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Turkey sees exodus of Protestant clergy due to entry bans, security risk labels

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Dozens of Protestant pastors have had to leave Turkey along with their families over the past three years due to de facto entry bans and intelligence reports labelling them as “security risks,” striking yet another blow to Turkey’s tiny Christian community and religious diversity in the country, according to a report.

According to the “2021 Protestant Community Rights Violation Report,” by the Association of Protestant Churches in Turkey released last week, 35 pastors in 2019, 30 in 2020 and 13 in 2021 were given special codes in Turkey, which effectively prevented them entering the country although they did not face a legal entry ban.

In addition to the pastors, 41 spouses and 66 children were also given the special codes, known as N-82, which bars foreigners from entering Turkey without prior permission, and G-87, issued to people who pose a general security threat, which forced a total of 185 people, comprising the 78 pastors and their families, to leave the country.

These codes have been used to bar Protestant missionaries from entering Turkey and deny residence permits to those already in the country and eventually deport them.

“Nearly all of these individuals received an N-82 code. When the authorities who issued these codes give their explanation to the court, they state that the N-82 restriction is not an entry ban, it is simply a requirement to obtain prior approval. However, in practice, all of those who have fallen victim to this situation and applied for a visa have had those applications rejected. Although the N-82 is not an entry ban de jure it is a de facto entry ban in Turkey,” the report said.

According to the report, a small number of people also received the G-87 code issued by Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization (MİT) and the police, which greatly disappointed the religious community as no concrete reason is given why these individuals were considered to pose a security risk.

The report said in other countries this code is used for the people who participate in armed activities, terrorist organizations or people who participate in illegal demonstrations.

“It has deeply wounded us and the code recipients that in our country this code is being given without any evidence to members of the Protestant community who are focused on living their faith, who are opposed to violence and who do not have criminal records. These people have been given entry bans for at least 5 years,” the report said.

In a few cases, applicants received positive outcomes when they challenged the bans in court, but most appeals applications had negative results. Applications filed by the members of the Protestant community are also pending at the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR).

The association said it respects “our country’s sovereign rights, that is, the right to decide who can and cannot be within the country’s borders,” but at the same time “we view this action as being applied solely because these people are Christian which is a grave violation of rights and discriminatory.”

“The foreign Protestant community lives with the worry that they could be deported at any time. Therefore, some individuals or families do not participate in church meetings and activities or voluntarily have left our country. But because there are no accurate records kept concerning those who have left, that information has not made it into this report,” the report said, explaining how the entry bans imposed on community members affect other members of the Protestant community in the country.

The two-year-long imprisonment of American pastor Andrew Brunson on bogus terrorism charges between 2016 and 2018 strained relations between Turkey and the United States.

Turkey accused Brunson of spying and links to terrorist groups.

Amid increasing pressure by then-US President Donald Trump and then-Vice President Mike Pence threatening Turkey with sanctions, Brunson was first moved from prison to house arrest in July 2018 and later released in October 2018.

Brunson was an evangelical pastor of the İzmir Resurrection Church, a small Protestant church with about 25 congregants in western Turkey and served in Turkey for more than two decades to spread the Christian faith.

The US Department of State said in a report released in May 2021 that Ankara continued to limit the rights of non-Muslim religious minorities, especially those not recognized under the government’s interpretation of the 1923 Lausanne Treaty, which includes only Armenian Apostolic Orthodox Christians, Jews, and Greek Orthodox Christians.

Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) was criticized in the report for many rights violations, including restricting efforts of minority religious groups to train their clergy and making it difficult for them to open or operate houses of worship and obtain exemptions from mandatory religion classes in schools.

“The government continued to provide training for Sunni Muslim clerics while restricting other religious groups from training clergy inside the country. The Greek Orthodox and Armenian Orthodox Patriarchates remained unable to train clergy within the country,” the report, titled “2020 Report on International Religious Freedom: Turkey,” said.

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