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From Turkey

The situation in Turkey - Some thoughts about the implications for ministry

An increasing atmosphere of Islamic triumphalism in the wake of the coup could potentially put pressure on Christians or increase the threat level for them in Turkey, but for now that threat isn't present.

FEATURES AUTHOR Ryan K. 20 JULY 2016 12:30 h GMT+1
A view of Ankara, in Turkey. / Jorge Franganillo (Flickr, CC)

A Summary of the Current Situation

On Friday, July 15th a faction of the Turkish military attempted to overthrow the government. I would like to offer an honest assessment of what is now happening in Turkey and provide some thoughts about the implications for ministry now and in the future.

Since Saturday morning when the coup attempt was thwarted, the authorities have been busy purging the government of anyone that has any apparent connection to the coup attempt. Startling numbers of people in all levels of public service are being arrested, dismissed from their positions, or taken in for questioning. And the death toll continues to rise.

The death toll from the coup attempt is 208 people. 145 of those are civilians who were killed because they engaged the military faction on the streets in response to president Erdogan's appeal for his supporters to join the struggle. Most of the others were killed by the military faction in the conflict outside the parliament building.

So far more than 6,000 people have been arrested, most of them military personnel. Among the arrests, however, include 2 justices on Turkey's highest court and more than 200 lower level judges along with generals, admirals, and governors. More than 8,000 employees of the police service and the ministry of the interior were dismissed. And now the focus has been on Turkish academics with more than 1,500 academic deans being asked to resign and more than 20,000 private school teachers now under suspicion.  It is very difficult to know on what evidence these people are being implicated.

However, from the early hours of the coup attempt, the president began accusing Fethullah Gulen of having some role in the attempt. Gulen is the leader of a very influential Turkish Muslim sect, although he has been in a self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania for 16 years. His organization includes a multi-billion dollar network of schools and media outlets around the world. While Erdogan was gaining influence as a national politician, the support of Gulen and his organization was vital to his success. Two years ago, however, they had a falling out and have since been involved in a bitter feud in which both men have attempted to assert their competing influence over the country. While the coup attempt was still underway, Erdogan demanded that the U.S. turn over Gulen, a request that has been repeated by other Turkish officials since then. Today's arrests and dismissals have apparently focused on anyone with a perceived connection to Gulen or his organization.

Turkey is likely to continue pressuring the United States to turn over Fethullah Gulen. Turkey's minister of labor even openly accused the U.S. of backing the coup attempt. That accusation was not repeated by other officials and the State Department clearly denied the accusation. The tension between the U.S. and Turkey surrounding this issue could potentially escalate, but at this point it is calm.

In the hours after the coup attempt, Turkey locked down its airspace, which is understandable, since much of the damage in the attempt was done by planes and helicopters. That included restricting U.S. military flights in and out of Incirlik, a military base in Adana which is used for the United States' air operations against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. There was some question in the media about whether this reflected hostility toward the U.S.,  but officials at Incirlik say that they have resumed operations and are cooperating with Turkey in the wake of the coup attempt.

From the U.S. side, there was also a temporary restriction for flights from Turkey to the U.S. which was lifted yesterday.

Within Turkey, Erdogan and his government continue to call for people to gather in the city centers in the evenings to act as guardians of democracy and in celebration of the victory of the people in the coup attempt. Those demonstrations have been peaceful, but there is a distinct religious tone to those meetings. While Erdogan describes the situation as a victory for democracy, the gathering crowds sometimes make it feel more like a victory for Islam.

Erdogan's ongoing purge of suspected conspirators is likely to change the political atmosphere in Turkey, tipping the scales even further in favor of Erdogan and his agenda. However, that is not a new trend.


An Assessment of the Implications for Ministry

There is not a general atmosphere of danger or violence in Turkey at this point. The conflict in the coup attempt was violent, but it was a brief struggle between two factions vying for power. Throughout the coup, the general public was not in danger, and now that the coup attempt is over, there is no reason to think that there is any enduring urgent threat to the public.

On Sunday we gathered in Ankara as a church as usual and there was a good turnout at both services. Life has returned to normal in most respects. This week we will continue our weekly ministries, including outreach ministries in our neighborhood and programs for serving refugees and the homeless.

We want to be sensitive to potential changes in the security situation. Tensions between the U.S. and Turkey could grow, making it harder for Americans to travel around or serve in Turkey, but for now that isn't the case. An increasing atmosphere of Islamic triumphalism in the wake of the coup could potentially put pressure on Christians or increase the threat level for them in Turkey, but for now that threat isn't present. And Erdogan's increasingly Islamist agenda could bring about a new atmosphere of restriction for Christians to live and serve in Turkey; but for now our lives and ministries continue as they have been.

We want to be honest about the potential risks related to serving in Turkey, but we also want to avoid responses that are rooted in fear, panic, and sensationalism.

This is not a time to pull back from ministry in Turkey. This is not a time to cancel trips to Turkey or to consider curtailing ministry projects in Turkey. This is a time to prayerfully stay informed and remain aware of changes in the political and religious atmosphere. This is a time to invest in the spiritual future of Turkey, to strengthen the church, and to help fruitful ministries build capacity for serving in this next season.

People living and serving in Turkey should stay aware of current events and have a contingency plan that stays updated. Organizations and teams should review their contingency plans, including established procedures in case of emergency situations.

For now people should keep their passports with them at all times and be contactable by cell phone. Demonstrations and crowds should be avoided and people should not travel alone, especially at night. These kinds of common sense precautions are sufficient for most ministry contexts in Turkey.


Ordering the Priorities of Ministry and Security

It is helpful to think about how we order the priorities of security and ministry. Sometimes people want to apply a pre-determined criteria for what is "safe" and use that as a filter for what ministry is acceptable to do. However, that is a way of ordering priorities that is opposed to the values of the gospel. We first determine the ministry that we are called to do and then we determine how to do it in the safest way possible.  We don't disregard security concerns, but we don't allow perceived danger to be the determining factor in choosing or fulfilling our ministry commitments.

We are confident of God's sovereignty and we are confident in the worthiness of the work that he has given us to do here. We want to do our jobs wisely, in the safest way possible. And we want to do our jobs faithfully, in a way that models for the Turkish church the kind of living that Jesus is calling them toward.


Ryan K., pastor in Turkey.




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