Seven years since Santoro murder, attacks on non-Muslims unabated
As Turkey marks on Feb. 5 the seventh anniversary of the death of Andrea Santoro, an Italian Catholic priest who was shot dead in 2006 by a 16-year-old ultranationalist in his church in the Black Sea province of Trabzon, Turkey's non-Muslims continue to be targeted by what are thought to be organized groups seeking to create chaos in the society.
The latest examples of a series of attacks targeting non-Muslim groups in Turkey are the attacks on elderly Armenians in İstanbul's Samatya neighborhood, the threats directed at a Protestant church in İzmir and the stoning of a Greek Orthodox church in İstanbul. Commentators suggest organized groups may be behind these attacks.
Four elderly Armenian women were assaulted in the last two months in the Samatya neighborhood of İstanbul's Fatih district. Although the attacks were initially interpreted as incidents of theft, commentators note that illicit groups might have been attempting to disturb the peace between the Turkish and Armenian communities. Human rights activists are calling on the authorities to launch a detailed investigation into the assaults of the Armenian women.
After the killing of Father Santoro in 2006, the assault against non-Muslims continued with the murder of Hrant Dink, the editor-in-chief of the İstanbul-based Turkish-Armenian Agos weekly. The murderer was an ultranationalist teenager, 17-year-old Ogün Samast. Dink had received threats from extreme rightist groups and ultranationalist circles all the way up until he was murdered. While Samast was sentenced to 22 years, 10 months in prison by a juvenile court, another suspect, Yasin Hayal, was given life in prison for inciting the murder. In April 2007, after Dink's murder, three Protestant missionaries were brutally murdered, their throats slit, at the Zirve Publishing House in the eastern province of Malatya. The publishing house printed Bibles and Christian literature.
The similarities among these murders urged people to think that the killings were part of a general plot targeting missionaries and non-Muslims, devised either by Ergenekon -- a clandestine gang charged with plotting to overthrow the government -- or a related organization. Evidence that came out in the trials regarding Dink, Father Santoro and other attacks on non-Muslims shows that they are also likely to have come from the same master plan. Prosecutors and lawyers in these trials have also found evidence linking these events to each other.
Speaking to Today's Zaman, Erdal Doğan, a co-plaintiff in the Zirve trial, noted that the campaign against missionaries in Malatya and other parts of Turkey was launched by a clandestine and illegal unit called the National Strategies and Operations Department of Turkey (TUSHAD), allegedly established in 1993 by former four-star Gen. Hurşit Tolon, who is one of the key suspects in the Ergenekon trial. Doğan added that it was a fact known by everyone that the assassinations directed at Dink, Santoro and the three Bible publishers were planned by a unit called the “white forces” under TUSHAD.
Tolon was recently arrested and brought to deliver testimony at the Malatya court hearing the Zirve trial. The judge ordered Tolon's arrest based on evidence found in a computer seized during the search of a location connected to Maj. Haydar Yeşil, the director of the intelligence unit of the Malatya Gendarmerie Command and a major suspect in the same trial.
It is not clear why Ergenekon or any other shady group inside the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) targeted Christian missionaries, but many coup plots that have been unearthed during the Ergenekon investigation and related trials now indicate that some groups inside these networks might have perceived missionaries as a threat. However, there is at least one plot -- called the Cage Plan -- that actively focused on assassinating non-Muslim public figures. The targets were not necessarily working as missionaries, leading some experts to say that the assassinations might be an attempt to tarnish the reputation of the religious-minded Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government in the international arena.
Zirve co-plaintiff Doğan also said attacks directed at non-Muslims are meant to weaken the AK Party government, adding that non-Muslims were the prey of larger plots in these assaults. He went on to say that the real aim was to weaken the government's hand through attacks which would give the impression to the general society that the AK Party is failing in its fight against terrorism. According to Doğan, although the government recognized the threat posed by the attacks, it failed to exhibit a strong will to bring the actual instigators to justice. Doğan stressed the fact that the murder of Father Santoro was blamed on a 16-year-old teenager, one who might not have planned or even committed the murder, but who was used as a pawn in the act. He added that evidence obtained in the Zirve trial over six years has revealed a unit which included high-ranking military officials who worked to foment chaos in the society through consecutive attacks against Turkey's minority groups.
Hulusi Zeybel, director of the İstanbul branch of the Turkey-based Human Rights Association (İHD), spoke to Today's Zaman in relation to the ongoing attacks on non-Muslims and said the Turkish legal system was moving backwards. He claims the judiciary in particular acts slowly in cases regarding Turkey's minorities, along with other malpractice such as allowing evidence to be tampered with. Zeybel said the key to a harmonious multicultural society is to treat all citizens equally before the law. For Zeybel, however, Turkey has so far largely failed in this task.