Attacks on Christian cemeteries alarm Turkey’s Christians

Attacks on Christian cemeteries in Turkey have deeply shaken the embattled community in recent months. 

Twenty of the 72 gravestones in the Ortaköy Christian Cemetery in Ankara were destroyed on Feb. 14, according to news reports. Six people who carried out the attacks were briefly detained and then released.

“These attacks against cemeteries are making the Christian community across Turkey feel incredibly sad and desperate,” Ankara-based pastor İhsan Özbek told Ahval. “Nobody can watch over the graves of their loved ones like a guard.”

One of the destroyed graves belonged to Olga Komshdoğan’s son. 

“My son lies here,” Komshdoğan told the Sözcü newspaper. “He died last year. He was 17-years-old. Children his age came here and destroyed his grave. What type of conscience can accept this?”

Komshdoğan said it was not the first attack on the cemetery. 

“They hid the attack on the graves from us. We learned of it through a stonemason. I'm hurting inside so much. If my son were alive, he would not do such a thing. They have carried out similar attacks before, and no one was caught. I want those who attacked the graveyard to be punished. We will sue for material and moral damages,” she said.

Another attack was carried out on a grave in the cemetery of the Santa Maria Catholic Church in Trabzon, northeast Turkey, said the news website, Hristiyan Haber.

Zehra Çolak lost her life on Jan. 17 and was buried the next day in the cemetery of the Aya Filbo (Arafilboyu) neighbourhood, 500 m from the church. A wooden cross was temporarily placed at the head of the grave. According to those who attended the funeral, a small group tried to disrupt the ceremony, shouting Allahu Akbar (Allah is the greatest). 

Veysel Çolak visited his wife's grave on Feb. 14 and said the wooden cross was broken and had been burned near the grave.

The cemetery of the Santa Maria Catholic Church, Trabzon
The cemetery of the Santa Maria Catholic Church, Trabzon (courtesy of Hristiyan Haber)

Çolak reported the incident to the police and said that even while his wife's grave was being dug, a man who covered his face tried to steal the cross. When children playing in the cemetery reacted angrily, the man got his dog to attack the children.

Trabzon police said they would launch an investigation into the incident and the provincial governor's office said the burnt cross would be replaced with a new one. The governor’s office could not bring itself to refer to the cross as such and called it a “grave marker”, according to Hristiyan Haber.

“The environment of hate in Turkey is the reason for these attacks,” journalist Seyfi Genç, who reported on the attack on Çolak’s grave for Hristiyan Haber, told Ahval.

“But this hateful environment did not emerge out of nowhere. The seeds of this hatred are spread, beginning at primary schools, through books printed by the Ministry of National Education portraying Christians as enemies and traitors. The indoctrination continues through newspapers and television channels in line with state policies. And of course, the sermons at mosques and talk at coffee houses further stir up this hatred. 

“And even more disturbing is the fact that the perpetrators are either not caught, or not brought to account even when they are caught,” said Genç. 

Trabzon’s Santa Maria Catholic Church was where a Roman Catholic priest, Andrea Santoro, was murdered in 2006 by Oğuzhan Akdin, who was 16 at the time. Ten years later, the killer was released on probation. Akdin said he was treated “like a king” while in the prison.

Genç said education was needed to help reduce attacks and hate speech targeting Christians in Turkey. 

“A comprehensive campaign of education regarding hate speech should be launched to raise awareness of the problem,” he said. 

“Workshops about Christians, equality and equal citizenship should be organised at all educational institutions from primary schools to PhD programmes and through public service ads. Most of those engaging in hate speech are not even aware they are doing it,” Genç said.

The Izmir-based Association of Protestant Churches was formed in 2009 to represent and seek equal rights and freedoms for Protestant Christians across Turkey. 

“Attacks against cemeteries made us concerned and anxious,” said Ali Kalkandelen, the pastor of Istanbul Yaşam Aile Church and the president of the Association of Protestant Churches.

“Many Christians felt threatened for their safety. But we Christians also try to live our lives in accordance with the teachings of the Bible and want goodness and love to grow and hatred and fights to end. That is what we are praying for. We also know that being Christian means we are to face challenges and even during these challenges we are to love all people and glorify God,” Kalkandelen said.

Kalkandelen suggested the authorities should increase security for cemeteries and churches and bring those responsible for crimes to account.

“But what is even more important is to teach people to love, respect and show tolerance for those who do not belong to their religious group,” he said.

“That is why this is not only a security issue. It is about a whole state policy and attitude. People in this country should be taught universal values, human rights and true freedoms and that people of different faiths, and particularly Christians, are not monsters nor enemies. We are people of this land and equal citizens of this country. We love our country and have the same responsibilities, duties and rights as anybody else.

“The state authorities should lead by example and then teach these values to the public in a strategic and planned way – through books, the educational system, the justice system, and the media,” Kalkandelen said.

Physical and verbal attacks against Christians and the cross throughout Turkey are not isolated incidents. 

In September last year, in the town of Akçaabat in Trabzon province, the facade of several houses that had been built for tourists were demolished as a result of complaints claiming the buildings resembled crosses. 

In July, two people broke a crucifix necklace that was being worn by a young Christian in the western town of Gebze. After swearing and hitting the young man, the perpetrators ran away, according to the Sat-7 Turk news outlet.

“There is deep-rooted hatred in Turkish society against Christians,” said Özbek, himself a Christian convert from Islam. “Christians are seen as foreigners and enemies. Those who attack Christian graves are not very educated or, as in the case of Ankara, they are very young. But hatred against Christians is extremely prevalent in all levels of society. The people of Turkey should be reintroduced to the concepts of empathy and love for humanity.”

A grave at the Santa Maria Catholic Church cemetery, Trabzon
A grave at the Santa Maria Catholic Church cemetery, Trabzon (courtesy of Hristiyan Haber)
The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.