Monday, April 19, 2021

RLPB 594. Turkey: Priest Jailed; Christian Crisis in the Making.

Religious Liberty Prayer Bulletin | RLPB 594 | Tue 20 Apr 2021
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Ramadan (Muslim month of fasting): 12/13 April to 13 May 
Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day: Saturday 24 April.
Orthodox Easter: Palm Sunday 25 April; Good Friday 30 April; Resurrection Sunday 2 May.

by Elizabeth Kendal

CONTEXT: In September 2014 Islamic State (IS) laid siege to Kobani, a mostly Kurdish town in Syria's far north. To the dismay of Turkey's Kurds, Turkish troops stationed at the border did absolutely nothing. Not only did the Turkish government refuse to join the fight against IS, it refused to let Turkish Kurds cross into Syria to aid their ethnic kin in their battle against IS. Consequently, on 20 July 2015, when 34 mostly young Kurds were killed in an IS suicide bombing in Suruç, south-eastern Turkey, just 10km north-east of Kobani, Kurds blamed Turkey's ruling AK Party for its support of IS. Three Turkish police were killed in retaliation and violence quickly escalated as the government launched large-scale military operations in the mostly Kurdish south-eastern provinces of Diyarbakır, Mardin, Şırnak and Hakkari. By the middle of 2016, the war had moved from the countryside into the urban centres, in particular the Kurdish 'capital' of Diyarbakır. Viewing Armenians as natural allies of the politically marginalised and mostly secular urban Kurds, the Islamist and neo-Ottoman Erdogan regime went after the Armenians as well. Turkish troops demolished and ethnically cleansed the historic Sur District, while the government confiscated land and churches throughout Diyarbakır [see RLPB 355, 'Church seizures reflect Ottoman policy' (4 May 2016)]. The situation in south-east Turkey remains volatile and insecure to this day.

Father Sefer (Aho) Bileçen, caretaker of 
Mor Yakub (Saint Jacob) monastery, Mardin Province.

PRIEST JAILED: On 9 January 2020 Turkish police raided the 1500-year-old Mor Yakub (Saint Jacob) monastery in Nusaybin, Mardin Province, along with three Assyrian villages located nearby. They arrested the monastery's caretaker-priest, Father Sefer Bileçen (known as Father Aho) whom they charged with 'aiding and abetting a terrorist organisation' [RLPB 534 (29 Jan 2020)]. The charge was based on images from September 2018, collected by Turkish Intelligence surveillance drones, which appeared to show Kurdish militants receiving food at the monastery. After his arrest, Father Aho met with members of the Urfa Bar Association Human Rights Commission and made the following statement through his lawyers: 'In 2018, two members of the organisation [the HPG, the militant wing of the banned PKK] came to the monastery. They asked me to give them some food and I gave them some food. Later, this was determined. Thereupon, the Gendarmerie Commander spoke with the Metropolitan of that area and they organised a meeting with me. I did not deny what I did. I asked them to take necessary security measures to prevent the incident from happening again, but they did not do anything. I thought the subject was closed after that. Whoever comes to my door, I will give them food. I have to do it because my religion and philosophy commands me to do so. Since I am a priest, I cannot lie either. I do this out of my belief, not out of "help" to any "organisation".'

On Wednesday 7 April 2021 the Mardin 4th High Criminal Court sentenced Father Aho to 25 months in prison for aiding the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). The verdict has shocked Turkey's Christian community, most of whom believed the priest would be acquitted. After all, as Bishop Paolo Bizzeti, Apostolic Vicar of Anatolia explains, 'Giving bread and water to those who knock on the door of monasteries is a tradition that goes back thousands of years.' The case has attracted a lot of attention in mainstream Turkish media where it is being used to consolidate the false narrative that Christians support the banned PKK. Bishop Bizzeti has appealed for Christians to remain calm and 'read the verdict as soon as it is published for maximum transparency'.

Şimoni and Hurmüz Diril.

MEANWHILE: On 11 January 2020, just two days after the raid on the monastery, an Assyrian couple named Hurmüz (71) and Şimoni (65) Diril disappeared from their home in the Assyrian village of Meer/Mehr (Kovankaya), in the neighbouring province of Sırnak. Some years earlier, the Dirils - whose son, Father Remzi Diril, is a priest in Istanbul - had returned to their home in the long-evacuated village to work on restoration [RLPB 534 (29 Jan 2020)]. Their efforts earned them threats from Islamist and ethnic-nationalist Turks and Kurds alike. On 20 March 2020 Mrs Şimoni Diril's naked and tortured body was found in a river not far from Mehr. Turkish authorities have rejected Fr Remzi Diril's request for an investigation. Mr Hurmuz Diril remains disappeared to this day. Please pray.



