Turkey expels Protestant missionaries for 'threatening public order'

The Turkish Protestant community is witnessing a purge as President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's government turns up pressure against the church.

al-monitor Freed American pastor Andrew Brunson (L) prays for US President Donald Trump at the White House in Washington, DC, Oct. 13, 2018.  Photo by ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP via Getty Images.

juil. 9, 2020

Mark Alan, a retired schoolteacher from Fort Collins, Colorado, is something of a late developer. He was 42 when he "came to faith” and 65 when he married for the first time, with Duygu, a Protestant convert from Turkey. “It was love at first sight,” Alan, now 73, recalled in a telephone interview with Al-Monitor. The couple settled into a comfortable life in the Aegean port city of Izmir. “I always felt safe in Turkey, I had a real heart for the Turkish people,” Alan said. Then in a single day, their whole world fell apart. Alan was on his way back from the United States last June when he was pulled aside at the airport by Turkish police and told he was banned from entering the country ever again. “They didn’t explain why,” Alan said. He insisted that he had no role in the local church in Izmir where his wife served as a book keeper.

Alan is among more than 50 foreign Protestants, including Finns, Germans and South Koreans, who have been summarily banned from Turkey as recently as June 26 on the grounds they present “a threat to Turkey’s public order and public health.” Some 26 are US citizens.

The wave of deportations began soon after Andrew Brunson, a pastor from North Carolina, was freed from a jail near Izmir in October 2018 after serving two years on outlandish terrorism charges linked to the failed July 2016 attempt to violently topple Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The evictions are continuing full throttle and tearing families like Alan’s apart.

On June 5 of this year, Joy Anna Crow Subasiguller, the American wife of a Turkish pastor in Ankara, was notified by Turkey’s Interior Ministry that her residence permit was not being renewed. She was given 10 days to leave. No reason was offered to the 39-year-old mother of three. She is still breastfeeding the couple’s 4½-month-old daughter, Derin Mercy.

“I am sad at the prospect of my family having to leave our home, my husband’s precious family, and our friends and church family,” Subasiguller told Al-Monitor. She is appealing the decision in a Turkish court. Subasiguller has lived in Turkey for the past 10 years. She said she expected an answer within one or two months. Similar appeals have all been rejected.

Protestant faith leaders in Turkey who spoke to Al-Monitor on condition that they not be identified by name said they had carried the cases to relevant embassies in Ankara. “We were told there was nothing they could do. That this was a matter of Turkey’s national sovereignty,” one of the leaders told Al-Monitor.

The deportations were recorded in the US State Department’s 2019 annual report on religious freedom.

Joy Anna Crow Subasiguller and her family pose at their home in Ankara, Turkey, June 9, 2020 (photo courtesy of Joy Anna Crow Subasiguller)

The report noted that the “pace of entry bans” had “accelerated" but did not say why. A State Department spokesperson said in response to Al-Monitor’s request for comment on the deportations, “The United States expects its citizens to be treated fairly and impartially under Turkish law. The safety and well-being of US citizens abroad is our highest priority, and we regularly raise our concerns about the treatment of US citizens with the Turkish government.” The spokesperson did not elaborate.

Jeanne Shaheen, a Democratic senator from New Hampshire and a fierce critic of Turkey’s autocratic president, was less equivocal. She told Al-Monitor in emailed comments, “Turkey’s deportation of Protestants with no apparent justification clearly illustrates Turkish President Erdogan’s turn away from responsibly leading Turkey as a multicultural state. From my work on the case of pastor Andrew Brunson, I know that this type of scapegoating and targeting can easily take an extreme turn.” Shaheen continued, “For this reason, I implore Turkey’s leadership to reconsider these exclusionary policies that only cause harm to the affected families and the Turkish state itself. I also call on our administration to address the targeting of US citizens — whenever and wherever this occurs. There should be no exceptions to our country’s legacy of [standing up] for its citizens around the world.”

“Turkey’s deportation of Protestants with no apparent justification clearly illustrates Turkish President Erdogan’s turn away from responsibly leading Turkey as a multicultural state.”

– Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H.

