Tuesday, October 13, 2015

What's Happening in Turkey?

Ryan Keating
October 12, 2015

On Saturday, October 10th, two explosions at a demonstration at Ankara's main train station killed more than 100 people. The blast was the latest and most severe in a series of events that have highlighted growing political and ethnic tensions in Turkey. One way to understand the current situation is to see it in terms of three interwoven streams: internal political tensions, ethnic tensions between Turks and Kurds, and the growing influence of ISIS along with the accompanying refugee crisis. While the three issues are inter-related it is possible to describe them individually which can help to show how they are contributing together to the current climate in Turkey. 

1) Internal Political Tensions
The most recent national election in June 2015 brought a significant new development to the Turkish political scene. For the first time in the history of the Turkish republic, a predominantly Kurdish party was able to gain representation in parliament by crossing the 10% threshold required by Turkish law. The HDP, led by Selahattin Demirtas received more than 13% of the national vote, winning 80 of Turkey's 550 parliamentary seats.
In the months leading up to that election, Turkey's ruling AKP was campaigning to win a "super-majority" of 400 seats that would enable them to have enough votes to change the constitution. The proposed changes would dissolve the current two-tier system of president and prime minister, making the president the sole executive power. The current president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was only recently himself the prime minister and has been the architect of the political success that his "moderate Islamist" AKP has enjoyed since splitting from its more religiously conservative counterpart in 2002. Turkey's voters have been polarized between the pro-Islamist voters and the anti-Islamist voters. But the anti-Islamist factions have been divided between nationalist, secularist, and socialist platforms and have been unable to stem the growing influence of the AKP. 

The HDP recognized a strategic opening in the electoral block by campaigning not only on a platform of pro-Kurdish positions, but also championing a number of liberal causes such as freedom of speech and religion, and increased protections for gays and transgendered people. A significant segment of secularist and leftist voters also found the HDP to be a beacon of integrity in a system which has become flooded with cynicism over corruption. By lending their votes to the HDP and pushing that party over the 10% threshold, voters also ensured that the AKP would have a much harder time acquiring the super-majority they sought. That strategy was successful and the HDP won as many seats as Turkey's mainstream nationalist party, the MHP.

As a result, the AKP won only 258 seats, just shy of the 267 needed to form a government on its own. Ahmet Davutoglu, the AKP prime minister made an attempt to form a coalition government, but was unable to come to agreeable terms with the other parties. President Erdogan then exercised his right to call for an early election which will be held on November 1st. 

In the meantime there has been a wide range of reactions to the success of the HDP. Many of Turkey's pro-military secularists and nationalists were appalled that a party with seemingly close ties with extremist Kurdish separatist groups like the PKK would now have representation in the government. The HDP has consistently denied any association with the PKK and has been an outspoken advocate of peace between Turks and Kurds. Many Kurdish and leftist voters, including an important segment of secularist voters, celebrated the election result and the consequent defeat of the AKP's grand strategy.

On November 1st a new national election will take place. That will signify the end of the shortest sitting parliament in Turkey's history. The key question in this election is whether increased tensions and violence between Turks and Kurds will make it more difficult for the HDP to again cross the 10% threshold and maintain representation in parliament. 

2) Ethnic Tensions
The success of the HDP brought new attention to the spectrum of political aspirations of Kurdish groups around the country. And the situation was further complicated by the Kurdish groups that have been gaining influence, in part because of their role in combatting ISIS, just across the border in Syria and Iraq. In July, a suicide bombing in Suruc near the Syrian border killed 33 people at a pro-Kurdish demonstration, which in turn seemed to incite calls for retaliation among Kurdish extremis groups. A few weeks later the PKK were credited with the bombing of a police vehicle in the city of Van and a few weeks after that the police took control of the city of Cizre after the PKK again apparently attacked Turkish soldiers there. In response to these events "anti-terrorism" demonstrations took place around the country as people in the major cities sought to express their frustration at the growing unrest. Crowds gathered in Ankara and Istanbul, among other cities, mourning the deaths taking place, especially of Turkish soldiers.

Some in Turkey were already looking for connections between the success of the HDP and Kurdish separatist groups like the PKK who have a long history of violence against Turkish police and military personnel. From the other side, however, HDP supporters point out that increased tension between Turks and Kurds benefits the AKP government by making it harder for secularist voters to support a Kurdish party and accuse the government of scaring the country into a return to the AKP status quo. 

3) ISIS and the Refugee Crisis
Just three days after the bombing in Suruc, Turkey allowed the U.S. to start using its bases and airspace to conduct an offensive against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. With the bombings in Suruc and Van, there was now increasing pressure for Turkey to take an active role in combatting ISIS and in September Turkey started its own campaign of airstrikes. However, Turkey saw this as a battle on two fronts: with the increasingly influential Kurdish separatist groups, some of whom were organizing just over the border in Syria and Iraq, and with ISIS itself. Turkey's airstrikes seemed to focus on PKK and PYD (the Syrian counterpart to the Kurdish separatist organization) strongholds. This led to intense criticism of the military's strategy by many commentators and a significant portion of the population in Turkey. Protests emerged and instances of unrest and violence increased in the east of the country. The Turkish government defended the strategy, pointing out that the PKK is a terrorist group that is contributing to the instability of the region. And this represents a difference of opinion about the role of the Kurds in the fight against ISIS. 

