Planned church assassination might signal further attacks

The İzmit Protestant Church in the northwestern province of Kocaeli, the orange building in the photo, was targeted in an anti-Christian plot. (PHOTOS SUNDAY’S ZAMAN, Cahit Kılıç)

January 27, 2013, Sunday/ 13:23:00

One person was arrested last week in Kocaeli on charges of planning an attack on the İzmit Protestant Church to assassinate its pastor following a round of detentions in the town shortly after the Kocaeli Police foiled the alleged plot, which has brought fears that an illegal group behind many attacks on non-Muslims in 2006 and 2007 is currently highly active.

 The discovery is not only very important because it prevented a potential attack, but also shows that groups looking to trigger a coup d’état and who have planned and carried out attacks in the past against non-Muslims as part of a larger plan against the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government are still operating.

Recent trials involving the Ergenekon gang -- a clandestine group that includes generals and officers of other ranks, both active and retired, as well as many civilians, including journalists -- and several other coup plots have revealed that Ergenekon and related groups worked hard in the 2000s to create chaos in the country for the purpose of manufacturing panic about and distrust in the AK Party government. Although hundreds of suspects have been arrested in many trials, including the now concluded Sledgehammer trial, the plot uncovered in Kocaeli might indicate that they have extensions.

Details linking the murderers of three Bible publishers in Malatya in 2007, in a case known as the Zirve trial, to Ergenekon have emerged. Similar links also came up in the trial regarding the murder of Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink, which also took place in 2007, and in the murder case of Father Santoro, a Catholic priest killed in Trabzon in 2006.

Orhan Kemal Cengiz, a journalist and contributor to Today’s Zaman, who was in fact targeted by a similar group according to documents found on the computer of a major general who has been arrested in connection with the Zirve murder trial, said there was no way of capturing the entire Ergenekon network without focusing on the anti-Christian activities of the group. He said: “The Ergenekon trial is all about anti-Christian movements. The prosecutors are far too focused on the coup attempt; the anti-Christian activity was not investigated thoroughly. There is a problem in their outlook here.” He said attacks, assassinations and other planned atrocities, some of which have been carried out, against non-Muslims comprise the “core” of the Ergenekon trial. “These couldn’t be exposed, and as we have seen recently in the investigation of the parliamentary Coup and Memorandum Commission, the [Ergenekon-linked] Special Operations Department [inside the military] has civilian extensions, and only if we can find these can we see the entire criminal network clearly.” He said the İzmit assassination plan looked very professional and sophisticated. He also said recent attacks targeting Armenian women, the stoning of a Greek Orthodox Church and an unpublicized attack on an Armenian intellectual -- who would rather not have his name in print -- are all connected. “None of these are random acts and we may see major atrocities like we saw in 2007,” Cengiz warned.

But why are Ergenekon and its shadow groups going after non-Muslims, and particularly Christians? “There are always many different layers in relation to these kinds of attacks,” Cengiz said. “Of course one of these layers is the great Ergenekon plan to isolate Turkey from the world,” he also said, creating the image that “Islamic fundamentalist come to power and massacre Christians,” to send the message that the religious-minded AK Party is responsible for attacks against non-Muslims. “But the other thing not to be ignored is that there are historical dimensions to this and Turkey has a history of massacring Armenians, non-Muslims, etc. There are some elements in society more than willing to participate in this kind of action, and without understanding this tendency we cannot understand the whole picture. We should look at all these different layers at once in order to get the real picture of this crime.”

Erdal Doğan, a lawyer who also represented the co-plaintiff side in the Dink trial, agreed with Cengiz, saying as long as the AK Party government only focuses on protecting itself (from overthrow attempts) and is not concerned with protecting the people, such assassination plans and actual attacks will always be a reality. He agreed that the documents sent to the parliamentary commission investigating coups should be the subject of a court trial by themselves. “As long as the government doesn’t grant assurance and protection to prosecutors and judges in this issue, as long as the national security policy document of Turkey remains in force and as long as the National Security Council [MGK] is allowed to exist in this system, such provocations, assassination and murder plots will always be.”

