ISTANBUL, Turkey (Morning Star News) – Some members of a congregation in Istanbul suspect a man who attacked their church building last week did not act alone.
Church members said they suspect the assailant, whom police said has a severe psychological disorder, was pressured to commit the attack by a group that wanted to stir up religious, ethnic or political problems in Turkey.
In the early evening hours of June 9, a man who appeared to be in his 20s threw a lit Molotov cocktail at a wooden side door of the Hagia Triada (Holy Trinity) Orthodox Church in Kadıköy, Istanbul, according to witnesses at the scene. He then stood outside the door screaming “Allahu Akbar [God is greater]” as the flames spread upwards.
As police arrived and took the assailant into custody, he screamed out, “Revenge will be taken for Al-Aqsa Mosque,” an apparent reference to one of Sunni Islam’s holiest sites, located in the Old City of Jersusalem.
Onlookers at nearby cafes and other businesses ran to the church building, told the property attendant it was on fire and helped him douse the flames.
“I was there checking the church, and there was nobody around,” said Al-Nory Kozalan, the attendant. “I went to my room for a minute to get my diabetes medicine, and I came out when I heard people yelling, ‘The church is on fire,’ and I said to them, ‘You are joking, I was just there.’ I ran and saw he had spilled petrol on the building, and people helped put out the fire.”
Kozalan, who lives at the church building with his wife, said that immediately after the suspect’s arrest, police told him the assailant has a severe psychological disorder. Police also told church officials that, contrary to witness accounts of a Molotov cocktail, the suspect poured gasoline, or more likely paint thinner, on the door and then set it on fire.
On Sunday (June 14), church members did not comment on whether they thought the suspect suffers from a mental illness, but one long-time member said he thinks that if he does have a mental health issue, others likely manipulated him into attacking.
“I think he was pushed forward by someone who wanted to make a provocation,” said Yorgo Istefanopulos. “[Now] the congregation is worried there will be a more serious attack with a Molotov cocktail or a bomb.”
Police have not released the name of the man taken into custody. It is not known if any charges have been filed against him, if he has been released or if he has been remanded to medical personnel for psychological evaluation and care.
No one was injured in the attack on Hagia Triada, a Greek Orthodox church, and the damage to the building was repaired in two days. Last week’s attack, however, shook the congregation of about 70 people, as it was a painful reminder of past persecution in Turkey and that some see the country’s indigenous Christians as undesirables who are not faithful to the nation of their birth.
“They believe everyone in Turkey should be a Muslim,” Istefanopulos said. “It is a horrible confusion.”
Built in the late 1800s and consecrated in 1905, Hagia Triada was the last church building legally constructed in Istanbul under the rule of the Ottoman Empire. This month’s attack was the second time the church building has been attacked in about five years, Istefanopulos said. In the previous attack in 2009, a group of nationalists or Islamic extremists smashed windows, painted Islamic and nationalist graffiti on the outside walls in red paint and yelled anti-Christian slogans. No one was ever criminally charged for the attack.
When Hagia Triada was previously attacked, several other Istanbul churches were the scenes of assaults against Christians. In one incident on Aug. 3, 2009, Yasin Karasu, a Turkish nationalist, held a Turkish convert from Islam hostage at knifepoint and accused him of being a “missionary dog.”
The confrontation ended peacefully with the intervention of Turkish police.
The incident came a week after the fatal stabbing of Christian and German expatriate Gregor Kerkeling. On July 20, 2009, Ibrahim Akyol followed Kerkeling out of St. Anthony Catholic Church in the Beyoglu District of Istanbul and stabbed him in the chest repeatedly. Kerkeling died at the scene.
According to local media, Akyol later told prosecutors he went to the church looking for a victim.
“I wanted to kill a Christian that day and was visiting churches for this reason,” he said. “I saw the person and killed him.”
According to police, both Akyol and Karasu suffered from undisclosed mental illnesses.
This month’s attack was the third time in the past 12 months that arsonists have attacked a church building or other structure owned by a Christian group in Istanbul. On Dec. 7, 2014, a fire broke out at the offices of the Bible Correspondence Course in Turkey (BCC-Turkey), also located in the Kadikoy neighborhood of Istanbul, in a multistory building that also houses a church. No one was injured in the fire, but losses exceeded US$12,500. Officials at BCC believe the fire was of a “suspicious nature,” but the case has not been solved.
In May and June of 2014, St. Stephanos Church, a Latin Catholic church in the Bakırköy District of Istanbul, was attacked. A group of young men under cover of darkness destroyed audio equipment, stole other items and set a fire in the building in May. In June, 15 Muslim intruders pushed their way into a baptismal service and yelled obscenities, with one brandishing a knife and threatening to stab a parishioner.
The men told those at the church to leave the country because, they said, “Turkey is Muslim.” No one has been prosecuted for the incidents at BCC or at St. Stephanos.
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