The U.S. thinks of the Kurds as an important ally in the fight against ISIS and wants to include them in developing a long term strategy. The Kurds have been responsible for holding back ISIS forces in Syria and Iraq when no other organized forces seem capable or willing to risk the losses to engage in the battle on the ground. The U.S. has advocated a strategy that includes supporting armed Kurdish groups along the corridor between Turkey and Iraq and Syria. The Turkish government, on the other hand, has seen the Kurdish militias as a threat to stability in the region and in Turkey. They are willing to support the idea of a defended corridor along the border, but not if that corridor is occupied by Kurdish militias.

The growth of ISIS along with civil war in Syria have resulted in millions of people fleeing Iraq and Syria. Turkey now hosts at least 2 million refugees according to official statistics but the actual numbers may be even higher. This means that at least 3% of Turkey's population is now composed of refugees who have crossed into the country in the last two years. There has been a strain on infrastructure and resources around the country and the security risk is hard to calculate. Turkey's history of caution with the Kurds has resulted in a strategy that includes a network of refugee camps around the country. In June 2014 when ISIS had been slaughtering Kurds in the region around Mosul there were Kurdish families flooding into Turkish cities around the country, including into the capital, Ankara. A year later, while the presence of Arab refugees from Syria and Iraq is still acutely felt as families settle into neighborhoods and Arabic schools emerge, Kurdish refugees in Ankara are more scarce. The government has kept a policy of settling Kurdish refugees into closely guarded camps. 

The October 10th Bombing and the November 1st Election
No one has claimed credit for the bombing that killed more than 100 people at a demonstration in Ankara on October 10th. The AKP government has hinted that it might have been an ISIS attack or an extremist Kurdish group. And they have previously claimed that the current tensions would have been avoided if they had won the 400 parliamentary seats that they had been seeking. It seems politically convenient to blame ISIS, but it doesn't seem like there are very good reasons to believe that the Islamic State would bomb a demonstration in Ankara. ISIS has been known to focus on strategic targets, not symbolic ones. They want to expand their territory and defend its borders. It's hard to see what strategic value this crowd of demonstrators would have in their agenda. Also, ISIS doesn't shy away from taking credit for their actions, and they haven't done so in this case. It also seems unlikely that a Kurdish group would bomb a crowd that was convened largely by the HDP, a Kurdish party, and included many Kurds. It is not unfathomable that a Kurdish extremist group is angry that the HDP is advocating peace and that they hope to polarize the Kurds agains the Turkish government, but again, no group has taken credit. Demirtas, the leader of the HDP, has pointed out that the government benefits from the deaths at this rally and several others have also hinted that the government itself could be behind the bombing. That also requires a high level of conspiracy that seems unlikely on the surface. Another possibility, which is also only a speculation, is that a Turkish nationalist group was looking for an opportunity to further polarize Turks against Kurds and to create an atmosphere of fear in which it would be difficult to vote for a Kurdish party in November. 

A key political question, then, is whether the bombing has made it harder for the HDP to keep its seats in November. If the accusations and hints of their opponents manage to connect HDP's success with growing national instability, then it may be harder for secularist voters to continue to support the HDP. On the other hand, if those accusations galvanize a reaction against the political establishment, and if voters see some connection between this bombing and the potential political benefit to the ruling government, then the HDP could be even stronger as a protest vote emerges.

For an accompanying infographic describing this situation, click here:

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Two distinct views of secularism.

The way that Americans use the term secularism is typically very different from the way that Europeans or Turks use it.  

1. The American view of secularism is characterized by the principle of "separation." The government is protected from being ruled by religious institutions and religious institutions are protected from government interference. 

2. The European (and Turkish) view of secularism is characterized by the government control of religious life. The state defines and makes determinations about religion, presumably for the perceived benefit of the public and for the protection of the state.

The American view, which is usually attributed to Thomas Jefferson, is one of the unique contributions of America to the world. It ensures that religious expression can flourish without being a threat to, or being threatened by, the government. Together with the principle of religious freedom, this separates ethnicity and citizenship from religious identity. This makes it possible for people of any religious belief to count themselves citizens, and even more significantly, it makes it possible for people of any ethnicity to be free with regard to religious belief without feeling constrained by their ethnic identity. In Turkey, for example, there is a general conviction that being Muslim is part of what it means to be Turkish. And the Turkish state religious system is built on that identification. This is no different from the Ottoman system that preceded it.

This defense of separation shouldn't bother Christians who want to honor America's Christian heritage. As Lamin Sanneh would say, the American system is a tree with Christian roots, but the fruit is available to everyone. We should continue to sow into the roots and insist on protecting the principle that the fruit of religious freedom be available to everyone.

Sometimes American Christians downplay or disparage secularism and the principle of separation in their zeal to defend Christian truth. But the role of the state is necessarily different from the role of the church. Should Christians campaign for other religious beliefs to be illegal? Should citizens be legally required to confess faith in Christ? Should church attendance and Bible reading be enforced by the government? Thankfully I don't think I know any Christians who believe those things.

Historically, European countries have adopted the second kind of secularism. The Roman Empire gave this tradition of defining and controlling religion to the West.  The Enlightenment reinforced this view with its conviction that the role of religion in society would fade as education in the sciences increased. Aftet its revolution France built a system on those assumptions, and Turkey followed suit. However, the Enlightment assumption proved false and religion has continued to be as signifant as it ever was. 

