By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent Worthy News
ISTANBUL, TURKEY (Worthy News) – The opposition may unseat the country’s autocratic President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in upcoming elections, but it remained unclear whether that would improve the plight of minority Christians, Worthy News established Friday.
On the eve of Turkey’s tightest presidential vote in years, one of the four candidates, Muharrem Ince, pulled out of the race.
Ince faced pressure for splitting the opposition vote when they had their biggest chance yet of removing Erdogan from power on Sunday. Polls showed Erdogan neck-and-neck with rival Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the candidate fielded jointly by the opposition Nation’s Alliance.
Erdogan was applauded during his first decade as a leader for transforming Turkey into an economic and political success story.
But over the last 10 years, he’s faced mounting criticism — domestically and internationally — for quashing dissent and adopting policies typical of autocratic regimes.
Minority Christians also continued to face persecution in several parts of the Muslim-dominated country, noted Open Doors, the Christian advocacy group.
“Nationalism and Islam are intrinsically linked, and anyone who is not a Muslim, particularly someone who openly lives out a different faith, is considered a disloyal Turk. Christians are therefore not regarded as full members of Turkish society,” Open Doors noted.
Under Erdogan, they “have limited access to state employment and experience discrimination in private employment, especially where employers have ties to the government. Since religious affiliation is still recorded on identity cards (nowadays via electronic chip), it is easy to discriminate against Christian job applicants.”
Despite the discrimination, converts from Islam have legally changed their religious affiliation on identity cards to Christianity. However, “it is a stressful process, and they may face discrimination at the hands of individual government officials,” added Open Doors, which has intimate knowledge about these cases.
It stressed that historical Christian groups like the Armenian and Assyrian Syriac churches also face pressure and hostility, especially in southeastern Turkey, which was hit by recent earthquakes.
Christians and others in the area will vote after widespread criticism of the government’s response to February quakes that killed more than 50,000 people in Turkey and neighboring Syria.
A Worthy News reporter visiting the region also established that for decades, Christians were caught between the rivalries of the Turkish army and Kurdish resistance groups. They also face pressure from local authorities and Muslim extremists, Worthy News learned.
“Most of these Christians do not live in their ancestral region anymore but have moved to western areas of Turkey to escape the conflict,” Open Doors said.
Additionally, in recent years, “the government has banned foreign Christians with Turkish spouses and children from settling in the country as residents,” Open Doors noted.
Christians are now awaiting whether a new government could improve their situation, with the opposition seeking to overthrow the increasingly authoritarian president.
Ince’s decision to pull out gives President Erdogan’s biggest rival, Kilicdaroglu, a big boost, and Turkey’s primary stock market soared on the news, analysts said.
He said he was withdrawing his candidacy because he had been “slandered and suffered character assassination,” and Turkish authorities had “failed” to protect his reputation.
Ince cited fake sex pictures as one of his reasons for pulling out. “Fake invoices, fake videos, pictures… they took a video from an Israeli porn website and added my face there,” he claimed.
“Unfortunately, some people in Turkey shared those for the sake of being in so-called opposition.”
But he also said he did not want to be blamed by the alliance of opposition parties if they lost the presidential vote.
However, even if the opposition wins and policies become more favorable towards Christians and other minority faiths, hostility would remain, an Open Doors assessment suggested.
Those turning from Islam to Christianity are among the believers at most risk, the group explained. “Although conversion from Islam to Christianity is not legally forbidden, converts are pressured by their families and communities to return to Islam. If their faith is discovered, they may be threatened with divorce and the loss of inheritance rights.”
Women who convert from Islam to Christianity are reportedly most vulnerable to persecution. “If their faith is discovered, they can suffer violence at the hands of their own families, and in the most serious cases, they are subjected to sexual violence. This is more common in rural areas,” according to Open Doors.
Inland areas tend to be more conservative and strictly Islamic, and socially they can be hostile towards Christians, rights investigators concluded.
Christians comprise less than 0.2 percent of the country’s mainly Muslim population of roughly 84 million, according to official estimates.
The reported persecution of Christians is part of broader concerns over the status of freedom of expression in Turkey, a member of the Western NATO military alliance.
“Over the past nine years, there have been thousands of prosecutions of journalists, political opponents, and others for criticizing the president and the government online or even just sharing or liking critical articles on social media,” Human Rights Watch said.
“The government also frequently blocks websites critical of the ruling party or individual ministers,” the advocacy group added. At least scores of journalists and other perceived Erdogan opponents remain behind bars.
Besides questions over freedom of expression, Turkey also faces severe economic difficulties. Once a poster child for developing nations, Turkey is currently battling high inflation and a cost-of-living crisis, as well as questions over freedom of expression.
“If Recep Tayyip Erdogan wins again, life will be a nightmare for all of us,” said Perit, a 23-year-old Istanbul student.
He spent almost two months in solitary confinement for participating in a protest at the prestigious Bogazici University over the appointment of a pro-government dean.
Perit has voted only once before, and his friends Sude and Emru are among five million first-time voters who have known no other Turkish leader but Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Life for young people in Turkey has become increasingly tricky as soaring inflation hits 44 percent, according to official figures. “You can’t afford just to study; you also have to get a full-time job to get by,” Emru said.
A multi-billion dollar deal with the European Union to host millions of refugees from mainly Syria as well as Afghanistan and Iraq did little to help increase Turkey’s standard of living.
Opponents and economists regularly blame the troubles on corruption and Erdogan’s unorthodox economic policies. It’s now up to voters to decide whether they want to give a chance to another person to lead the nation into a more prosperous future.
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