Hostilities at Catholic Church in Istanbul, Turkey Leave Parishioners Fearing Worse

Congregation anxious after verbal assault, threats, and a lunge with a knife.

The Rev. Roberto Ferrari prepares to administer Holy Communion at St. Stephanos Church in Istanbul, Turkey. (Morning Star News)

The Rev. Roberto Ferrari prepares to administer Holy Communion at St. Stephanos Church in Istanbul, Turkey. (Morning Star News)

ISTANBUL, Turkey (Morning Star News) – Members of a Catholic church in Istanbul fear an attack after Muslims verbally assaulted and threatened them during a baptismal service and destroyed church property in the last two months.

After two incidents at St. Stephanos Church, parishioners said they are waiting to see if hostilities will escalate into violence during what remains of Ramadan, when religious persecution has been known to increase in Muslim-majority areas. The annual Ramadan, an Islamic month of day-time fasting, ends in Turkey on July 28.

The two previous attacks have caused some members of an already small congregation to stop participating in services, at least temporarily. In May a group of young men under cover of darkness destroyed audio equipment, stole other items and set a fire in the building, and on June 15 Muslim intruders pushed their way into the baptismal service and yelled obscenities, with one brandishing a knife and threatening to stab a parishioner.

Though not inflicting physical injury, the attacks reopened psychological wounds in light of fatal attacks on Catholics and other Christians in Turkey. With anti-Christian hostilities growing in Turkey, one church member said more attacks are expected.

“It’s not the first, and it won’t be the last,” said the parishioner, who requested anonymity for security reasons.

In the incident during the baptismal service, congregation members said, eight Muslims came onto church grounds and screamed obscenities and anti-Christian epithets at those inside. Some members of the group went into the church building and, as they walked around, shouted at those in attendance.

Member of St. Stephanos Church receives Holy Communion. (Morning Star News)

Member of St. Stephanos Church receives Holy Communion. (Morning Star News)

The Muslims told those at the church to “Go away” because “Turkey is Muslim.”

The church’s facility manager was able to turn the group outside, but in the church courtyard, one of the Muslims pulled out a knife and lunged at him. The Christian managed to avoid injury, and the group fled.

Some of those attending the service called police during the attack, but officers who were in the neighborhood giving out traffic tickets arrived long after the assailants had left, according to church members.

St. Stephanos Church is located in Yeşilköy, an Istanbul neighborhood where Christians, though still a minority, make up a significant amount of the population. There are two churches in the small coastal neighborhood, and only one mosque. Until recently, members of the congregation said, Muslims and Christians got along peacefully and cordially.

Church members were eager to describe what happened, but none of them gave Morning Star News permission to use their names out of fear for their safety, or because they didn’t have permission from church leadership.

In the previous incident, men in their late teens and 20s entered the church building at night, ripped out most of the church’s audio equipment and destroyed what they couldn’t carry away. They then took some of the ceremonial candles, lit them and started setting items in the rear of the building on fire. They stacked all remaining candles into a pile, lit them and left.

The fire from the candles spread in that section of the building, but no one noticed it until a member of an Orthodox congregation that also uses the facility smelled smoke and yelled for help. He and others extinguished the fire before it caused any serious damage. One of the Catholic parishioners said if the Orthodox Christian hadn’t noticed the fire, it would have been a disaster.

“If he hadn’t said something, this whole thing would be gone,” he said, motioning to the inside of the church building.

The Orthodox congregation uses part of the church building to hold services because they are unable to construct their own building, due to limited resources and the lengthy, difficult process in Turkey of obtaining permission. Although no one was injured in the attacks, those who attend St. Stephanos are concerned more attacks are coming, and that they will escalate until someone is killed or seriously injured.

Such violence has occurred in other Catholic churches in Turkey. In February 2006, the Rev. Andrea Santoro was shot dead in Santa Maria Church in Trabzon by Oğuzhan Akdin, 16. Akdin shot Santoro in the back of the head while he was kneeling, praying inside the church. Akdin later claimed he shot Santoro because he was angered over a series of cartoons, published five months earlier, allegedly mocking Islam’s prophet, Muhammad; Akdin was sentenced to almost 19 years in prison for the murder.

In July 2009, Gregor Kerkeling, a Catholic from Germany who visited Turkey regularly, was stabbed outside The Church of St. Anthony of Padua in the Beyoğlu district of Istanbul. Kerkeling was stabbed directly in the heart and died in the courtyard of the church. The Muslim accused of killing Kerkeling, Ibrahim Akyol, later told prosecutors he “wanted to kill a Christian that day.”

In June 2010, Murat Altun, a Muslim driver for a church in Ikerendum, slit the throat of Bishop Luigi Padovese, 63, in his Ikerendum home. The reasons behind the killing are still shrouded in mystery. Before his trial, Altun gave numerous reasons for killing Padovese, including being mental ill or that he was following the demands of Islam. A court ultimately sentenced him to 15 years in prison for the murder. At the time of sentencing, legal experts told the Turkish media they expect him to serve a fraction of the sentence.

In addition to the killings, Catholic churches in Turkey have been the sites of numerous other non-fatal knife attacks, including the stabbing of the Rev. Pierre Brunissen in July 2006 in Samsun, the stabbing of the Rev. Adriano Frachini in 2007 in Smyrna, and the Rev. Roberto Ferrari being threatened at knife-point in March 2006 in Mersin. Estimates of Catholics in Turkey run from 35,000 to 46,000 of the country’s 76 million people.

A member of St. Stephanos said that every time an attack has happened, either to Catholics or to members of other denominations, he and other Catholics have felt it “in his heart.”

He said the problem stems from what people are taught from their youth in Turkey. More that 99 percent of the country’s population is Sunni Muslim, and religion is closely tied to feelings of Turkish nationalism. According to numerous Turkish Christians, many Turks see Turkish Christians as being spies, traitors or foreign agents of some sort.

“They are not open-minded,” the St. Stephanos member said. “They lack education or have been educated in a very bad way.”


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