Turkish citizens are born with an assigned religious identity. If they are born to ethnically Turkish parents their identity card reads "Islam." Public schools teach "religion" classes, but only Islam is allowed to be taught. Imams (religious leaders) in Turkish mosques are all employed by the government.

There are now 4,500 Turkish Christians in Turkey. They are just as Turkish as their Muslim neighbors and they are just as loyal to their country as citizens. But because of this tradition of government control of religion and the principle of identifying ethnicity with religious belief, the very existence of Turkish Christianity represents a reconfiguration of Turkish identity. 

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Understanding the Protests in Turkey

Today is the fifth day of protests in dozens of cities throughout Turkey.  The demonstrations began at Gezi Park in Istanbul where dozens of people had been protesting government plans to remove the park to make way for a possible shopping mall.  The park is a well-loved green space with some trees that were apparently planted during the era of Ataturk in the early 20th century.  The original protests were generally peaceful and environmentalist in nature, but there was already a political element given the park's renown and the current government's "moderate Islamist" stance.  Secularists in Turkey are normally supporters of Ataturk and his reforms and they are often at odds with the Islamists.

The police responded to the demonstration with a show of force, moving people out of the park and using tear gas and pepper spray.  Word of the excessive force used by police spread quickly and images of clashes between protestors and police flooded Twitter and Facebook.  Thousands of people in Istanbul were moved to action to express solidarity with the protestors at Gezi Park, and the police escalated the situation with increasing violence, including street tanks, water cannons, and more gas cannisters.  

People in other cities, also outraged at the police response to the demonstrations, began to take to the streets.  The protests were quickly broadened to include expressions of discontent with Turkey's current government, particularly the perceived strong-handed control being wielded by prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the Turkish police forces.  Crowds in more than 20 of Turkey's 81 provinces participated in the protests.  People began calling for the prime minister to resign, and graffiti related to Erdogan and  the police began to appear throughout the country. 

Crowds gathered and marched in Ankara on the first day after the original clashes with police at Gezi Park. Many thousands of people from diverse political, racial, and socio-economic backgrounds joined in the marches and demonstrations.  Rich and poor, old and young came out of their houses banging pots and pans or clanging forks and switching their lights on and off in support of the growing movement.  

Turkish media was strangely silent about the protests and many Turks were apalled that newspapers and television stations seemed to be acting as if there there weren't hundreds of thousands of people angrily marching all over the country.  Only one small satellite-based network, Halk TV, provided live coverage of the protests.  Turks relied on Facebook and Twitter to communicate about meeting times for marches and demonstrations, to issue warnings about police activities in certain areas, and to appeal for medical or other assistance in the protest zones.

Although the events at Gezi Park were enough to elicit powerful reactions on the part of the people, they certainly wouldn't have produced this level of protest without the long history of decisions made by the current government.  Some of the more controversial decisions and actions were made quite recently.  For example, the government recently decided to prohibit the sale of alcohol at stores after 10:00 PM, a policy which still has Turkey's secularists reeling.  Another series of much smaller demonstrations occurred when a couple was "caught" kissing on security cameras in an Ankara subway and a loudspeaker announcement was made encouraging people to behave according to "moral standards."  

The protests have grown in intensity and clashes with police have become increasingly violent.  Several political parties and causes are riding the wave of public discontent and attempting to coopt the demonstrations.  And as the crowds are increasingly emboldened the destruction that they are causing also increases.  It seems that the protests are losing some of the public support because of the lack of a clear message and the damage that people are seeing on the street.  

These events have been a wake-up call to the ruling party and there will have to be an ongoing effort to win back the confidence of the people. Erdogan's initial statements were dismissive of the protests as he defended the actions of his government and the police. And now he is out of the country on a scheduled diplomatic trip to North Africa. The deputy prime minister made a statement, today, however, apologizing for the excessive force used to quash the initial protest at Gezi Park.  This is an obvious sign that the government is now being forced to reconsider Erdogan's dismissive approach.  
Tonight thousands of protesters are convening again.  Ankara's downtown area has sustained damage in the form of broken storefront windows, spray-painted graffiti, dismantled sidewalks, fires on the street and soaked streets from the police water cannon. Public services and transportation are limited, and many are avoiding the downtown altogether.  

Today a two-day strike was announced which will include thousands of public-sector workers and several unions.  The strike is designed to show solidarity and to communicate that the protests are not just unruly mobs in the streets, but include mainstream working men and women.  Similarly, several politicians made statements today condemning the government's actions leading up to the protests as well as the prime minister's response. 

The Turkish Church is generally sympathetic to the complaints that gave rise to the protests.  Many believers actively participated in the first day or two of demonstrations and some continue to be involved.  There is a diversity of opinion about what the church's response should be, and some heated discussion has been taking place about whether the protests have lost their initial message.  Most of the exchange is happening on Facebook and Twitter, and well-respected Turkish church leaders have being weighing in on the issue.  Pastors preached sermons this past Sunday related to civil disobedience and other topics that could give insight into these events.

