Attacks on Christian cemeteries in Turkey have deeply shaken the embattled community in recent months. Independent Turkish news outlets report a growing trend of attacks on Christian cemeteries, International Christian Concern reports.
Last month, twenty of 72 gravestones in the Ortaköy Christian Cemetery in Ankara were destroyed. Six people who carried out the attacks were briefly detained and then released.
“These attacks against cemeteries are making the Christian community across Turkey feel incredibly sad and desperate,” Ankara-based pastor İhsan Özbek told Ahval. “Nobody can watch over the graves of their loved ones like a guard.”
Another incident occurred in Trabzon, where a grave was destroyed in the cemetery of the Santa Maria Catholic Church.
Zehra Çolak lost her life on Jan. 17 and was buried the next day in the cemetery of the Aya Filbo (Arafilboyu) neighbourhood, 500 m from the church. A wooden cross was temporarily placed at the head of the grave. According to those who attended the funeral, a small group tried to disrupt the ceremony, shouting Allahu Akbar (Allah is the greatest).
Veysel Çolak visited his wife’s grave on Feb. 14 and said the wooden cross was broken and had been burned near the grave. Çolak reported the incident to the police and said that even while his wife’s grave was being dug, a man who covered his face tried to steal the cross. When children playing in the cemetery reacted angrily, the man got his dog to attack the children.
Trabzon police said they would launch an investigation into the incident and the provincial governor’s office said the burnt cross would be replaced with a new one. The governor’s office could not bring itself to refer to the cross as such and called it a “grave marker”, according to Hristiyan Haber.
In both cases, the perpetrators of the crimes were not held accountable for their actions. Others warn that these kinds of incidents have occurred because of an “environment of hate” towards Christians that has spread throughout Turkey.
“The environment of hate in Turkey is the reason for these attacks,” journalist Seyfi Genç, who reported on the attack on Çolak’s grave for Hristiyan Haber, told Ahval.
“But this hateful environment did not emerge out of nowhere. The seeds of this hatred are spread, beginning at primary schools, through books printed by the Ministry of National Education portraying Christians as enemies and traitors. The indoctrination continues through newspapers and television channels in line with state policies. And of course, the sermons at mosques and talk at coffee houses further stir up this hatred.
“And even more disturbing is the fact that the perpetrators are either not caught, or not brought to account even when they are caught,” said Genç.
Trabzon’s Santa Maria Catholic Church was where a Roman Catholic priest, Andrea Santoro, was murdered in 2006 by Oğuzhan Akdin, who was 16 at the time. Ten years later, the killer was released on probation. Akdin said he was treated “like a king” while in the prison. Genç said education was needed to help reduce attacks and hate speech targeting Christians in Turkey.
The government has grown the role of Islamism in policy decisions, and often frames Christians as the country’s enemy. This narrative is repeated across the media and throughout the education sector. It is normal for there to be a few reported incidents of Christian graves being desecrated each year in Turkey, but to have so many within a 4-week period is noteworthy.
Many Christians in Turkey have warned that they are noticing an increase of hostilities toward them. While it has not reached a level of widespread violence against the living, these incidents against Christian graves foreshadow a warning of a possibly difficult future.
Physical and verbal attacks against Christians and the cross throughout Turkey are not isolated incidents. In September last year, in the town of Akçaabat in Trabzon province, the facade of several houses that had been built for tourists were demolished as a result of complaints claiming the buildings resembled crosses.
In July, two people broke a crucifix necklace that was being worn by a young Christian in the western town of Gebze. After swearing and hitting the young man, the perpetrators ran away, according to the Sat-7 Turk news outlet.
“There is deep-rooted hatred in Turkish society against Christians,” said Özbek, himself a Christian convert from Islam. “Christians are seen as foreigners and enemies. Those who attack Christian graves are not very educated or, as in the case of Ankara, they are very young. But hatred against Christians is extremely prevalent in all levels of society. The people of Turkey should be reintroduced to the concepts of empathy and love for humanity.”