By Tim Scheiderer
The agonizing hardships for Christians in Turkey have not abated in the twenty-first century. Beginning in the early twentieth century, Christian believers comprised 20% of the population. Now, they make up only .2% of the population. There are now less than 150,000 Christians in a land that played an integral part in the Church’s early history. Religious suppression by the government, gruesome physical violence, —in some instances, even murder—, and church building seizures plague Turkish Christians who remain.
Foreign believers, in Turkey, face the same challenges. Canadian-American David Byle has encountered recurring governmental obstacles. For 17 years, he and his wife have evangelized thousands of Turks. They volunteer with the Bible Correspondence Course where he is chairman of the leadership team. The organization distributes bibles and Christian educational materials. Initially, Mr. Byle began his missions work in Turkmenistan where he and his wife met. The government forced them out of the country, and they have been in Turkey since 1999. They have found many Turks to be inquisitive and amicable. He describes them as “very happy to talk about religion. … There is a nice, open feel and a lot of curiosity.”
Mr. Byle’s love for the Turkish people permeates his heart with unshakeable resolve as evidenced by his perseverance despite multiple efforts by the government to stop him. According to Morning Star News, since 2007, he has been detained four times by Turkish authorities. Two of the detentions were due to his evangelistic efforts. The first occurred on April 25, 2007. He was held for two days and released upon giving a “forced” statement that he would seek a permit for his outreach work. His second detention took place on November 18, 2009. Again, he was forced to give a statement. This time he was asked to recount his most recent evangelistic activities. He was told by the authorities, “It’s just a procedural thing we have to do.” He was released after he provided the statement.
The third detention happened on March 9, 2010 at 10:30pm at his home-- with his children sleeping! While in custody, the authorities notified Mr. Byle they had concerns about charges related to his two previous detentions. The issue came to their attention because Mr. Byle had applied for a residence permit renewal and this prompted a review of his file. Residence permits are valid for one to five years based upon factors weighed by the government pertaining to each applicant.
This precipitated a five-year battle with the Turkish authorities to regain the right to possess a residence permit. During this period, he was forced to jump through legal hoops in order to continue living in the country, including having to spend months separated from his family while waiting for family reunification visas to be issued. This type of visa is valid for 90 days, which required him to leave the country every three months and re-enter with a new visa. He regained his right to obtain a residence permit in January 2015.
Most recently, on April 6, 2016, the authorities, in Istanbul, not only rejected his residence permit extension application, but detained Mr. Byle immediately after he was notified about the rejected application. They held him for over a week with the intent to deport him because he was deemed a threat to the public. He was officially charged as being a “danger to public order” by the government.
In an interview with The St. Charles Institute, Mr. Byle explained the status of his residence as well as the challenges faced by Christians in Turkey.
David Byle: “My residence permit extension request was rejected in April , followed immediately by a deportation order. Since, I contested the deportation order by opening a court case, the government can't deport me until the court case is finished. And, now that so many judges have been removed in the wake of the failed coup attempt [July 2016], most court cases are delayed in Turkey.”
St. Charles Institute: So, you are not under threat of deportation?
Mr. Byle: “The police have assured me that until the court case is finished I can't be deported. … The government requested an administrative restraining order to keep me in the deportation center, but we opened a court case against that. [It] was decided in our favor within two days (back in April), which is why I was released after only spending 8 days in detention.”
SCI: Through this experience, what have you learned about what Turkish Christians face?
Mr. Byle: “Foreign and national Christians face different challenges. Many foreign believers who serve here are worried that they'll lose their residence permits or not have them renewed, causing them to be overly cautious and not use their constitutional rights to spread their faith.
“Turkish Christians usually get … stronger negative reactions, not just for their outreach activities, but just for becoming Christians. They are often worried … if persecution starts breaking out that all the foreign believers will flee the country, and they'll be left all alone, with no one to help them. Or they fear that with more and more ISIS fighters and similar-minded people roaming around Turkey these days that they'll become the target for attacks. And history has shown us how those in power in Muslim countries have often found the minority Christian community to be a convenient scapegoat to use in uniting their various factions when they feel threatened.”
SCI: What is the feeling of Turkish Christians since the coup attempt?
Mr. Byle: “Many are scared. I think all are apprehensive. I know a small number have started making plans to emigrate to other countries. There are some, however, who do see … similarities with places like Iran. Although, this may mean much more suffering in the upcoming years, they have resolved to stay true to Christ come what may, [so] that a similar massive growth of the church might happen here as well.”