The protests are likely to continue for at least a few more days as the government tries to formulate a response that will neutralize the explosive atmosphere and cool public support for the crowds on the street.  And I suspect that in the absence of a clear message or agenda for reform the crowds will be increasingly composed of people on the political fringes and the general public will no longer identify with the movement, and it will die.  There will undoubtedly be permanent effects, however.  The public will not forget that it has the ability to hold people in power accountable simply by showing up in large numbers.  The government will have to make serious adjustments to its public image and there will obviously be an increased care taken not to rekindle the flame of the protests in the days to come.  And the church will have gained the experience of wrestling with a new dimension to its role in Turkish society.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The Emerging Turkish Church

The Emerging Turkish Church
Ryan Keating

As I have been reflecting on the character of the emerging Turkish church, my thoughts are divided between traits which I think characterize the church as it exists today, and directions that represent where I think the church would like to go. I have described three examples of each.

The Turkish church is today characterized by:

1) A generation of modern church fathers.

During the first 25 or so years of evangelism in Turkey, beginning in the 1960's, there emerged a group of Turkish men who rose to maturity as pioneers in a nation which had never known a "Turkish church," during an era marked by political turbulence.  Some of these men not only persevered, but began to take responsibility for the spiritual needs of their country.  And new believers began to see them as fathers, a role which they willingly embraced.  Over the past 25 or so years these men have come to be seen in a role which seems parallel to the one that the early church fathers had.  Today, I see the character of the church as a reflection of the character of these men who still serve as leaders. I could count 6 or 8 men who would fit this profile.  Their names are often mentioned in churches around the country, their sermons and books are quoted, their advice is sought out, and they are often maligned and brought into debates or conflicts as voices of authority. 

It is a sobering truth that there is not an evident second generation of church fathers in Turkey.  It seems that the church is already aware of this, and we have been spending  much of our energy re-imagining leadership issues for the future of the church.

2) A high degree of national unity

From inside the church it is difficult to miss the presence of conflict, scandal, and debate that asserts itself on the agenda so often.  However, I am also struck by degree to which the Turkish church still acts as one entity.  Several ministries seek to serve the whole spectrum of Turkish congregations, offering training, camps, publishing, radio, and television without stark distinctions of denomination or ethnicity, preferring instead to distinguish areas of ministry geographically. TEK, the Turkish Evangelical Association doesn't represent all of the Turkish churches, but it does represent most of them, and there is no competing, or even parallel organization to TEK.  I take all of these to be encouraging signs of a unity which is not perfect, but still characteristic of the church in Turkey. Another anecdotal  but significant sign of unity is the Turkish hymn book, which is used almost universally in Turkish churches.  As new worship songs are written or translated, they are assigned a number and included in the next edition of the book. There have been five updates so far, including more than 600 songs.

3) A reconfiguration of Turkish national identity

The existence of a growing number of converts to Christ in Turkey has brought about a new way of understanding what it means to be "Turkish." The Ottoman Empire had been a Muslim empire, and while it included dozens of nationalities Islam was the unifying characteristic of the empire.  With the emergence of the Republic of Turkey, turkishness became the unifying characteristic of the new nation, but early architects of the republic still understood Islam as an inseparable dimension of Turkish identity.  However, now there are thousands of Turks who have chosen to follow Christ; there is a community of Turkish Christians. I think it is difficult to underestimate how significant this is for Turkish identity.  These men and women love their country as much as they did when they were Muslims, and they are undoubtedly still Turkish.  They represent a way of thinking about Turkish national identity apart from Islam for the first time in more than 1,000 years. There is still uneasiness among the public and in the media about the reality of Turkish Christianity, but there is no denying its existence any longer.  It used to be very difficult to change the line on one's identity card that designated religion, particularly if one were trying to change it from Islam to Christianity. In fact, it was once true that changing one's gender on the national identity card was easier than changing one's religion.  Today, however, thousands of Christians have made that change and it is no longer the scandal that it once was.

The Turkish church is also a church in search of:

 4) Cultural Authenticity

It was among the basic theological and practical concerns of the apostle Paul to explore what it means to be both Greek and Christian.  Similarly, it has been one of the driving concerns of the Turkish church to explore what it means to be both Turkish and Christian.  The church bears the marks of its disciplers from other nations, and Western church trends still have a disproportionate influence on the agenda of the Turkish church. Today, issues of contextualization are hotly debated in Turkey, and the Turkish contribution to the discussion is usually to advise caution and moderation in reaction to Western strategies for contextualization in Turkey which are sometimes seen as extreme.  Still, Turkish leaders are asking critical questions about how to express faithfulness to Christ in genuinely Turkish ways.  Many churches try to maintain a reasonable ratio of Turks to foreigners in their meetings, which sometimes means asking foreigners not to attend.  Every year, at "Christian" holidays, there are discussions in Turkish churches about what it means to celebrate in Turkey.  Believers feel a draw to celebrate the birth of Christ, and his resurrection, but there is uneasiness about how they should be celebrating.  Similarly, they are sure that they don't want to celebrate traditional Islamic holidays, but these are the times of year when their children are on vacation from school, and their relatives are gathering for family meals and ceremonies.  How should they respond? The church is in search of cultural authenticity.  It is a Turkish church and it is seeking genuinely Turkish expressions.