Protestants have always faced pressure in Turkey, a predominantly Sunni nation of 81 million. Proselytizing is not banned under Turkey’s secular constitution. But unlike Greek and Armenian Orthodox Christians and Jews, Protestants were not accorded formal minority status under the 1923 Lausanne Peace Treaty that was signed with the Allied powers following their defeat of the Ottoman Empire. This left Turkey’s 10,000 or so Protestants and other religious minorities excluded by Lausanne in legal limbo. Protestants are unable to establish churches or train clergy and have long been depicted as agents in the service of malignant foreign powers, often so by notionally pro-secular newspapers such as the daily Cumhuriyet.

“Since the 19th century, Ottoman and Turkish ruling elites systematically scapegoated missionaries as being responsible for political and economic problems, thereby deflecting responsibility from their own mismanagement and failure,” observed Aykan Erdemir, a former member of the Turkish parliament and senior director of the Turkey program at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Although Protestant missionaries who serve in Turkey come from a wide range of countries, they are often conflated with the United States, “leading to a toxic mix of anti-American, anti-Christian and anti-missionary sentiments,” Erdemir told Al-Monitor.

The anti-missionary reflex is ingrained in modern Turkey’s nation-building project, one where “the ideal citizen is a Hanafi Sunni Muslim and a Turk,” said Erdal Dogan, a Turkish human rights lawyer who has taken on high-profile cases defending Christians. As such, missionaries were listed, alongside Kurdish separatists and Islamic reactionaries, as a threat to national security by Turkey’s now-defunct national security council through which Turkey’s generals would bark orders to civilian governments.

But as the economy began to tank under a succession of corrupt and fractious coalition governments and the military’s prestige began to ebb, some missionaries saw opportunities. Hans-Jurgen Leuven, a physical education instructor from Germany, and his family moved to Turkey’s Aegean province of Mugla in 1998 with the full blessing of Turkish authorities to set up a tourism agency to promote faith tourism and to “share the word of Jesus.” Local authorities embraced his project, which included restoring two historic stone houses as guesthouses. Leuven provided Al-Monitor with a copy of a letter dated May 31, 2000, signed by Mugla’s then deputy governor, lauding his investment and pledging full support. “There is no doubt that the mingling of different religions and faiths contributes to friendship and peace,” the government-appointed official wrote.

A stone house converted by Hans-Jurgen Leuven is pictured in an undated photo (photo courtesy of Hans-Jurgen Leuven)

In August 2019, Leuven was informed by the local immigration office that his residence permit would not be renewed and that he had 10 days to leave the country. “I asked for a reason, they said they didn’t know,” Leuven said. When he launched a court case to overturn the deportation orders, he was told there was “a report on me saying that I was a threat to public order. I have lived here for years; if this were true, why haven’t any of my neighbors ever complained?” Leuven asked. Exactly 1,500 of them signed a petition saying “Hans kalsin” — Turkish for “Hans should stay.”

Leuven has now carried his case to Turkey’s constitutional court after two lower courts rejected his petition to stay. Subasiguller has still to learn what her supposed “crime” is, though she is “99% sure” the court will claim the same it did of Leuven. She plans to pursue a similar legal route, and their cases could drag on for years.

When Erdogan rose to power in 2002, he pledged to undertake sweeping reforms that were meant to break the military’s sway and pave the way for Turkey’s eventual membership into the European Union (EU). In March 2005, the same year the EU launched currently comatose membership talks with Turkey, a Protestant church in Ankara applied to function as an association and was permitted to do so. The landmark breakthrough paved the way for scores of informal Protestant houses of worship to be similarly established as associations, with their numbers rising from around 40 in 2002 to 173 as of this year, one of the Protestant church officials interviewed by Al-Monitor said.

The 2007 murders in the eastern province of Malatya of three Protestants — two Turks and a German — proved a turning point.

During their courtroom trial, the five perpetrators insisted they tortured and slit their victim’s throats so as to stop “the nefarious activities” of missionaries who were trying to “destroy Turkey and Islam.” The men were sentenced to life. Dogan, who represented victims’ families, uncovered links between the killers and Turkey’s “deep state” security apparatus, which was also implicated in the 2006 murder of Armenian newspaper editor Hrant Dink.