SCI: You mentioned that Turkish Christians receive stronger negative reactions. What are the common forms of negative reaction they receive? Have these negative reactions become more frequent in recent months?
Mr. Byle: “Historically, Christians are seen as the enemy, and to be a Turk is to be a Muslim, and that is still very strong today; if a foreign Christian comes and does something, they say, ‘Oh yeah, that is a missionary.’ [Or], ‘You are working for a foreign government.’ If a Turk does [a] Christian activity, they are seen as a traitor to the country and working for the enemy. You get a more angry reaction to whatever you are doing.
“A lot of educated and pro-Western people in Turkey right now are not happy with the way [the] government is doing things. There is a very strong group, it is a minority I think, a group which is very much fed up with Islam and sick of it and [are] moving away from it. There are people, who are among that group, who are showing interest in the gospel and becoming Christians. Although, most are becoming agnostics or even atheists. Some of their parents … agree with them because they also hate Islam. It is a mix of reactions on that front.”
SCI: Are Turkish believers becoming bold despite the current environment?
Mr. Byle: “[There is a] lot of pressure from your family to recant your faith or one could, in a sense, lose your job or not get promoted. I would not say they are becoming more bold. I think many people are concerned because of the state of emergency and are circling the wagons [to] try and wait ‘til this thing passes.”
SCI: In regards to persecution “breaking out,” are there any signs that it is starting? Examples of it beginning? Are there other religious minorities that are worried?
Mr. Byle: “The government is looking for a scapegoat to resolve the tension in their society. And the ideal scapegoats, which they have used so often in history, are Christians and foreign powers. Most people in Turkey believe that Fethullah Gülen was the mastermind behind the attempted coup last summer, and since he lives in America, and since America has not handed him over to Turkey, many think that America is also to blame. Many Turkish church leaders believe, therefore, that the government is keeping Andrew Brunson in jail as a bargaining chip to force America to hand over Fethullah Gülen. He has been accused of being linked with Fethullah Gülen, which is false. Articles have appeared in the extreme right [Turkish] press that are trying to associate other Christian workers with that organization, since associating missionaries with the coup plotters would provide the scapegoat they’re looking for.”
SCI: How are Turkish Christians reacting to the current events: a new constitutional amendment package that would give President Erdogan more power; the imprisonment of Andrew Brunson; the nightclub attack targeting Christians? Are these types of events/incidents weighing on their minds?
Mr. Byle: “The Catholics and Orthodox are not as worried because the big pressure right now is against America. Protestants get linked with America and Turkey is really trying to improve relations with Russia. The Orthodox here get associated with the Greeks and Russia, which [is] not a problem right now. The new constitutional amendment is, of course, a big worry for a lot of people. The other minority which are feeling the attacks now are the Alevis, which are a Shiite minority in this country. They are very much threatened. Yes, I think all the terrorist attacks are on the minds of people here.
“There weren’t so many Christians [at the nightclub]. It was an attack on Christian culture. Many Muslims are furious that [other] Muslims celebrate New Year’s Eve. And a lot of Turkish Christians would say, ‘Hey, wait a second, that is not a Christian event.’ But most Turks confuse New Year’s Eve with Christmas. But the fact of the matter is, even though New Year’s Eve is not a Christian holiday, it is associated with a Christian date, based on the Christians’ dating system. [It is] based on when Jesus was born, not when Muhammad was born. I have heard that Muslims want to forget the Christian calendar and go with the Muslim calendar.”
SCI: What is something happening to Christians in Turkey that is not being reported in the news that you want America and the American Church to know about?
Mr. Byle: “They need to know the government is trying to get rid of American missionaries. They are really … targeting some of the most strategic and key leaders in the big cities here. Ryan [Keating] and Andrew [Brunson] were both very important leaders of the Protestant communities … in Ankara and Izmir [respectively]. And the government pushing them out has really disrupted ministry there. If these acts go uncontested, the authorities may be emboldened to deport many more Christian workers.”
SCI: Are Turkish Christians hoping for help from America or other nations to assist in making sure Turkey remains a free society where Christians can worship and live without fear?
Mr. Byle: “The church worldwide can help the [Turkish] church here by pressuring the Turkish government not [to] kick out Christian workers, and to allow people they have kicked out to return to their homes and continue living in Turkey.”