 5) A Recognizable Voice

Ethnic Christian minorities such as Armenians and Greeks have been traditionally recognized by the Turkish government and given limited rights and privileges in Turkey.   Turkish Christians have never had the same kind of official recognition since there was no category for such a group of people.  However, in recent years the church has sought greater levels of official recognition and an increased voice in the public square.  Many churches are now registered as "associations" or "foundations" and are pursuing their legal rights in those capacities.  The Turkish Evangelical Assocation now has official legal representation and there are dozens of law suits pending around the country over issues related to the church.  Turks hostile to Christianity often find ways to make accusations against foreign or local believers and this has led to an increased visibility for the church and a sense of precedent in Turkish courts about defending religious expression for Christians.  This year there were a few Turkish Christians who ran for political offices, and Turkish Christian perspectives were voiced on dozens of news websites, newspapers, and television programs. 

 Despite an increased level of exposure, however, the church is still looking for its public voice.  Often the church seems to be merely reacting to tragedies and conspiracies without  having a forward looking vision for the future of the nation that it can cast in the public square. 

 And the church continues to struggle for a greater degree of official recognition.  In a nation as dependent on official bureacracy and as security conscious as Turkey, this kind of recognition can be the deciding factor in the question of the church's survival.

6) Maturity in Ministry and Mission

Nearly every congregation in Turkey depends on the spiritual and financial contributions of foreign workers.  And there is very little sense of a grass roots passion for ministry in the church.  There are a number of signs of developing maturity, but I think the general picture shows a church which is still in its infancy.  There are many more Turks in positions of leadership in churches and ministries than there were even just a few years ago, and ministries like Filipus and Hasat are consistently equipping Turks for positions of influence. However, it seems that nearly as many Turks leave the church every year as are baptized into it.  And there is still a sense that the impetus for evangelism and discipleship depends on the foreigners, who are regularly trying to stir up interest in ministry among Turks.

Of course there are genuine exceptions to this trend, but I think we need to look toward a time when there is a genuine swell of passion for ministry in the Turkish church.  And our consistent, long term prayer is for the emergence of a Turkish mission movement, that the Turkish church would be taking seriously its role in the Great Commission, and that Turkish missionaries would be making disciples in the nations.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

On the Anniversary of the Malatya Murders

The Impact of Martyrdom on the 21st Century
Saturday April 19th 2008
Ryan Keating

I was invited to speak on the topic of martyrdom.  Specifically its impact on the 21st century.  Of course, my own experience with martyrdom is very narrow.  So this is going to be a very personal account of the impact of martyrdom in the 21st century.

It struck me that very little has changed since the first century.  In the first century if you slit the throat of a Christian he died a painful death.  His body was eventually collected and buried.  His friends would gather to mourn and talk about his death and try to find meaning in his sacrifice.

And I’m sure that most of you are aware of the events of last year in Malatya in Eastern Turkey.  A year ago yesterday, in fact, three of our friends were killed, their throats slit.  This is likely to be a difficult story for me to tell, even a year later.  I apologize for that.

Malatya is a city of 500,000 people.  And it is almost entirely Muslim.  We moved to Malatya together with another family in 2006.  We joined three other Christian families who had moved to Malatya a few years earlier.  That group included a German family, Tilmann and Susanne Geske, a Turkish family, Necati and Shemsa Aydin, and a British family.

By the time we arrived there was a growing fellowship of 15-20 Turkish believers.  My wife jumped into language learning and I started in right away sharing the gospel with friends and neighbors.  Within a few months I was doing small Bible studies with about 10 Turkish men, a couple of whom made commitments to Christ. 

Necati was the pastor of the fellowship and he was also running a branch of a Christian publishing company in Malatya.  He was a very well known Christian, a gifted preacher and a passionate evangelist.  Necati had come from a conservative Muslim background and his entire family had disowned him as a result of his decision to follow Christ. 

Necati brought another young Turkish Christian to work at the company with him. Ugur Yuksel was engaged to be married.  He was from a small village in Eastern Turkey.  A deep thinker and a bold believer.

On April 18th last year, Tilmann, Necati, and Ugur were working in the office of the Christian publishing company in downtown Malatya.  Five young Muslim men came to the office pretending to be interested in the gospel.  Apparently one or two of them had met with Necati before.  He let them in and served tea as they sat around the little table in his office.

At around 11:00 in the morning the five young men tied up Necati, Tilmann, and Ugur.  They tied them to their office chairs, with their arms and hands behind their backs.  During the next hour and half they were tortured with knives as the killers apparently demanded that they renounce Christ and accept Islam.  When they each insisted that Jesus Christ is Lord, the Muslim men slit the throats of Necati, Tilmann, and Ugur, one at a time.

The police were called when one of the other Turkish workers tried to get in the office and realized that something was wrong inside.  When the police arrived, the five killers were still inside.  Four of them surrendered and one of them tried to escape from the third floor balcony, breaking his neck on the sidewalk below.

Tilmann and Necati were found dead in the office and Ugur was rushed to the hospital in an ambulance with serious wounds all over his body.  I arrived on the scene as the ambulances were leaving for the hospital and I followed in a taxi. 

I was waiting together with our British friend under armed guard at the hospital.  The military police wanted us to identify who it was in surgery, so they took a picture with a digital camera and brought it out to us.  It was Ugur. He had been wearing a cross around his neck.  A few hours later I received the news from the doctor that Ugur hadn’t survived surgery.

My family was waiting at home with an intern from our church who was scheduled to give English lessons at that office just shortly after the murders took place.

Word quickly spread throughout Turkey and phone calls and visitors began to arrive.  Within a few hours our house was full of visitors from other cities.  Turkish pastors, other Christians, friends and family of the victims. 

