Kidnappers posing

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    Kidnappers posing as police officers threaten to kill pastor.

    July 19 (Compass Direct News) – Nationalists in Turkey’s northern city of Samsun have stepped up a two-year campaign against a Protestant church, denouncing in the media the legally registered congregation’s right to exist.

    Izzet Altunbas, chairman of the Samsun Association of Balkan Turks and a prominent member of the local Nationalist Movement Party, publicly attacked the Agape Protestant Church in vicious terms in mid-June.

    In speeches broadcast over three local TV channels on June 16, Altunbas declared that establishment of the church, officially registered as the Agape Church Association, revealed “extensive damage” to the nation in that it reflected efforts to conform to the laws of the European Union (EU).

    The nationalist leader blamed Turkey’s compliance with EU legal norms for strengthening a dangerous “assimilation” drive by “Christian Europe” against both Turkish ethnicity and Islam.

    Altunbas’ accusations, aired on Klas TV, Alfa TV and Kanal S, were published in local dailies the following day.

    “I find this association and its secret activities a huge danger for Samsun and for Islam,” Altunbas was quoted as saying by Halk newspaper. “This is treason against our Muslim and Turkish identity,” he told the daily Haber.

    Influencing a Volatile Public

    In his broadcast accusations, Altunbas read large sections from the church’s association charter, which had been filed with the Turkish Directorate of Associations as part of its legal registration process finalized last November.

    Pastor Orhan Picaklar
    Pastor Orhan Picaklar, 35, said he was shocked when he saw Altunbas reading from the church’s charter, wondering how he could have possibly obtained a copy.

    “The documents in this man’s hands were submitted only to the Directorate of Associations – to the government!” Pastor Picaklar told Compass. “How could the government have given him these documents?”

    Altunbas complained that none of the 16 Turkish citizens named as founders of the association were originally from Samsun but had been born in other cities across Turkey. “How is it possible to start and maintain a church in a place where there are no Christians living?” he questioned.

    Last week, the head of the European Commission Delegation to Turkey openly warned the government not to strengthen nationalist, anti-EU circles within the country that appeared to be heavily influencing public opinion.

    “The government must overcome nationalist propaganda for a better future for its citizens,” Hansjoerg Kretschmer told reporters on July 12. Noting that public opinion was volatile, Kretschmer said it could be changed through “positive and realistic reporting” in the media.

    At the close of his TV appearances, Altunbas had demanded that the security police as well as civilians keep the church under strict watch. In doing so, Pastor Picaklar said, “He has displayed us as a target.”

    ‘Luring’ Converts

    “This is not a church,” Altunbas told Haber newspaper back on November 2, 2004.

    “This is a center for displaying missionary activities,” he said, claiming it was an attempt “to divide our people and our government … The passion, sex and prostitution going on at Agape House is being linked with money to deceive our youth to change their religion.”

    Pastor Picaklar’s congregation began meeting in September 2003 in a building purchased in Samsun’s Atakum district by a Korean Christian. Despite the vow of district mayor Adem Bektas a year later that he would “never allow” a church to open there, Turkey revised its laws governing associations the following year, enabling the congregation to register officially as the Agape Church Association on November 28, 2005.

    Pastor Picaklar said he has received threatening e-mail messages and telephone calls on almost a daily basis ever since. “These messages are full of threats and profanity,” he said. Some cursed his sermons, others demanded that the church’s building and website be closed down.

    Altunbas’ attack followed a sharp broadside on March 16 from Ekip newspaper columnist Lutfi Keskin, who called the Agape Church’s ideology “perverted and depraved.”

    “Despite spending money and using immoral methods,” Keskin wrote, the church had not yet been successful in its missionary activities. “Apparently they benefited from a legal vacuum, using the Association Laws to start an association, to promote illegal missionary activities under this association cover-up.”

    Writing on the same topic in November 2004, Keskin had declared visitors at the church were being handed $100 bills. “Under the name of religious proselytizing, they are enacting every kind of destructive and divisive activity in Samsun, including spying.”

    Pastor Kidnapped

    In an attempt to intimidate Pastor Picaklar, two unidentified men posing as policemen rang his doorbell at 2 a.m. on April 3, demanding that he come with them to answer a complaint registered against him.

    “I thought to myself, ‘Oh, maybe someone has thrown stones at the church again, and my telephone is out of order so the police came to inform me,’” Pastor Picaklar said. “I’d been fast asleep, so I didn’t think to ask them to show me their police IDs.”

    Only after the men hustled him out of his apartment building into a minibus with blackened windows and started to drive across town did the pastor realize he had been kidnapped. When he tried to ask where they were taking him, the men began to curse and verbally abuse him. “Be quiet, you filthy scum!” one said.

    Finally escorting him from the minibus into a building’s second-floor apartment, the men began to rail against him, declaring him a traitor to Turkey. “You are a Turk! Stop this. The missionaries are deceiving you and others with money!”

    When he tried to explain that was not true, they shouted curses and threats at him for some 20 minutes, he said.

    “They said that I had spoken against Muhammad in my last sermon, and that they had listened to it themselves,” Pastor Picaklar said.

    “If, after this, you do Christian propaganda again, we will kill you,” they warned. Then they stuffed him back into the minibus and dropped him on the street about a mile from his home. The pastor was unable to see their license plate, nor could he tell in the darkness which of the city’s districts or buildings he had been taken to.

    “I gave a statement to the police as soon as it got light that morning,” said Pastor Picaklar, who was unable to identify his captors or give authorities any solid proof of the incident.

    Police Harass Congregation’s Relatives

    In May of last year, in Gaziantep, in southeastern Turkey, plainclothes policemen visited and interrogated Pastor Picaklar’s relatives about his religious beliefs.

    “They were pressing my mother, my sister and others, asking if they knew that I had become a Christian and was doing Christian propaganda,” said the pastor, a former Muslim who became a Christian 11 years ago. When he telephoned one of the policemen demanding a legal explanation for this investigation, the officer apologized and promised not to bother his family any more.

    But in January 2006, police apparently investigating everyone listed as a founding member of the Agape Church Association also visited the village of Pastor Picaklar’s wife near Gaziantep. Unable to locate her parents, who no longer lived in the village, the police tracked down her uncle, informing him that she had become a member of an Armenian organization. In a Turkish ultranationalist context, an Armenian label would imply an ethnic Christian group with political objectives.

    The Protestant congregation was further unnerved earlier this month by a knifing attack against elderly Father Pierre Brunissen, a French priest at Samsun’s Mater Dolorosa Church. Claims by the Catholic cleric’s attacker that the priest was trying to entice him and other Muslim Turks to convert to Christianity became headlines in the Turkish media after the July 2 stabbing.

    “The Lord has told us to be ready for all this kind of opposition,” Pastor Picaklar said, “so we will continue on.”

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    'Çünkü ben Müjde'den utanmıyorum. Müjde, önce Yahudilerin, sonra da Yahudi olmayanların olmak üzere, iman eden herkesin kurtuluşu için Tanrı'nın gücüdür.' (İNCİl – Romalılalar 1:16).

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