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Protestant pastors fear deportation from Turkey

Deger Akal
June 27, 2020

Tensions have been growing between the Turkish government and the country's Christian community. Religious freedom is in jeopardy, as the Subasigüller case illustrates.

Lütfü Subaşıgüller, his partner Joy Anna Crow Subaşıgülle, and their children
Image: Privat

For the past ten years, Joy Anna Crow Subasigüller had enjoyed a happy life in Turkey. The US citizen had married a Turkish man and started a family. But then, one day, Turkey's migration department surprisingly refused to renew her residence permit — without providing any specific explanation.

"This decision makes me very sad — I love Turkey and the Turkish people," Subasigüller told DW. "I have lived here for ten years, they were the best years of my life," she adds. She says she is a stay-at-home-mother, who poses no threat to Turkey at all.

The mother of three suspects Turkey's decision to deport her has to do with her husband, who works as a Protestant pastor in the capital Ankara. The couple plans to contest the decision in court, hoping it will reveal the real reason why Joy Anna Crow Subasigüller now faces deportation.

A threat to national security?

"One of our children is an infant who needs to be breastfed," Lütfü Subasigüller told DW. He says their three children need their mother. He is incredulous that Turkish authorities want them to abandon their home and relatives. Besides, Lütfü Subasigüller adds, "I am a Turkish citizen and so are my three children." 

He says there is evidence that suggests Turkey wishes to deport his wife because it deems her a threat to national security and public order. This, he says, is an accusation leveled against several other members of the country's Protestant community or their spouses. But, he insists, "We are people who pray for our country, we do not threaten the national interest."

Pastor Andrew Brunson
It was only after massive pressure in the US that Pastor Andrew Brunson, who had been detained in Turkey for roughly two years, was releasedImage: Getty Images/AFP/B. Kilic

Read more: War in Syria drives out Christian community

The Brunson incident

Since 2019, the Turkish state has been making it increasingly difficult for Protestant foreigners, or foreign spouses of Christian Turks, to remain in the country. Members of the country's Protestant community believe the arrest of US pastor Andrew Brunsonby Turkish authorities partly explains this crackdown. Brunson was accused of involvement in the failed July 2016 coup against President Erdogan. Subsequently, US President Donald Trump pressured Turkey to free Brunson. When Turkey refused to yield, Trump imposed tariffs on Turkish steel and aluminum imports. The sanctions have exacerbated Turkey's economic crisis.

Timur Topuz, who is the president of the Istanbul Protestant Church Foundation (IPKV), says Protestant pastors are facing growing hostility. "Since the Brunson incident, all Protestant pastors are treated with suspicion," he observes. He says there is a pattern of pastors, and their families, who are either having their residence permits revoked or not renewed. "35 pastors of the Turkish-Protestant community are experiencing problems of this kind," he notes. Since many family members are affected as well, this means some 100 members of the community are facing difficulties.

Christians facing persecution in Turkey

Topuz says he cannot fathom why anyone would consider the Protestant community a danger to Turkey's public order. "Pastor Carlos Madrigal, a Spaniard, has been our spiritual leader for 19 years — and has had his residence permit renewed every time by the Ministry of Labor after the state intelligence agency (MIT) gave the go-ahead," he says. Now, however, "it has not been renewed." It's a decision Topuz simply does not understand.

Topuz says he is deeply disappointed that Turkey is curtailing religious freedoms, telling DW that "back in 2006, our church was recognized as a place of worship, which sent a strong signal that gave us hope."
Read more: Opinion: Christians a welcome scapegoat in Turkey

Timur Topuz
The President of the Protestant Church Foundation in Istanbul, Timur TopuzImage: Privat

Turkish opposition is taking action

Members of Turkey's opposition have begun addressing the problem in parliament. Tuma Celik, an MP for the country's left-wing HDP, warned that the country's deportation framework violates the principle of religious freedom and threatens family cohesion. He has requested a report on how many Christian pastors have already been deported and why.

Celik, like so many others, believes this represents a structural problem. He says Turkey is reluctant to recognize other non-Muslim religions as equally legitimate faiths. This is why, he says, members of other religions are having their basic rights curtailed. He argues it is time to acknowledge that even though religious freedom exists on paper, it is not actually upheld.