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More arrests in Turkish case of Christian-publisher slayings

Prime minister condemns 'savage' attack amid fears of rise in nationalist, Islamist violence.

By / April 19, 2007



Turkish police have detained five more people in connection with a deadly attack on an evangelical Protestant publishing house that distributes Bibles, bringing the number of suspects in custody to 10.

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Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan called the killings "savagery," and, according to the Associated Press, a group of 150 Turks gathered in downtown Istanbul and unfurled a banner which read, "We are all Christians."

On Wednesday, assailants entered the Zirve publishing house in the city of Malatya, in eastern Turkey, where they bound and killed three workers: a German and two Turkish nationals. AP suggests the killings were carried out by Islamic extremists.

One group of suspects detained in the slayings Wednesday told investigators they carried out the killings to protect Islam, a Turkish newspaper reported. ...
"We didn't do this for ourselves, but for our religion," Hurriyet newspaper quoted a suspect as saying. "Our religion is being destroyed. Let this be a lesson to enemies of our religion."
The paper did not name the suspect. Local media said the suspects were students, and that the residence where they were staying belongs to an Islamic foundation.

The Daily Telegraph of Britain notes that some details of the killings point to a local group of Sunni Muslim militants.

There is concern that Islamic fundamentalists are importing the brutal tactics used by their counterparts across the border in Iraq. Local reports suggested the killings could have been carried out by a group known as Turkish Hizbollah, who want an Islamic state in the largely Kurdish south-east.

Islamic separatists are not the only group who may have taken issue with the Christian publishing house. The BBC notes that Zirve has faced protests by nationalists, who believe that the organization's missionary activity undermines Turkish identity. The BBC describes Malatya as "a very nationalistic city, often with an extreme religious undertone," noting that it is the hometown of Mehmet Ali Agca, the far-right gunman who seriously wounded Pope John Paul II in 1981.

The Zirve attack comes at a time when Turkey faces something of an identity crisis. Throughout the 1920s and '30s, the fledgling Turkish Republic instituted a policy of laïcité, a French-style secularism that actively discourages religion's influence on political institutions. But in recent years, cracks have appeared in the wall between mosque and state, with Islamist parties seeing political gains, most recently with a possible presidential bid by Prime Minister Erdogan, an Islamist-rooted candidate.

At the same time, the country has seen a spike in nationalism that has created political challenges that have hampered Turkey's bid to join the European Union.

Attacks on the country's Christian community, which comprises less than one percent of the country's overwhelmingly-Muslim population of 70 million, have also been on the rise. According to the BBC, a teenage boy shot and killed an Italian Catholic priest in the northeast city of Trabzon in February 2006. Two other priests in Turkey – a Frenchman and a Slovenian – were attacked later that year. A 2005 report by the US State Department documents several bombings of Christian churches and attacks on Christians.

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