Earthquakes, Erdogan, and Christian Persecution
In recent days, news reports and videos from Turkey have been horrifying. Massive earthquakes have devastated southwest Turkey and parts of Syria, and they continue to send shockwaves across the world. At the time of this writing, more than 19,000 people have been confirmed dead, and that death toll is expected to increase exponentially.
Those of us who, in the past, have visited the towns and villages in those devastated Turkish regions have been stunned by the videos and photos in the quake’s aftermath. Seeing the wreckage, we recall all too well both the warm hospitality of the local people, and the fragility of their humble neighborhoods, churches, and historic sites.
In the early 2000s, I visited several communities in Turkey, and particularly remember Mardin, where I spent time with a small congregation of Assyrian Christians. Our hearts were warmed as we heard their stories — they were beginning to return to their ancient homeland after fleeing multiple wars and persecutions. We visited a local church — unpretentious and beautiful — where even the sacred iconography seemed transitory, its message appearing on fabric, not wood. One elderly woman proudly showed us one of the icons she had made for the church.
The congregation’s priest had recently come back to Mardin from London, having decided to brave the political uncertainties of his homeland. With other dangers to face and overcome — including military conflicts between the PKK and the Turkish military — earthquakes were probably the last thing on his mind. Over the years that followed, many other returnees have joined him. Turkey’s Daily Sabah reported in October 2021, “Assyrians of the southeastern Mardin province, who emigrated to Europe 30 years ago and recently returned to their homeland, restored their 1,700-year-old church and have opened it for worship with a ceremony.”
In that hard-hit area, homes have now been reduced to rubble, and countless lives lost.
But even before the earthquakes, life was far from ideal for Turkey’s Christian communities, including those comprised of recent returnees from abroad. During the genocidal 2014 ISIS invasion of Syria and Iraq, floods of refugees poured into Turkey. Most were Muslim, but a considerable number of them were Christians representing venerable Middle Eastern churches.
Unfortunately, according to numerous sources, Christian refugees in Turkey are often treated with contempt, consigned to remote locations, intentionally placed far from churches or fellow believers. Since they did not speak Turkish and are not Muslim, displaced Christian men could not legally find employment, while language and religious discrimination sidelined women and children who struggled to work or attend school.
One beloved Christian priest, Father Remzi Diril, has logged “thousands of miles” tending his refugee flock. He explains, “People need spiritual help. They need a priest. They want the church with them. I can’t give them material things, but I can give them my time and give them hope.” Along with providing hope to the refugees, he has also faced harassment.
But far more distressing has been the shocking story of Father Diril’s elderly parents, residents of a tiny Christian Turkish community who have been missing since January 2020. They were kidnapped from their home in Kovankaya (Meer in Assyrian).
AsiaNews reported in March 2021, “Turkey’s human rights agency has rejected the request by Fr. Remzi Diril for an investigation. Nothing is known about his father who went missing over a year ago, while his mother’s body was found naked, with signs of torture.” This appalling crime remains unresolved.
Meanwhile, in April last year, we learned that 78 foreign Protestant leaders and congregants were deported by the Turkish government between 2019 and 2021, which together with their families, some of whom are Turkish citizens, totals nearly 200. Some of these workers are denied re-entry at passport control upon arrival. It is also reliably reported that Turkey is incarcerating and preparing to deport persecuted Christian refugees back to Iran, where they will face severe retribution.
And now, these horrifying earthquakes.
Along with so many other struggles, for Turkey’s Christian returnees and refugees, the tremors have shattered hopes for a better future. Along with each day’s ever-increasing death toll and agonizingly slow rescue efforts, Turkey’s Islamist President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is being sharply criticized for his response. His political opposition, along with residents in the disaster zones “accuse the government of a tardy and inadequate relief effort. The anger grew louder as the president, facing a tight election in three months’ time, visited the afflicted area for the first time after two days and acknowledged some problems with the initial response.”
When confronted with the Turkish government’s undeniable anti-Christian policies and pro-Islamist crusades, no one suffers more than the Syriac, Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant and other believers who are confronted with injustice every day of their lives. Today they endure even more crushing losses and broken dreams. And, tragically, Tayyip Erdogan’s history of brutality toward them and their communities forebodes only further negligence and abuse.
Let’s remember all the Turkish earthquake survivors in our prayers. And let us particularly intercede for Turkey’s heartbroken Christians, as they continue to seek for surviving loved ones, while pleading with heaven for better days ahead.
Lela Gilbert is Senior Fellow for International Religious Freedom at Family Research Council and Fellow at Hudson Institute's Center for Religious Freedom.