Necati Aydin, Tilman Geske and Ugur Yuksel, (L to R) who were martyred by Muslims in Turkey
April 18 has been designated by an alliance of Christian groups as International Pray for Turkey Day in remembrance of three Christian missionaries who had agreed to meet with a group of Muslims as part of their ministry there and were slaughtered for their willingness to discuss Christianity.
A Christian film company, the Alliance of Protestant Churches of Turkey, and a Christian human rights group chose that day because it’s the fourth anniversary of the murder of Turkish Christians Necati Aydin and Ugur Yuksel and German missionary Tilman Geske – apparently by five Muslim Turkish nationalists in Malatya.
Texas-born filmmaker Nolan Dean has captured their story in his recently released film “Malatya,” which he says came about through prayer and some happenstance conversations with a Turkish pastor.
“I had some friends from my church, and I was becoming very interested in ministry among Muslims, and one of the members had a relationship with a pastor in Turkey,” Dean related.
“I was already planning on going to Turkey for the summer, and the pastor in Turkey said I should come and make a documentary. There is nothing magical about it. I am a film student and this is what I should do. That’s how it started,” he said.
(Listen to Part One here)
But when Dean got into the work, the project sparked a wide range of emotions, he said.
“As we got into it and began researching [the murders] it became more and more clear that we should go and make a movie about it. It both excited us and broke our hearts at the same time,” said Dean.
Some analysts believe Christian persecution is on the rise in Turkey.
A report on Eurasianet.org shortly after the killings said the gang of five admitted that they “committed the crime in defense of Islam.”
A Turkey area specialist who asked not to be identified for security reasons says
the murders are part of a general trend towards more opposition to Christianity.
“From my understanding, the last seven years or so have been a period of higher than normal persecution,” the analyst observed.
“As you know there have been murders of Christian minorities before and after the Malatya slayings, and church leaders are under a lot of harassment that just comes and goes,” the analyst said.
He added that many churches in Turkey need security.
“Churches have plain clothes police guarding the churches on Sundays. Some church leaders are even under 24-hour police protection. Attacks in the media and disinformation about missionaries and Christians was rife before and after the Malatya incident,” the analyst explained.
Even though Turkey is governed by the pro-Islamic law Justice and Development Party, the move towards an Islamic state is not the motive behind the murders, some suggest.
WND reported in 2008 a surge in Turkish nationalism is one reason for increased anti-Christian feeling.
Dean agreed and said some of the motivation comes from Turkish culture, which teaches that missionaries are terrorists and Christians are CIA operatives.
“It’s a connection between Christianity and the West, and nobody represents the West like America. And nobody represents subversion of those kinds of cultures like the CIA does,” Dean asserted.
“Whenever they say Christians are agents trying to ‘break up the country,’ that is immediately connected to all sorts of pop references that first come to mind. If they’re fans of most of our TV and movies over the past 50 years, they’re going to think of the CIA,” he said.
(Listen to Part Two here)
The area specialist said known terror groups weren’t hands-on for the Malatya deaths.
“I don’t believe there was any mark of these international terrorist organizations. Most of what I’ve heard is that the people responsible for the Malatya killings would more be akin to extreme nationalists for whom missions activity is seen as an affront against the state and the people,” the area specialist said.
Since the inception of Turkey as a secular state following the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire in 1923, Turkey has looked to the West for economic ties. The Turkey area specialist says the tension between the recent policy shifts toward the Muslim world and Turkey’s secularism is seen in the religious climate.
The specialist said that in some ways, Turkey is religiously like the United States.
“The spiritual climate that I observe in Turkey could easily be compared to the United States. In Minnesota, where I grew up, most people, when asked their religion, would say they are ‘Christians,’ but in truth, it’s a much smaller percentage of people who are devoutly learning and attempting to follow the teachings of the Bible,” the area specialist explained
“Most people on the street who you meet would have a very inaccurate understanding of what the Bible teaches and what it means to live a Christian life. There’s also a large cultural divide between those who take their faith seriously and those who do not, as the religious communities seem to form a sub-culture that you’re either a part of or you’re not a part of,” the specialist said.
The specialist said Turkish religious devotion ranges between the apathetic and the passionate.
“I would say that the Turkey of my experience is very similar. Basically everyone will say that they are Muslims, but their beliefs about ‘what does it mean to be a Muslim’ vary from person to person, and very few people are getting that understanding based on careful study of the Quran, but rather based on the way they were raised,” said the area specialist.
“My classic example of this is that most people I know who drink alcohol regularly would tell me that it’s a sin to eat pork and they’d never do it. But if I ask about their consumption of alcohol, they’d say ‘it doesn’t really teach that in the Quran,'” the analyst continued.
“Most of the people who I have the privilege of getting to know are the people who we could call ‘secular Turks’. They say that they’re Muslims, but they’re deeply suspicious of anything religious. They have a very materialistic view of the world and I think they’re just as lost as an extreme Muslim,” the specialist stated.
“They live their lives without God, but retain Islam as part of their cultural identity. Then, there is this portion of the population that takes their religion more seriously. As a foreigner, I don’t get a chance to know people who are more religious, but I’m not exactly sure why,” the specialist added.
The Pray for Turkey effort has posted a website that includes a “downloads” page where site visitors can download the video that invites everyone to join the International Pray for Turkey Day on April 18, the fourth anniversary of the murders of Necati Aydin, Tilmann Geske and Ugur Yuksel.
When the publishing house attack became known, the response of Geske’s widow, Susanne, hit the front pages of the nation’s largest newspapers.
“Oh God, forgive them for they know not what they do,” she said, echoing the words of Christ on the cross in Luke 23.34. The video recounts that after the attack on the three men, she was contacted by news media in Turkey for an interview.
She explains on the video she had no idea what to say until someone told her it would be an opportunity for a Christian testimony.
She agreed, and her subsequent statements were reported in detail across front pages of newspapers nationwide.
Christians, who make up less than 1 percent of the population in Turkey, have been subjected to other attacks in recent years, too. In 2006, a Turkish teen shot to death a Roman Catholic priest who was praying in his church. Two other priests were attacked the same year. Early in 2007 came the death of Armenian Christian editor Hrant Dink.