Christians Were Forced to Sign Paper Saying They Don't Face Persecution in Turkey, Says Church Leader

(Photo: Reuters/Umit Bektas)A man waves Turkey's national flag during the Democracy and Martyrs Rally, organized by Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, November 12, 2016.

Christians in Turkey were pressured by the government to sign a declaration that they suffer no religious persecution, a church leader said.

"The Order of Saint Andrew, Archons of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, regrets the pressure that the Turkish government has clearly placed upon that nation's religious minorities in obtaining a statement on religious freedom from them," Anthony J. Limberakis, the National Commander of the Eastern Orthodox Church order, said in a statement last week.

"One need not be a 'U.S. evangelist' or have a 'Zionist mentality' to see that the statement from representatives of the Greek Orthodox and Armenian churches and other religious minority communities was obtained under duress," he added, in reference to comments Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has made.

The declaration states that people of different faiths live "freely" in the Muslim majority nation, according to Turkey's Anadolu Agency

"We as religious representatives and foundation directors of societies of different religions and beliefs, who have been settled in this country for centuries, are free to follow our beliefs and practices," the declaration states.

Erdogan used the statement to claim that "Turkey has no problems related to [religious] minorities."

The president's remarks came in the midst of a major dispute with the United States over Turkey's continued imprisonment of American pastor Andrew Brunson.

U.S. President Donald Trump, along with numerous congressmen and persecution watchdog groups, have accused Turkey of keeping Brunson as a hostage and punishing him for his Christian faith.

The Turkish court has placed Brunson on trial over charges that he communicated with Kurdish groups accused of staging a failed coup in the country in 2016.

While Brunson was recently allowed to leave prison and wait under house arrest in Turkey for his next trial date in October, that has not quelled the tensions.

The U.S. Treasury Department hit Turkey with economic sanctions over Brunson's treatment last week. Erdogan responded by announcing that his government will "freeze the assets of America's justice and interior ministers in Turkey, if there are any."

The Order of Saint Andrew, which is based in the U.S, said in its statement that the Greek Orthodox and Armenian communities in Turkey are "well aware" of the main religious concerns for minority believers in the country.

Limberakis accused the government of continuing to interfere with the Ecumenical Patriarchate's activities in the country.

He argued that Erdogan is "acting as a dictator, going to religious minorities asking them to sign a paper that belies reality when they are in no position to refuse, for fear that their situation will deteriorate even more."

Limberakis also pointed out that Turkey continues to imprison large numbers of journalists.

"Accordingly, we hope that this egregious statement, clearly obtained under duress, will inspire journalists worldwide to investigate and shed light upon the plight of the Ecumenical Patriarchate and of all Christians and other religious minorities in Turkey," he wrote.

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