Within a few days Tilmann was buried in Malatya. We sang hymns in Turkish that Tilmann had written.  Ugur was buried secretly in his home town.  His family insisted on a Muslim funeral and I wonder what they did with the cross he wore around his neck.  Necati was buried in Izmir at a funeral attended by hundreds of believers from around the world.

These were the first Turkish Protestant martyrs in the history of the republic of Turkey.

As I said.  Not much has changed.  We have hardly come very far.  Even in the 21st century, When you slit the throat of a Christian, he dies a painful death.  His body is collected and buried and his friends try to find meaning in his sacrifice.

So this morning I’d like to say a few things about martyrdom and it’s impact in the 21st century.  Then I’ll talk briefly about a Christian response to martyrdom.

1. So, addressing my topic, the first thing I’d like to say is that Martyrdom is deadly.

The most obvious impact of course is death.  It doesn’t do us any good to have romantic notions of martyrdom.  It’s deadly.  It’s not glamorous.  All the ethereal, poetic images  about martyrdom dissolve as your friends are wheeled by in bloody gurneys.

I’m reminded of Joseph of Arimathea who, together with some of the women, took down the body of Jesus from the cross.  What an awful task.  To handle the dead body of your friend, your leader, your hero.  The dead body of a man.  Cold and bloody.   I imagine joseph carrying the body down the road to wherever the tomb was.   

Martyrdom is deadly... But it is worth it.  He is worth it.

Of course Jesus is the evidence of that.  We don’t try in vain to find meaning in the sacrifice of Jesus, or in the deaths of those who followed him.  There is meaning there.  There is life after death.  Resurrection is real.

And it is a great privilege to have a cause worth dying for.  In fact, there is no other cause worth dying for.  And no other cause worth living for.

God is worth suffering for.  He is worth going to Malatya for.  He is worth being tortured for.  And the only way to be convinced of that is to meet Him.  To have a genuine encounter with the God who proved that martyrdom is not in vain.  The God who suffered on the cross and shook off death as if it were just a long nap.

But still, people aren’t lining up to go to the hard places of the world.  This is not because God isn’t calling them there.  It’s because you might die there.  I can tell you that my family back home gets this.  They understand in a unique way that martyrdom is deadly, because I’m sure that since April 18th they have all imagined my own death.  My own father is angry that I insist on staying.  He has a good imagination.

Let’s look at a passage from Paul.

 2 Corinthians 4:7-15

“But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all surpassing power is from God and not from us.  We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed but not in despair, persecuted but not abandoned; struck down but not destroyed.  We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body.  For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may be revealed in our mortal body.  So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you.

Hear these words in the voice of Necati, Tilmann, and Ugur.

It is written, “I believed, therefore I have spoken.”  With that same spirit of faith we also believe and therefore speak, because we know that the one who raised Jesus from the dead will also raise us with Jesus and present us with you in his presence.  All this is for your benefit, so that the grace that is reaching more and more people may cause thanksgiving to overflow to the glory of God.

It is no small thing that while death was at work in Necati, Tilmann, and Ugur, the life that exists in the fellowship that remains would not have been possible without them. 

A couple weeks after the murders I went into the office after the police had removed the yellow tape.  They had wiped most of the blood up, but it was still everywhere.  And the tea cups were still on the table.  Evidence of the way that these men served the people of Turkey, the people of Malatya.  All this is for their benefit.  And for God’s glory.  And He is worth it. 

2.  The second thing that I’d like to say is that Martyrdom is Unjust.

This was what struck me the hardest in the days and weeks after the murders.  What a grave injustice.  That men who had already given so much should be asked to give again. 

Ugur met his fiancee years ago.  When they announced their intention to marry, her father refused to give his daughter to a Christian.  So he waited and prayed.  Just a couple weeks before the murders we celebrated with Ugur.  Her father had finally begun to agree to let them marry.  

Tilmann left a wife and three children behind.  Necati left a wife and two children.

Martyrdom is unjust.  That such great men could be slain by such small men.  That such unworthy adversaries are given satisfaction at our expense. 

And of course, the sacrifice of Jesus was just such an injustice. 

It is the painful reality of this age that the will of God, the justice of God, is contested by evil, evil of a supernatural enemy, evil of our own human choosing.  Evil is pervasive.  It has infected everything.  And this is the only way we can make sense of such an injustice. 

Martyrdom is unjust.   But His Kingdom is coming.

And by the example of Jesus, it is in the most heinous injustice ever carried out that the scales of justice are tipped forever in our favor.  It is in the very suffering of injustice, in the act of martyrdom that his kingdom comes. 

 The infection of evil is usurped by the strategy of God to grow the seeds of the kingdom among us.

And there will be a day when injustice is no more.  When suffering is vindicated.  When the will of God is no longer contested.  His kingdom is coming, growing up around us.   And we participate in its arrival.

Today, the trial of the five young men is underway.  The story still consumes news headlines, as the press finds new angles to exploit.  We pray for justice and His kingdom is coming in that courtroom. 

 The lawyers representing the families of the martyrs have been receiving death threats since the beginning of the trial.   The head attorney is an atheist.  And yet he continues to risk his life to defend us.  Martyrdom is unjust.

3.  And Finally, Martyrdom is Scandalous. 

 After the murders hundreds of people told me how sorry they were that such a thing had happened.  Most of them wanted to assure me that Turkey was really a safe place, that it was unthinkable to kill people for religion.  