Anti-missionary culture

Not everybody agrees that the recent threats directed at the İzmit church necessarily mean that Ergenekon extensions are making a comeback. Ziya Meral, a London-based Turkish analyst and academic told Sunday’s Zaman in an e-mail interview: “It is not clear whether these individuals are part of a larger network that carried out similar attacks on non-Muslims in the 2003-2008 period. It might well be that this is a local independent initiative.” He said, however, that he did not find the threats surprising, noting: “Last year, there were various false reports in local media that the İzmit area was a target for missionary activities and there were thousands of secret churches in the city. Sadly, years of scapegoating non-Muslims in Turkey and paranoia over activities of non-Muslims continue unchallenged by the courts or the state. It was only a matter of time for various ultranationalist groups to be incited to act on such dangerous media reports and statements by public officials.” He said the role of the overall atmosphere could not possibly be ignored: “While attacks against non-Muslims in Turkey stopped overnight in 2008 when deep-state trials and arrests began, we are seeing a dangerous comeback of attacks and sinister media reporting. This might well be signs of a new play by groups seeking to create unrest, or it might well be the automatic outcome of years of social manipulation through psychological warfare. In other words, this attack might not be directly led by the deep state, but it carries the marks of what they started and sustained.”

But it is clear as day now that past atrocities against non-Muslims, such as the Wealth Tax of the ‘30s, the deportation of Jews in Thrace and the pogroms against Greek Orthodox residents of İstanbul in 1955, the Dink murder, the murder of Father Santoro in Trabzon and the Zirve murders are parts of a long-running campaign by shady groups, says Cemal Uşak, a journalist and writer who is the vice president of the Journalists and Writers Foundation (GYV). He said he agreed that recent, almost simultaneous, acts targeting non-Muslims do create the impression that they are part of the same plan and a continuation of it. “Certainly, the judiciary will have the last word on this, but the developments don’t leave us much room to think of this in any other way.” He also noted that a culture of hate that allows viewing one’s fellow citizens as if they are an enemy has been engrained in the subconscious of some segments. “Heinous social engineering can make murderers from this subculture. Ogün Samast [Dink’s shooter] is an example. In the long term, what we should fight is this culture of hate.”

Planned attack in İzmit

The İzmit Police Department’s counterterrorism unit was monitoring a group in the Çukurbağ neighborhood of İzmit, following the emergence of intelligence indicating that they were gathering information on the İzmit Protestant Church and its İzmit representative, Emre Karaeli. After a lengthy period of surveillance, police conducted an operation to take the suspects into custody on Jan 15. Twelve suspects were detained in the provinces of Kocaeli, Şanlıurfa and Diyarbakır in connection with the group. Six were released; six others were referred to the İstanbul Prosecutor’s Office, while one was arrested by the court and placed in prison.

Speaking about the discovery, Kocaeli Governor Ercan Topaca said the governor’s office has been monitoring the church to ensure the safety of the congregation. He said an attack was planned to take place during a four-day church event between Jan. 17 and Jan. 21. He said the fact that 12 people came together to gather intelligence, make observations about the church and plan the attack is an organized criminal activity.

‘İzmit Protestant Church’s doors are open to everyone who wants to join’

İstanbul Protestant Church Foundation İzmit representative Emre Karaali said his church’s door was open to everyone. “We don’t ID people who come to the church or do any other kind of questioning.” He said the police work that led to the operation started about a year ago, when he reported receiving threats. Karaali also said there had previously never been threats directed at the church or any of its officials. The church has been active in Kocaeli for 14 years.

He also said there were some he knew among the suspects, saying these were individuals who attended church services and meetings from time to time. “Some of them told us they were Christians. Two of these suspects I know personally. They have played with my kids, spent time with my family, we have broken bread together. What I find odd here is this: Outside, many people might hold biases against us without knowing anything about us at all. Two of the suspects were people we knew, and never ever suspected.” He also thanked the security forces for their good work.

He said his church only sought to serve people trying to live according to their beliefs. “They say everyone thinks of the other in terms of who they are. We have never held any ill will towards anyone, and we don’t think ill thoughts about people. We believe the sincerity of those people who come here. What we are doing here in the end is serving people in the best way we can to help their relationship with God. In this respect, we don’t eye people suspiciously or with worry. Our door is open to anyone who wants to sincerely live their faith, or learn about our faith.”

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