In March 2021 the Institute for Monitoring Peace and Cultural Tolerance in School Education (IMPACT-se), published a report entitled: 'The Erdoğan Revolution in the Turkish Curriculum Textbooks'. Twenty-eight textbooks were analysed. IMPACT-se assessed that the curriculum's stance overall is anti-American, anti-Armenian and anti-PKK. Meanwhile, it is sympathetic to the motivations of Islamic State and al-Qaeda, and glorifies Islamic jihad and martyrdom.

Throughout the curriculum, Turks are classified as either Mmümin (true believers who obey the Qur'an rules and maintain Islamic order), Münafık (hypocrites; nominal/secular Muslims who spread division), or Gâvur (kafir/infidels; defined as 'the person who rejects - partially or as a whole - the principles of the religion that Prophet Muhammad brought from Allah'. No longer recognised as 'People of the Book', Jews and Christians are now deemed 'Gâvur'. As IMPACT-se notes: 'It's hard to imagine that such narratives will not affect ordinary Turkish citizens in their relations with other non-Muslims and their nations' (pages 19-20).

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan

An excerpt from page 32 reads: 'As part of Turkey's political vision, pan-Turkism is taught to students in various fundamental modules: "Turkish World Domination"; "Ideal of the World Order"; and the "Red Apple" [Kızıl Elma i.e., the desired goal, which is, for Turkey to exercise hegemony over a restored Ottoman Empire]. There is an emphasis on the unity of the Central Asian Turkic nations; the descriptions of Turkey's special bond with Azerbaijan includes very anti-Armenian narratives.'

IMPACT-se concludes: 'With the synthesis of pan-Turkism and neo-Ottomanism, Turkish leaders see themselves as the leaders of the Muslim World ... Like the pioneers of the Turkish-Islamic Synthesis in the 1980s, the AKP seeks to appropriate Islam as the glue for its "New Turkey". That being said, the AKP has already surpassed its predecessors, implementing concrete measures that influence the daily lives of Turkish citizens by turning controversial concepts like jihad into the "new normal"' (page 33).



* grace Turkey's Christian leaders with abundant 'spiritual wisdom and understanding' (Colossians 1:9) as they seek to lead Christ's precious Church through dangerous days and to influence their nation for good. May the Lord in his mercy provide all they need to pastor, nurture, teach and publish and may the Church grow in faith with many new believers added to her number.

* intervene on behalf of Father Aho so this injustice will be overturned on appeal, thereby preventing this case from becoming a precedent that could pave the way for more widespread persecution. May the Lord have mercy on Father Aho and keep him safe and encouraged. 'But you, O Lord, are a shield about me, my glory, and the lifter of my head' (Psalm 3:3 ESV).

* reveal the whereabouts of Mr Hurmüz Diril - an abducted Assyrian Christian who has been disappeared for 13 months now; Lord have mercy on the Diril family: may their questions be answered; may they find peace; may the criminals be exposed and brought to justice. 'But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream' (Amos 5:24 ESV).


On 9 January 2020 Turkish police raided the 1500-year-old Mor Yakub (Saint Jacob) monastery in south-eastern Mardin Province, arresting the caretaker priest, Father Sefer (Aho) Bileçen, on the charge of 'aiding and abetting a terrorist organisation'. Father Aho does not deny he gave food to two Kurdish militants who came to the monastery requesting it. He does, however, firmly deny supporting terrorists, and insists his act was a religious obligation. On 7 April 2021 Father Aho was sentenced to 25 months in prison for aiding the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party. The verdict has shocked Christians; after all, as Bishop Paolo Bizzeti, Apostolic Vicar of Anatolia explains, 'Giving bread and water to those who knock on the door of monasteries is a tradition that goes back thousands of years.' Please pray.


Elizabeth Kendal is an international religious liberty analyst and advocate. She serves as Director of Advocacy at Canberra-based Christian Faith and Freedom (CFF) and is an Adjunct Research Fellow at the Arthur Jeffery Centre for the Study of Islam at Melbourne School of Theology.

She has authored two books: Turn Back the Battle: Isaiah Speaks to Christians Today (Deror Books, Melbourne, Australia, Dec 2012) which offers a Biblical response to persecution and existential threat; and After Saturday Comes Sunday: Understanding the Christian Crisis in the Middle East (Wipf and Stock, Eugene, OR, USA, June 2016).