Turkey: The Crossroads of Freedom and Terrorism

Diyarbakir, Turkey–It would be hard to find two cities more different than New York, a survivor of terrorism, and this southeastern Turkey city from which many terrorists have come. Midtown New York has skyscrapers and busy avenues. Midtown Diyarbakir has three-story homes that overhang twisting, eight-foot wide alleys with drainage ditches running down the middle.

Nevertheless, the excellent and entertaining speech that former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani gave Monday evening at the GOP convention — I mention it particularly because none of the broadcast networks, to their shame, televised it–implicitly linked the Big Apple and the much smaller Turkish city known for producing big watermelons.

Giuliani essentially noted that Muslim extremists hate America not for what we do but for what we are, a land of freedom. We have freedom of speech and freedom of religion, and both of those threaten Islam. (We also have freedom of abortion that destroys a greater freedom, the freedom to live, but that’s a story that Giuliani, sadly, does not tell.)

Diyarbakir is a city that has not allowed freedom of religion. That’s why the small experiment going on here–whether the newly constructed Diyarbakir Evangelical Church will be able to stay open for worship–is important. If a church can make it here, it can make it anywhere in Turkey. If it can’t, then the future of freedom in this crucial Muslim country is dim, and Turkey may become another anti-American, thought-control, terrorist-breeding society.

The church’s pastor, Ahmet Guvener, 39, crossed over from Islam to Christianity 13 years ago when he saw that “we cannot be saved by fulfilling the law, only by the promise God made to Abraham. The Quran says do this and do that, and maybe you’ll be saved. The Quran gives a guarantee of salvation only to those who die while on jihad. The Bible says you are saved for sure by the grace of God.”

Guvener explained differences in practice: “Here, it’s common to yell at your kids and curse them. Now I’ve learned it’s about loving them and showing mercy. The New Testament says, ‘God loves sinners and cares for sinners.’ The Quran makes it clear that God hates sinners. The New Testament said when I sin, which is inevitable, I can go to God. In the Quran you can’t do that. It’s hard to approach and have a relationship with a God who is cruel.”

He offered this contrast: “One religion uses a fear of punishment, the other shows that God brings sinners to himself through grace.” But fearful Muslims also punish those who leave Islam: “Police surrounded my house four-five years ago, their guns drawn. My 3-year-old daughter opened the door and police rushed in. They said, ‘Show us your weapons.’ Our only weapon was a box of Bibles.”

Guvener was in jail briefly and came out eager to plan and raise money for a church building. He succeeded, and was charged a year ago with opening an “illegal church.” In May, though, the government dropped the charges as part of its attempt to win admission to the European Union: Turkey wants in for economic reasons and will only get in if it shows more respect for individual rights, including religious ones, than it has in the past.

Threats remain. Six weeks ago, a young Turk with a long butcher knife invaded the Diyarbakir Evangelical Church, but providentially no one was injured and police arrested him. An end of religious persecution would be good for evangelicals in Turkey, who now meet in about 75 churches or fellowships throughout the country. But it would also be good for the United States, because a country that respects religious freedom is less likely to be a country that breeds terrorists who insist upon conformity to one particular religion–or death.

These days, New York and places like Diyarbakir are connected. We polish the Statue of Liberty by helping huddled masses abroad who yearn to be free.