camera as the two of us chit-chatted. “When everyone comes, we are about 150 people,” says Pastor Behnan, who is now much more at ease.

When I got the word that things were ready, I asked the pastor if we could start filming. He put on a tie. “No problem.”

“Okay, so how is your congregation doing in light of the recent killings? Are you afraid?”

He didn’t hesitate even a second. “Not at all! Jesus is our strength. I’ve been jailed many times, and beaten.”

“Beaten?” I replied, with emphasis of surprise. “But I thought it was legal to be Christian in Turkey?”

"It is,” he said, “but the police don’t know that, or don’t want to know it. They take us in, question us, sometimes rough us up, and then after a week or two, they let us go.”

“And why do they let you go?”

“Because they know if the case goes to court, there will be no law to incriminate us.”

Pastor Behnan repeated several times that he has nothing against the government. He is a loyal Turk, pays his taxes, and is grateful for the freedom of worship Turkish law permits. “Turkish law is good,” he said. “We can worship, and we can even translate and offer Bibles for sale. We never push them on anyone; but they can buy them if they want.”

But in practice, things aren’t so good. On account of widespread rumors, large percentages of the Turkish population are convinced Christians are a threat to national unity. Conspiracy theories abound that promote an environment of mistrust and fear of all non-Muslims. One rumor I heard from several Muslim Turks, for example, was that the CIA has trained and sent 40,000 Christian missionaries into the country to prepare an overthrow of the government.

I asked Pastor Behnan if the killing of the three Christians (whom he knew personally) was a random terrorist attack that could have happened in any country, or if, on the other hand, it was representative of a national problem. His explanation was clear, but not simple.

According to him, while physical acts against Christians have been rare, it would be inaccurate to say this was a random and isolated case. Ten young men worked together for many weeks to plan and carry out the torture and murder. They even pretended to be interested in Christianity to gain the trust of the men they would later kill. Pastor Behnan says this premeditated barbarism is fruit of the misinformation being spread to the masses by some Muslim religious leaders and even some high-level government officials. He says these men are purposefully creating an environment that promotes hatred of Christians, and as long as this sentiment spreads, people on the fringe will continue to carry out acts of violence in the name of religion and national unity.

You can hear more from Pastor Behnan in my upcoming reports on FOX News Channel. I'll post a note in my blog when I know exactly what day and time they'll air.

God Bless, Father Jonathan

P.S. On Thursday, I will post diary notes about my interview with the wife of one of the three men who were tortured and killed, and on Friday, notes about interviews with leaders of the Islamist-based majority party and with leaders of the secularist opposition. I will also post pictures from the trip.

P.P.S. I would love to hear your comments. Did you know what is going on in Turkey? Do you think it’s important?

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