Turkey (MNN) – Turkey’s Malatya bookstore murders reads like a James Patterson novel.
By the time you get through the initial crime scene to the end of the trial, you involve secret organizations, the ‘deep state’ and conspiracy theories galore. However, this isn’t fiction—it involves three Christian converts, religious freedom in Turkey and 12 years of fighting for justice.
The latest update came on January 23, 2019. Middle East Concern’s Miles Windsor has been closely following the case over the years. He shares the good news, first. “The courts in Turkey have upheld the verdict that was issued against the five perpetrators of the tortures and murders of the three Christian men in Malatya.” Now, the not-so-good news. The Association of Protestant Churches in Turkey (TeK) also made a request. “There was a hope that the courts would seek to uncover a wider network of organizers of this crime, but that’s been rejected. That’s a disappointing development, but perhaps one which was to be expected.”
On 18 April 2007, police caught Emre Günaydın, Cuma Özdemir, Salih Gürler, Abuzer Yıldırım and Hamit Çeker at Zirve publishing house in Malatya. The trio tortured and killed Christian converts Ugur Yuksel and Necati Aydin and German national Tilman Geske.
On 28 September 2016, the 1st Criminal Court in Malatya sentenced each of the five perpetrators to three consecutive life sentences for murder, 30 years for “depriving a person of their liberty” and an additional 9 years and 9 months for “qualified attempted robbery.” In addition, the judges handed down sentences of 13 years 9 months and 14 years 10 months and 22 days to two military personnel. The Court also acquitted sixteen other defendants, believed to have been involved in planning the murders. The court acknowledged the involvement of unofficial organizations in the planning of the attack, but said that there was insufficient evidence to prosecute. The defendants appealed.
On 18 July 2017, the 3rd Criminal Chamber of Gaziantep District Court upheld the sentences against the perpetrators, but acquitted the two military personnel for lack of evidence. The perpetrators appealed further, and the TeK appealed the acquittal of the military officers. The Court dismissed both of these appeals in the 23 January verdict.
Unless taken to the Constitutional Court, the decision is final. Even with relief that comes with the case finally being over, the larger question remains. In such a high profile criminal case, why did it take 12 years to finally get justice? Windsor explains, “Some speculation about why that was, was to do with the politics underlying it. It involved military personnel; it involved suggestions of clandestine organizations such as ‘Ergenekon’ and the ‘deep state’ in Turkey.” The belief was that there were a great many others that were involved in this act of violence against these three Christian men, beyond those convicted of the murders.
There’s frustration that others who were involved escape accountability. It also underscores the sense that the rights of Turkish Christians, especially converts, are somehow less than Turkish citizens who are Muslim. Windsor notes, “I think it’s important to develop a clear understanding of some of these situations that happen in other countries, and some of the challenges that Christians face, when it comes to obtaining justice.” Strong religious nationalism permeates Turkish society and puts significant pressure on Christians. For those who leave Islam, especially for those who embrace Christianity, conversion is a betrayal of their Turkish identity. It often results in opposition and pressure from friends, family and community.
Turkey ranks 26th on this year’s Open Doors World Watch List, a ranking of the top 50 countries where Christians face the most extreme persecution. It means more scrutiny for those who follow Christ. The Malatya murders rattled believers because the men who committed the act came in the guise of wanting to know more about the Gospel, even attending a service led by Pastor Aydin. To that end, “The Turkish Christian community would also value prayer that God would continue to comfort and strengthen all who were affected by the murdered, as well”, says Windsor, adding, “It’s not an easy place to be a Christian, so prayer for God’s peace sustaining them.”
(Headline photo courtesy Middle East Concern)