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2009-03-29
Istanbul, Turkey
Turkish Christians plan appeal of fine
by Damaris Kremida/Compass Direct News

The lawyer representing two Turkish Christians fined for "illegal collection of funds" plans to take the case to a European court because he fears the court-ordered fine sets a crippling precedent for churches.

Hakan Tastan and Turan Topal each paid the fine of 600 Turkish lira (US$360) to a civil court in the Beyoglu district of Istanbul. The verdict cannot be appealed within the Turkish legal system, but their lawyer said he is considering taking the case to the European Court of Human Rights.

The ruling refers to the men receiving church offerings without official permission from local civil authorities. Nearly all Protestant fellowships in Turkey are registered as associations, with very few having status as a recognized religious body, and a strict application of the law would limit the scope of churches collecting funds.

Although the punishment is a relatively small fine, their lawyer told Compass there is now a precedent that authorities could use to harass any church for collecting tithes and offerings.

"For now, this court decision is an individual decision, but we fear in the future this could be carried out against all churches," said defense attorney Haydar Polat.

Umut Sahin, spokesman for the Alliance of Protestant Churches of Turkey, agreed the case was worrisome for the country's small Protestant community and could set a disturbing precedent to be against other congregations.

When originally charged, the two men were summoned to police headquarters just before church services. Tastan and Topal were given a "penalty" sheet from security police that ordered each to pay the fine for breaking a civil law.

The court decision to fine them, enacted on Nov. 11, 2008 but not delivered until March 13, denied their request to drop the penalty. The two men claimed they were only collecting money from their co-religionists.

Judge Hakim Tastan ruled at the First Magistrate Court that the two men were guilty of violating section 29 of Civil Administrative Code 2860, which forbids the collection of money without official permission from local district authorities.

In light of the charge of "insulting Turkishness," the two men believe the smaller accusation of collecting money illegally is merely part of a wider effort by the state to harass and discredit Turkish Christians.

"They are doing this to bother and intimidate us, possibly to pressure us to leave the country," Tastan told Compass. "They have the intention to hinder church establishment and the spread of the Gospel."

Tastan has spoken publicly about his strong sense of pride in his Turkish identity and frustration with state institutions biased against religious minorities. "This case is proof that Turkey's legal system regarding human rights isn't acting in a just and suitable way," he said.

DIFFICULT CIRCUMSTANCES

The civil court case was the second set of longstanding charges against the two men. The first involves Turkey's notorious Article 301, a loosely-defined law that criminalizes insulting "the Turkish nation."

On Feb. 24 a Silivri court received the go-ahead from the Ministry of Justice to try the men under Article 301. The crux of the first case -- originally leveled against them in 2007 by ultranationalist lawyer Kemal Kerincsiz, now indicted in a national conspiracy to overthrow the government -- focused on the two men's missionary efforts as defaming Islam.

Due to lack of proof and no-shows by the prosecution team's witnesses, the converts from Islam believe they will be acquitted in their next hearing on May 28.

Turkey has come under recent criticism over its handling of religious minority rights by a Council of Europe report, accusing the country of "wrong interpretation" of the Lausanne Treaty as a pretext for refusing to implement minority rights, according to the Hurriyet Daily News.

The 1923 treaty, penned between Turkey and European powers following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, only recognizes Greeks, Jews and Armenians as minority populations in Turkey.

More troublesome, according to the report, Turkey's basis of rights for its non-Muslim minorities is built on reciprocity with Greece's treatment of its Muslim minorities. This basis pushes both nations to a "lowest-common denominator" understanding of minority rights, rather than a concept of universal freedoms.

Sources: Baptist Press and Compass Direct News, based in Santa Ana, Calif., provides reports on Christians worldwide who are persecuted for their faith. Used by permission
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