Protestant community leaders were given police protection. Negative labeling of missionaries was erased from the official lexicon. Despite sporadic attacks and threats, “By 2012, we enjoyed an atmosphere of religious freedom akin to that in the United States,” the Protestant church official said. That is plainly an exaggeration. Yet few could foresee Turkey’s rapid and seemingly unchecked descent into authoritarianism together with the revival of the national security state. The failed coup, which Erdogan blames on his former ally, the Pennsylvania-based imam Fethullah Gulen, greased its return.

Church officials maintain his case is unrelated to the deportations. Brunson was widely thought to have been used as a bargaining chip to secure Gulen’s extradition from the United States — until President Donald Trump slapped steel tariffs on Turkey, sending the lira into a tailspin. Brunson was set free soon after.

The ongoing purge of foreign Protestants is likely linked to the new alliance Erdogan struck with far-right Nationalist Movement Party leader Devlet Bahceli in the wake of the botched coup. Perceived enemies of all hues, be they Kurdish activists, critical journalists and now Protestant missionaries, are under fire. In October, a court ruled the Interior Ministry and the Malatya governorate were not liable in the 2007 murders of Protestants. The world-famous Hagia Sophia in Istanbul is on the verge of being stripped of its museum status — conferred by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in 1934 as a symbol of the new Republic’s westward tilt — and converted into a full-service mosque. Turkey’s ultranationalists are having a field day.

Turkey is presently ranked 26th on Open Doors USA’s World Watch List of countries where it is most difficult to be a Christian.

"While it is within every country's right to decide its own policies regarding foreigners, Turkey has a long history of using deportations to eradicate the Christian presence within the country," said Claire Evans, Middle East Regional Manager for International Christian Concern, an advocacy group. "Turkey is essentially suffocating the church by forcing Christian leaders to leave this country. This is clearly a religious freedom violation," Evans told Al-Monitor.

The Protestant church official said they first became aware of the accusations against missionaries last summer when Jeremey Lambert, a US missionary from Birch Run, Michigan, contested his deportation order in a court in the western province of Aydin. The court’s reasoning for denying a stay of execution used the same language that was subsequently leveled against Alan and Leuven: Lambert posed “a threat to Turkey’s public order and public health.” The Protestant church official said the charges were based on a report compiled by Turkey’s national spy agency, the MIT, though no actual evidence to support the claims was ever provided.

Lambert played the guitar at his local church in Kusadasi, a holiday getaway on the Aegean where they had lived for the past seven years. His wife played the piano.

“We were kind of expecting something,” Lambert told Al-Monitor in a telephone interview. This was because his father-in-law and fellow American Mike Platt had been banned from entering Turkey several months earlier, putting an abrupt end to the minister’s 22 years of service at an Istanbul church. “You are reeling to figure out what’s going on,” Lambert said. “Though I still love Turkey and the people," he added.

In December, Lambert appealed his case before the constitutional court. His lawyer and former neighbor from Kusadasi, Bora Aydin, told Al-Monitor, “Jeremy is a very sweet person, a very good neighbor. We never had any problems.”

Mark Alan and his wife, Duygu, pose at their wedding in Izmir, Turkey, Dec. 20, 2012 (photo courtesy of Alan family)

What several of the deportees have in common is that they took part in an annual Protestant gathering organized by Turkey’s Association of Protestant Churches in January 2019. Lambert said they were present at the event held in a hotel in Antalya on the Mediterranean coast. “There were about 200 people there, lots of families with their kids. A lot of Bible teaching, a lot of worship,” Lambert reminisced. Leuven attended, as did Alan and his wife. All insist there was nothing suspect about the affair.

For the Alans, the emotional and financial strain of forced separation is beginning to take its toll. The legal bills are mounting. Alan never thought he’d return to America, so he never applied for full Medicare coverage. His wife never became a citizen. She doesn’t have a Green Card either and is therefore not permitted to stay in Alan’s subsidized housing for more than two weeks when she takes off time from her current job with a Christian television channel in Istanbul to visit him in Colorado. “My whole life has changed. I go for three months without seeing my wife,” Alan said. "Financially it’s very difficult. In my spirit, I feel so alone.”

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