And it became popular to jump on the condemnation bandwagon.  Local and national leaders all released statements:  “I condemn the attacks...”  Turks didn’t want this to marr the reputation of their country...

 And still so many of our neighbors stopped talking to us.  In a terrific irony, the neighbors were afraid of us.  We were dangerous.  Martyrdom is scandalous.

 The murders were quickly politicized, in much the same way that Jesus’ death was politicized.  No one wanted to take responsibility for what happened.  The authorities sought to cover-up the resurrection.  Conspiracy theories were invented and spread...

 The local media instantly began casting suspicion on the martyrs.  The murderers were only a footnote. 

What were these agitators doing in Malatya anyway?  Who were they really working for?  Almost immediately, grand conspiracy theories began to float around the media. 

The crank on the propaganda machine began to turn and out came some of the most ridiculous accusations and theories. 

 Martyrdom is scandalous.  But it pays more than they can imagine.

Jesus of course tells us in Matthew 5:11, “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.  Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” 

 Necati, Ugur and Tilmann are well-compensated.  And it looks like I might be racking up quite a stash up there as well.

Martyrdom is deadly

Martyrdom is unjust

Martyrdom is scandalous

So how do we respond to martyrdom?  What can we do? Let me share three practical ideas:

1.  Struggle against injustice

We work for human rights in the nations.  For the right to live the life of Christ in Turkey.  Human rights is a Christian concept.  We fight to see laws changed, to see accurate portrayals in the media, to see justice done when Christians are persecuted.

2.  Maintain a Christ-like willingness to suffer

We don’t stop proclaiming the gospel.  We don’t stop living the life of Christ in the nations.  And we look for the courage to be willing to suffer, as Hebrews 13:13 says, “bearing the disgrace he bore.”  Ultimately we aren’t surprised when Christians suffer.  Jesus suffered.  He told us we would suffer. 

 3.  Care for the Suffering

 Hebrews 13:3 tells us to “Remember those in prison as if you were their fellow prisoners, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering.”  We can write letters to suffering or imprisoned Christians.  We can pray for the situation of persecuted people around the world. We can sponsor and financially support the work of the gospel in difficult places, and we can commit to visit or even to live out our lives among those who are suffering. 

Monday, September 22, 2008

Understanding Eid-al Adha and the Hajj

Understanding Eid al-Adha
Ryan Keating

Eid al-Adha, is the Islamic festival that coincides with the end of the annual pilgrimage in Mecca and is marked by sacrificing an animal such as a sheep, goat, or bull.

It is the most important festival in Islam, followed by the Eid al-fitr, which marks the end of the month-long fast of Ramadan.

It begins on the tenth day of the month of Dhu al-Hijja on the Muslim calendar and continues for four days.

The basic theological meaning is to identify with Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice everything, including his son, to Allah, and to celebrate God’s deliverance of Abraham by providing a sheep as a substitute.

Hajj: Tracing Abraham’s steps

It is impossible to understand the significance of Eid al-Adha without placing it in its context within the Hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca.

Hajj, or “pilgrimage” is the fifth pillar of Islam, marking one of the most basic Muslim practices. All Muslims who are financially and physically able are required to make at least one trip to Mecca during their lifetime. While a Muslim may visit Mecca at any time of year, the Hajj is only recognized if it is performed during the assigned days on the Muslim calendar, that is during the second week of the month of Dhu al-Hijjah.

The rituals of the pilgrimage center around reenacting important episodes from the life of Abraham, Hagar, and Ishmael. It begins with “tawaf”, circumambulating the Ka’ba seven times. The Ka’ba is said to have been rebuilt by Abraham and consecrated to Allah as a center of pilgrimage. Pilgrims pray for the cleansing of their sins and often try to kiss or touch the Black Stone which is lodged into one corner of the Ka’ba.

Pilgrims then perform “say” a ceremonial running back and forth between two hills in a reenactment of Hagar’s desperate search for water for her son Ishmael after she was shunned by Sarah, Abraham’s wife. The well of Zamzam is said to have appeared under Ishmael’s feet to save them from death. Pilgrims bathe in and drink this water during this ceremony.

Then the actual “pilgrimage” takes place as pilgrims make the trip to Arafat to gather in tents for prayer and conversation from noon until sunset. Prayers are said to be especially effective during this time.

After spending the night under stars at Muzdalifa pilgrims proceed to Mina where the ritual “stoning of Satan” occurs. Pilgrims throw seven rocks at large stone pillars said to represent Satan. This ceremony reenacts Abraham’s stern rejection of the temptation by Satan to refuse to obey God’s command to sacrifice Ishmael.

This ritual is followed by the offering of an animal sacrifice by each pilgrim, identifying with Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Ishmael and God’s provision of a sheep as a reward for Abraham’s complete faithfulness in Allah. It is on this same day that Eid al-Adha begins and many Muslims around the world participate vicariously in this Hajj ritual by sacrificing an animal themselves.

Muslims believe that if the Hajj has been performed properly, without violating the important regulations regarding ceremonial purity, and with the right intention of approaching God, then all previous sins are absolved. However, a Muslim cannot ever be certain that his Hajj has been accepted in this way.

