CWN.org - In the city of Samsun on the north coast of Turkey, the beleaguered congregation of the Agape Church Association struggles against local Islamic hostility toward its presence.
In the last three years Agape church members have endured false allegations and verbal abuse from Muslim and nationalist locals. Their pastor has received death threats, and their building has been vandalized, all in an attempt to stop the 30 or so Christians from meeting.
Local authorities have also had their part in opposition to the church, threatening it with legal action based on spurious charges. Despite being an "association," an official status that provides some legal protections and that the government encourages Christian congregations to obtain, the church was threatened with a lawsuit because members had hung verses of Scripture and a cross on the walls. The Provincial Directorate of Associations inspected the building and told them to remove the offending articles because their rented rooms looked too much like a church.
"We didn't change the decorations, because having a cross or verses in a building is not a crime," said Orhan Picaklar, pastor of the church. "If it were, then Muslim associations would have to take down their decorations: verses from the Quran, prayers of blessings and images of the Kaaba in Mecca. We didn't change a thing."
It was this sort of harassment that led the Alliance of Protestant Churches of Turkey to write its latest report, published last month. TEK, established in 1989, represents 34 churches throughout Turkey and acts as a support and advocacy group.
The report focuses on the unfounded obstacles and challenges facing Christian congregations wishing to construct or reclassify church buildings. Authors of the report told Compass that congregations in principle should not have to meet under the pretext of an association, since the law in theory provides for the establishment of "places of worship." They said the push on the side of authorities to form associations is in essence discriminatory.
"A place of worship for religious groups is crucially important; they need places of worship in order to survive and develop," said a member of the TEK's legal committee. "The process of becoming a place of worship, although legally possible, is in practice almost impossible. Because of that, we feel the need to put this issue on the agenda. We wanted to bring this issue to the attention of local and international bodies."
In 2003 Public Works Statute 3194, which regulates the construction of religious buildings, was amended in response to pressure from the European Union. The revised regulation now uses the phrase "places of worship" rather than "mosques." This has prompted Christians to apply for legal status changes for the "offices," "residences" and "warehouses" in which they had been meeting.
This change in the law paved the way for Christian meeting places to be "rezoned" and legally registered as churches; applications for status change thus far, however, have been rejected by local municipalities on various grounds.
The Besiktas Protestant Church is awaiting a decision on its application to have its premises rezoned. No church has ever succeeded in such a quest.
"All the documents have been there for the last two years; it's just been kept from coming," said a member of the Besiktas church. "They don't want to make a decision. That a group can take a non-church building and get it rezoned is not a precedent that they really want to see."
Another step towards obtaining credence came from a change of law in 2005 that removed previous restrictions on forming associations. At least nine churches have submitted applications to their local authorities to register as such.
"The government is recommending that - they want churches to become associations," said the Besiktas church member. "We may well do that."
Although this is a major step forward in Turkish churches' struggle to gain legitimacy, registering as associations has not always kept them from harassment and maltreatment.
"Being organized as an association does not rezone your building," said the Besiktas church member. Only gaining legal status as a "place of worship" would make holding church services legal. "You're holding church services in a place that's set aside for that."
Along with the Besiktas church, the TEK report cites the cases of four other congregations that are facing closure based on charges of violating zoning laws. It is this sort of harassment that congregations hope to prevent by changing the classification of their buildings.
Four further congregations have had requests to build "places of worship" rejected; in each case, authorities told them that no suitable location was available.
The report outlines three main problems facing congregations wishing to build their own premises.
The first is the size requirement for any new building site. The allocation criteria stipulate that a plot cannot be fewer than 2,500 square meters, an excessive and overly expensive amount of land for a congregation of 30-40, the average Turkish Protestant congregation.
The Samsun church is a case in point. It has met in rented apartments since its inception and been forced to move on numerous occasions.
"The place we use now is a rental, and if the owner wants to kick us out, we'll be forced to change our church's location," said Picaklar. "The authorities stipulate that the land be 2,500 square meters. This is impossible for us, because to buy that big of a plot we would need 700,000 to 800,000 U.S. dollars."
The second issue the report cites is the vagueness of the permission criteria by which civil administration is to award or reject applications. The report suggests that "there is much room for arbitrary discretionary decisions."
Thirdly, the report berates the unfairness of application denials based on lack of resident Christian population in areas for proposed worship buildings.
The report points out that it is unlikely that the Turkish Protestant community, with a ratio of one member per 20,000 people, would ever have the requisite presence in a single locale to justify the construction of a church building.
The TEK report concludes with suggested solutions to the challenges that have dogged its member congregations. It first urges that the national government do a better job of educating and overseeing local authorities.
"The ministries of the Interior and of Justice should not only inform their local offices of the rights of non-Muslim groups but should also adequately train their civil servants and make every effort to prevent rights violations," the report states.
The report also urges that regulations governing plot and building size be relaxed.
"Communities should be given the chance to buy and build places of worship according to their own needs and resources," it states. "Christians should be allowed to have small places of worship just like the Muslim masjid." A masjid is a privately owned mosque.