Turkish Court Opens New Case Against Pastor

A criminal court in southeast Turkey has for the second time pressed charges against a Turkish Protestant pastor in Diyarbakir, this time accusing him of “opening an illegal church.”

Pastor Ahmet Guvener of the Diyarbakir Evangelical Church has been ordered to stand trial for an alleged violation of Turkish penal code 261/1, under which he could be jailed for up to two years if convicted. His first hearing before the Diyarbakir Criminal Court is set for May 12.

In charges dated February 9 and signed by state prosecutor Mehmet Isbitiren, Guvener was accused in file case 2004/1029 of “using a building registered as a home to open a Protestant church and conducting religious worship together with music for the people attending.”

In a separate official notice dated February 10 from the Security Directorate of the Diyarbakir Governate, Guvener was informed that he was “guilty” under the revised July 19, 2003, law regarding the establishment of new places of religious worship.

Last summer’s revision of Law No. 4928 replaces the term “mosque” with “place of worship” and requires permission from the civil administrator as well as conformity to zoning statutes. Even more problematic, the civil administrator must agree that there is “a need encountered in the municipality and region” for such a new place of worship.

Guvener had been served notice last October by the local Council for the Protection of Cultural and Natural Structures that the use of his building for public worship was illegal, since it was zoned as a private home.

Accordingly, Guvener filed a formal application on November 13 to the local municipality, requesting that the building be granted official zoning status as a church. Five weeks later, he submitted all the required documents verifying the revised structural changes, which the municipality then forwarded to the local council. To date, there has been no response from the local council to his application.

Turkish construction laws do not require the purpose of a building to be declared initially. Nevertheless, the first architectural blueprints submitted clearly indicated that the structure was to include pews, a pulpit and even a baptistry in the sanctuary on the second floor of the three-story building.

Although municipality authorities have registered no objection to the new church, the local council, reporting through the Diyarbakir governor’s office to the Ministry of Culture, has repeatedly blocked all efforts to establish its legal status.

The original blueprints were approved by both the city and the Ministry of Culture in February 2001, but nine months later, when the exterior construction was almost complete, the protection council issued a stop order and sealed the site.

Only 10 months later, after Guvener was acquitted of charges of making “illegal structural alterations” in the building, was a revised blueprint approved and the building’s interior finished.

The church has functioned openly as a center for Christian worship and fellowship in the city’s traditionally Christian neighborhood of Lalebey since April 6 of last year. The congregation, which now numbers from 50 to 60 at Sunday worship services, formerly met in Guvener’s home.

“Of course, the real purpose of this court case is to shut down our church,” Guvener told Compass. “This does not only involve the future of our church,” he said, stating that the decision to be handed down will set a precedent for all other “existing and newly opened” Protestant churches in Turkey.

According to a report on Turkey issued by the European Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Commission on March 17, Turkey’s current secularist policies restrict freedom of religion and conscience. Noting the need for radical reform of the Turkish Constitution, the report called on the government to “immediately end all kinds of discrimination applied to religious minorities in Turkey."