Turks squeeze Christ Church Istanbul

Speculation Welby’s Ankara visit has thrust Anglican chaplaincy into the war between Erdoğan and the West

The Diocese of Gibraltar in Europe has denied claims the Turkish government of President Recep Erdoğan is engaged in a campaign of harassment and intimidation against Christ Church, Istanbul. The closure of the 500-year old chaplaincy’s bank accounts was temporary and not linked to the visit to Turkey by the Archbishop of Canterbury or to the wider political situation.

However, sources in Turkey report the private visit earlier this month by the Most Rev Justin Welby with the Turkish President in Ankara has led to heightening tensions, with the chaplaincy now hostage to the political battles between President Erdoğan and the West.

A spokesman for the Rt. Rev. Robert Innes told Anglican Ink the problem the church had with the state was bureaucratic not political. “One of the bank accounts belonging to Christ Church was temporarily suspended pending receipt of various official documents. All the documents have now been supplied and that the bank account in question is now re-opened. The life of Christ Church is unaffected, and as you can see from The Bishop’s Blog,  thriving.”

However, the harassment of Christ Church comes amidst rising political tensions in Turkey and the Levant, with the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) of President Erdoğan intensifying pressure against native Christians, jailing political opponents, and threatening its neighbors with military force.

On 15 March 2018  prosecutors demanded a life sentence for American Presbyterian missionary, the Rev. Andrew Brunson, pastor for the past 20 years of the Evangelical Church of the Resurrection in Izmir (Smirne Diriliş Kilisesi). Mr Brunson and his wife were summoned to the Turkish immigration office in Izmir in October 2016 and informed that they were being expelled from the country for allegedly receiving funds from abroad to support their work, arguing their ministry was a threat to state security.

Mr. Brunson was subsequently arrested and his wife expelled. The state-controlled press reported the government had accused the pastor of belonging to a terrorist organization — FETO, an imagined political organization led by Turkish preacher Fethullah Gülen who has lived in the United States since 1999. Once an ally of President Erdoğan, tens of thousands of followers and suspected members of the conservative religious movement have been jailed by the government for treason.

US Embassy officials have demanded the release of Mr. Brunson, and during their May 2017 meeting at the White House, President Donald Trump requested President Erdoğan order the pastor’s release. The Turkish government responded by accusing Mr. Brunson of further crimes and transferred him to the high security prison where the ring leaders of the 2016 failed coup attempt are jailed.  The Takvim, a pro-government newspaper run by the president’s son in law, claimed Mr. Brunson was the mastermind behind the failed coup and would have become the CIA director for President Obama had he succeeded in overthrowing the Erdoğan government.

“Ankara sees #AndrewBrunson as a hostage that they can use as leverage in their relations with the United States,” Dr. Aykan Erdemir, a former member of the Turkish Parliament and senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies tweeted on 15 March 2018.

Tensions between Turkey and its neighbors have risen over the past year. The Turkish army is currently engaged in ground operations in Syria, and last year the Turkish air force shot down a Russian fighter that it claimed had strayed into Turkish airspace. Two Greek soldiers who strayed last month into Turkish territory were arrested and have not been returned to Athens. The Turkish government said they would release the soldiers if Greece extradited to Ankara 8 Turkish army officers who had fled to Greece seeking asylum after the failed coup. Greece’s Supreme Court refused to allow their extradition saying the men could not receive a fair trial in Turkey.

Nationalist fervor is rising across the Turkish political spectrum. The leader of the Turkish opposition Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu declared in February that if his party wins the country’s parliamentary elections next year, his government would abrogate the 1923 peace treaty with Greece and “invade and take over 18 Greek islands in the Aegean Sea, just as former Turkish PM Bulent Ecevit invaded Cyprus in 1974”.

On 15 February 2018, the Archbishop of Canterbury paid a call on President Erdoğan in Ankara — a visit that came as a surprise to Anglicans in Turkey.

A spokesman for Lambeth Palace declined to speak to the purpose or substance of the visit, or to respond to why the visit was kept secret from Anglican leaders in Turkey, stating it was their policy not to comment on private meetings. A photograph released by the Turkish government shows Archbishop Welby and the Bishop of Bradford, the Rt. Rev. Toby Howarth, meeting at the President Palace with the Turkish leader.

President Erdoğan presented the Archbishop with a book entitled New Turkey’s Vision: The world is bigger than five, and a copy of a letter that Sultan Murad III, of the Ottoman Empire wrote to Queen Elizabeth I.

The letter read: “As long as we act together against the enemies and abide by the agreement signed between the Ottoman Empire and the United Kingdom, British merchants will not be subject to any unfair treatment. . .”

The chaplain in Istanbul, the Rev. Canon Ian Sherwood told the Church Times: “We have no doubt that Archbishop Welby’s visit was well-intentioned, though seen as deplorable,” he said. “The Assistant Priest at St Nicholas, Ankara, the Revd Ebrahim Ahmadinia, added he was: “I was totally shocked and disappointed that the Archbishop had completely ignored the Church that he is appointed to as the head and leader.”

It is unclear why pressure from the Turkish government began to be exerted In the wake of Archbishop Welby’s visit to Ankara. Unlike the other Anglican churches in Turkey, Christ Church holds its bank accounts in its corporate name, not in the names of its treasurers acting on behalf of the church. Earlier this month congregation learned that its accounts had been frozen due to the enforcement due to anomalies in its status.

Canon Sherwood told Anglican Ink the crisis had been resolved after the chaplaincy was able to procure 36 government stamps on two official documents.

However, sources in Turkey who asked not to be named said they were discouraged by the “cowboy” approach taken by Archbishop Welby in dealing with the Turkish government. While they had no doubt Archbishop meant well in visiting President Erdoğan, the end result was that the police now had their eye on Anglicans. Should it suit the government’s political calculations, an Anglican could be arrested on trumped up conspiracy charges and used as a political bargaining chip with Britain.

The Sultan’s note presented to Archbishop Welby, a former expat resident in Turkey explained, demonstrated how President Erdoğan’s mind worked. If Britain backed Erdoğan and acted in concert against his enemies (Fethullah Gülen, the Greeks or Kurds) Erdoğan would leave British expats alone. The consequences of not supporting him need not be spelled out, he noted.

The Lambeth Palace press office declined to comment on the allegations raised in this article.
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