In Turkey, a Deep Suspicion of Missionaries

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By Karl Vick
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, April 9, 2006

TRABZON, Turkey -- The controversy over cartoons of the prophet Muhammad was at a full roar on the Sunday morning that a bullet pierced the Rev. Andrea Santoro's heart, so the 61-year-old Catholic priest was initially counted as a casualty of a moment, an especially volatile one between two faiths talking loudly past each other.

Two months later, many here are still operating under that assumption. According to witnesses, after shooting the Italian priest in the back, his killer shouted, "Allahu akbar!" or "God is great," a common utterance in Muslim worship that can double as a battle cry.

But among residents of this small city overlooking the Black Sea, another explanation took firm hold in the weeks that followed the Feb. 5 killing near the altar of the only church within a hundred miles. The priest was a missionary, residents whispered to one another, and his death resulted from a dispute over the money Turks have long believed missionaries pay to Muslims they are trying to convert.

"Everybody says he was paying a lot of youngsters -- college students -- 100 euros per month to convert them," said Recep Hickorkmiz, who drives one of the white minivan taxis that crowd the city's steep streets.

"I heard it, too," said a woman on an apartment balcony overlooking the church, where she said she heard Santoro arguing with a group of young men the day before the shooting, but not what they were arguing about. "They say the boy told his friend the priest gave him 100 for registering here, and that if he goes, in he would get the same."

The talk appears to be only that. Mahya Usta, the attorney for the Turkish teenager accused in the murder, said missionary work "has nothing to do with my case." And leaders of Turkey's tiny, embattled Christian community said the ancient rumor of people paying for converts was an especially bad fit for Santoro.

"We have no money," said Bishop Luigi Padovese, vicar apostolic of Anatolia. "I gave Andrea 300 euros a month. If he gave 100 to each person. . . ."

But if the local version of events appears to have scant grounding in fact, it is anchored in a deep-seated mistrust of Christianity in Turkey, a nominally secular republic that U.S. officials frequently cite as a democratic model for the Muslim world.

"Actually, the state might be secular, but it's not making that distinction in its activities," said Isa Karatas, spokesman for Turkey's perhaps 80 evangelical Protestant churches.

Until religious minorities succeeded in changing the law, Turkey required Christians and Jews to study Islam in the religion classes that are compulsory in Turkish schools from the fourth grade. The state has confiscated hundreds of church properties, only recently returning portions under pressure from the European Union, which Turkey is trying to join.

With perhaps 100,000 Christians in a population of 70 million, Turkey officially tolerates and protects faiths other than Islam. Unlike Afghanistan, which last month threatened to execute a Christian convert, the country has no laws barring Muslims from leaving the faith or against attempts to lure them away.

Yet Turkish police charged 293 people with "missionary activity" from 1998 to 2001, a state minister told parliament recently. People who place calls to Christian groups operating inside Turkey are warned against uttering the word "missionary" on an open phone line.


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