ISTANBUL (Compass Direct News) – In response to a Swiss vote banning the construction of new mosque minarets, a group of Muslims this month went into a church building in eastern Turkey and threatened to kill a priest unless he tore down its bell tower, according to an advocacy group.
Three Muslims on Dec. 4 entered the Meryem Ana Church, a Syriac Orthodox church in Diyarbakir, and confronted the Rev. Yusuf Akbulut. They told him that unless the bell tower was destroyed in one week, they would kill him.
"If Switzerland is demolishing our minarets, we will demolish your bell towers too," one of the men told Akbulut.
The threats came in reaction to a Nov. 29 referendum in Switzerland in which 57 percent voted in favor of banning the construction of new minarets in the country. Swiss lawmakers must now change the national constitution to reflect the referendum, a process that should take more than a year.
The Swiss ban, widely viewed around the world as a breach of religious freedom, is likely to face legal challenges in Switzerland and in the European Court of Human Rights.
There are roughly 150 mosques in Switzerland, four with minarets. Two more minarets are planned. The call to prayer traditional in Muslim-majority countries is not conducted from any of the minarets.
Fikri Aygur, vice president of the European Syriac Union, said that Akbulut has contacted police but has otherwise remained defiant in the face of the threats.
"He has contacted the police, and they gave him guards," he said. "I talked with him two days ago, and he said, 'It is my job to protect the church, so I will stand here and leave it in God's hands.'"
Meryem Ana is more than 250 years old and is one of a handful of churches that serve the Syriac community in Turkey. Also known as Syrian Orthodox, the Syriacs are an ethnic and religious minority in Turkey and were one of the first groups of people to accept Christianity. They speak Syriac, a dialect of Aramaic, a language spoken by Christ. Diyarbakir is located in eastern Turkey, about 60 miles from the Syrian border.
At press time the tower was standing and the priest was safe, said Jerry Mattix, youth pastor at the Diyarbakir Evangelical Church, which is located across a street from Meryem Ana Church.
Mattix said that threats against Christians in Diyarbakir are nothing out of the ordinary. Mattix commonly receives threats, both in the mail and posted on the church's Internet site, he said.
"We're kind of used to that," Mattix said. He added that he has received no threats over the minaret situation but added, "I wouldn't be surprised if we do."
Mattix said the people making threats in the area are Muslim radicals with ties to Hezbollah "who like to flex their muscles."
"We are a major target out here, and we are aware of that," Mattix said. "But the local police are taking great strides to protect us."
Mattix said he also has "divine confidence" in God's protection.
The European Syriac Union's Aygur said that Christians in Turkey often serve as scapegoats for inflamed local Muslims who want to lash out at Europeans.
"When they [Europeans] take actions against the Muslims, the Syriacs get persecuted by the fanatical Muslims there," he said.
The threats against the church were part of a public outcry in Turkey that included newspaper editorials characterizing the Swiss decision as "Islamophobia." One Turkish government official called upon Muslims to divest their money from Swiss bank accounts. He invited them to place their money in the Turkish banking system.
In part, the threats also may reflect a larger and well-established pattern of anti-Christian attitudes in Turkey. A recent study conducted by two professors at Sabanci University found that 59 percent of those surveyed said non-Muslims either "should not" or "absolutely should not" be allowed to hold open meetings where they can discuss their ideas.
The survey also found that almost 40 percent of the population of Turkey said they had "very negative" or "negative" views of Christians. In Turkey, Christians are often seen as agents of outside forces bent on dividing the country.
This is not the first time Akbulut has faced persecution. Along with a constant string of threats and harassment, he was tried and acquitted in 2000 for saying to the press that Syriacs were "massacred" along with Armenians in 1915 killings.
In December 2008 in Midyat, also in eastern Turkey, someone dug a tunnel under the outlying buildings of a Syriac church in hopes of undermining the support of the structure.
At the Mor Gabriel Monastery, also near Midyat, there is a legal battle over the lands surrounding the monastery. Founded in 397 A.D., Mor Gabriel is arguably the oldest monastery in use today. It is believed local Muslim leaders took the monastery to court in an attempt to seize lands from the church. The monastery has prevailed in all but one case, which is still underway.
"These and similar problems that are threatening the very existence of the remaining Syriacs in Turkey have reached a very serious and worrying level," Aygur stated in a press release. "Especially, whenever there is a problem about Islam in the European countries, the Syriacs' existence in Turkey is threatened with such pressures and aggressions."