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Worrisome Pattern

April 19, 2007

The brutal attack on the Zirve Christian publishing house in the conservative eastern Turkish town of Malatya was a provocation. Three men were found with their throats slit, their ankles and wrists tied to their chairs.


It was a provocation that could be repeated at any time; a provocation that is seriously damaging to Turkey. The people who did it knew what effect it would have, especially in terms of foreign policy.

So far, 10 suspects have been arrested. They are ultra-nationalists from Malatya. According to their own statements, their goal is to protect Islam from Christians. Malatya is an Islamic stronghold -- like Trabzon, the town where, protests against the Mohammed caricatures in February 2006, reached such a fever pitch that a priest was shot by an Islamic fanatic. It's also where, in early 2007, a young ultranationalist murdered an Armenian-Turkish publicist Hrant Dink -- also Christian from Malatya.

Three times a pattern

Now, Christians were once more victims of an attack. The Turkish stance is to call this an exceptional case. But three exceptional cases equal a pattern. Not a good climate for Turkey's EU-entry hopes.

What this means is that Prime Minister Erdogan's government urgently needs to clarify its stance on freedom of religion. The principle of laicism in Turkey's constitution provides for a strict separation of church and state, as well as religious freedom.

But in reality it means it is subordinate to the state. Why else would a state agency for religious matters control just about every activity that has to do with Islam? It is a sad truth that the laic state, in which Christian and Jewish minorities should also feel at home, only exists on paper.

Turkey is responsible

Resolving the issue of religious freedom also means resolving the issue of the structures of religious freedom -- for example building up church congregations. Missionaries are still not allowed in Turkey, which is a biased concept. The Turkish government and the Islamic clergy together need to make clear that the right to change religions or do missionary work is an inalienable human right applying equally to all religious organizations, and that the right to religious freedom should not simply be guaranteed in the constitution, but that people should be able to practice their religion openly without it being a threat to their lives. That this is not the case is a massive failure on the part of the Turkish government. It means that. ultimately, it too is responsible for these attacks.

Attacks like those on Wednesday should never happen again. It is not enough for Erdogan, who may well run for the presidency, to openly declare himself a secular person. Europe has long demanded that Turkey clarify its position, meaning: more freedom for the Christian minority. And rightly so. Any country that wants to join Europe needs to adopt a European identity.

The attack on the Christian publisher showed an ultimate disrespect for human life, and it could be grist for the mill of European conservatives who oppose Turkey's entry into the EU. To these people, I issue a call to dispense with judgment. The attack was not state-sponsored terrorism. In the aftermath of these shocking attacks, Europe shouldn't slam the door in Turkey’s face -- we shouldn't hand the agitators such a victory.

Mechthild Brockamp is an editor and commentator for Deutsche Welle (jen)