Turkey’s Christian community in the Hatay province has been subject to increased targeting in the aftermath of the devastating earthquakes of 6 February, Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) MP Meral Danış Beştaş said in a speech at the Turkish parliament on Wednesday.
“There have been many publications circulating on the media in recent days targeting Christian citizens in Hatay,” Beştaş said. “Considering the gangs of Al Qaeda and Free Syrian Army, the targeting (of Christians) carries serious risk.”
A video shared widely on Turkish social media showed several Islamic preachers complaining that Christians were “showing great humility and softness to people to entice them”.
One of the preachers cited the church’s soup kitchen and morning mass among suspicious activities that require vigilance. “Our preachers should not leave this place unattended,” another said.
The church has “specially trained personnel acting very softly”, and they clean the square outside the church as well as offer comfort and food to passersby, according to the preachers who warned members of their congregations against what they called a danger. One preacher cited the church’s morning mass as part of the risk.
The preachers, posting from an account related to the Bursa Uludağ Culture Education and Aid Association (BUKED) under the influential İsmailağa order, did not name the church, however, the scenery in the video resembles the St Elias Greek Orthodox Church in Hatay’s Samandağ district, which has turned its premises into a soup kitchen and shelter for those who lost their homes in the disaster. The area is also home to Turkey’s Christian Arab community.
Priest Abdullah Yumurta runs the soup kitchen that serves up to 2,500 people every day, and also oversees distribution of donations coming in from other churches, he told news website Siyasi Haber.
“We do not discriminate among Christians, Muslims, Alevis, Sunnis, Armenians,” Yumurta said. “We are just trying to tend to the people’s wounds a bit.”
BUKED regularly holds Islamic education activities for children, and hosts leading members of the İsmailağa order, which is closely associated with Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), and one of the foundations it is associated with has been under public scrutiny with a recent scandal of sexual abuse of young boys.
Turkey is home to some of the world’s oldest churches and most important Christian monuments, but its Christian minority continues to grow ever smaller as ordinary Christians and clergymen are targeted with accusations of “missionary work”, which have resulted in threats and actual incidents of violence over the years. Far-right groups regularly target churches in the country, and the 2006 murder of priest Andrea Santoro was among the higher-profile incidents in recent history to draw attention to religiously-motivated hate crimes.