Sacrifice in Islam: Eid al-Adha

Throughout the Muslim world, the festival of Eid al-Adha begins with morning prayers in the mosque followed by a sermon. This is in accordance with a hadith attributed to Muhammad:

Narrated Al-Bara: I heard the Prophet delivering a Khutba (hutbe) saying, "The first thing to be done on this day (the first day of 'Id-ul-Adha) is to pray; and after returning from the prayer we slaughter our sacrifices (in the name of Allah), and whoever does so, he acted according to our Sunna (traditions) " (Sahih al-Bukhari, Vol. 2, p. 37).

As with the hajj itself, the sacrifice must be performed with the pure intention of approaching God. Sacrificing an animal is not considered to be merely an optional or advantageous ritual, but a religious commandment signifying one’s readiness to surrender everything to Allah.

The Qur’an depicts Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son in Sura 37:

“We gave him [Abraham] news of a gentle son. And when he reached the age when he could work with him, his father said to him: ‘My son, I dreamt that I was sacrificing you. Tell me what you think.’ He replied: ‘Father, do as you are bidden. God willing, you shall find me steadfast.’ And when they had both submitted to God, and Abraham had laid down his son prostrate upon his face, We called out to him, saying: ‘Abraham, you have fulfilled your vision.’ Thus do we reward the righteous. That was indeed a bitter test. We ransomed his son with a noble sacrifice and bestowed on him the praise of later generations. ‘Peace be on Abraham!’

And the commandment to sacrifice an animal annually is understood from Surah 22:28, which is referring to the pilgrimage rituals:

“they will come to avail themselves of many a benefit, and to pronounce on the appointed days the name of God over the cattle which He has given them for food. Eat of their flesh, and feed the poor and the unfortunate.”

The sacrifice is to be performed by anyone who is financially able to do so. Guests in someone else’s household are understood to be exempt as are travelers and the poor. The sacrifice is considered an individual act, but if a wife and children are completely dependent on the income of the husband, then they are not required to sacrifice. Similarly, a sheep or goat cannot be shared between men or families as a joint sacrifice, but a larger animal such as an ox, camel, or cow can be shared by up to seven people as having fulfilled the sacrifice requirement of all of them.

While the 10th of Dhu al-Hijjah is the most spiritually profitable day on which to sacrifice the animal, many Muslims believe that it may also be performed on either of the following two days as well.

The animal must be without blemish and smaller animals such as chickens are not acceptable for sacrifice. The sacrifice should be performed with care not to cause unnecessary suffering to the animal, and small children and other animals should are often excluded to prevent them from being traumatized. While the animal is being cut, the name of Allah is pronounced and a ritual prayer is usually recited:

In the name of Allah.
Allah is the greatest.
O Allah, this is indeed from you and for you.
O Allah accept [this] from me.

The meat should be divided into three portions, with one third given to the poor, one third given to friends, family, and neighbors, and one-third reserved to eat. According to some, poorer families may reserve a larger portion for themselves to eat. The hide should also be donated and cannot be sold for profit.

Celebrating Eid al-Adha

The festival often includes visits to family members, beginning with parents and then extended family, friends and neighbors. A trip to distribute meat to friends and family is often an occasion for a social visit as well. The graves of relatives are also visited during this time and mosque visits are often made more frequently.

Special foods, most of which include meat, are prepared during this time, and large family gatherings occur during the evenings of the festival. As with Eid al-fitr, traditional deserts and candy are also given as gifts and included in family celebrations.

Since many businesses are closed during these days, families often take the opportunity to go on vacations or to visit out-of-town family members. In Turkey, during years when the festival falls in summer months, the beaches are full of vacationers, for example.

Sacrifice as a Theological Bridge: Ransoming Ishmael with a lamb

The Qur’anic story of Allah saving Ishmael’s life by substituting a lamb has obvious value as a bridge for sharing the gospel. Just as Allah honored the faith of Abraham by ransoming Ishmael with a sacrificial lamb, Christians believe that Allah ransomed all of humanity with the life of Jesus, who is called the Lamb of Allah, and that by exercising the same kind of faith that Abraham had, that is, a willingness to surrender everything we have to God, we are able to be saved from the death that we otherwise deserved in Hell.

Also, just as Muslims believe that faithful participation in the Hajj results in absolution of all previous sins, Christians believe that faith in the sacrifice of Jesus, the substitute lamb of Allah, guarantees that our sins are also forgiven.

In more simple terms, Christians can affirm the value of Abraham’s faith, which is also recorded in the Taurat. It is the kind of faith that is willing to surrender everything to God. And we can identify with the concept of sacrifice because of its Old Testament parallel in Abraham and the system of temple sacrifice as well as its New Testament fulfillment in Jesus.

Of course, Muslims often respond to this kind of presentation by arguing that the sacrifice in Islam is different from the sacrifice in Judaism and that it doesn’t wash away our sins the way that we believe Jesus does. For example, the Qur’an says about the sacrificed animal:

“Their flesh and blood does not reach God: it is your piety that reaches Him.” (Sura 22:37)

Muslims sometimes use this verse to show that it is not the sacrificed animal itself that has any value to God, but the faith of the person performing the sacrifice. In this way, they might argue, a more perfect sacrifice does not have a greater effect, the way that Christians believe Jesus’ sacrifice is effective for providing forgiveness for the sins of the whole world.

Still, the parallel is helpful for Muslims to understand what Christians believe about the sacrifice of Jesus.