When Hakan Tastan wanted to amend the religion on his Turkish identity card, his enthusiastic championing of Christianity exasperated the official barring his way. Eventually, the official gave up trying to oppose the controversial change. “Change this heathen’s religion and make him go away,” the devout Muslim told his clerks.
More than ten years later, the missionary zeal of Mr Tastan and his fellow Christian convert, Turan Topal, has led to much graver things than being called names.
They face up to nine years’ jail after going on trial last week for “insulting Turkishness” during their religious work, under the notorious Article 301 of the Turkish penal code. It is the same law that put Orhan Pamuk, the Nobel literature laureate, in the dock, and which the European Union wants amended.
The case against two members of the tiny Turkish Protestant community has attracted criticism from the EUand cast a shadow over Pope Benedict XVI’s visit this week.
Mr Topal and Mr Tastan, who are charged with illegally gathering information on people and “insulting Islam”, have faced public anger in Turkey, where a mistrust of Christians has been growing, fuelled by the Iraq war, the EU’s critical attitude, the Pope’s comments linking Islam with violence and the Danish cartoons row.
At last week’s hearing, a friend was punched and bystanders told them to leave the country if they didn’t like it.
“Where are we supposed to go? We are Turkish. I am a patriot. I hang out the Turkish flag on national days and have a picture of Atatürk (the founder of modern Turkey) in my office,” says Mr Tastan, 37.
“There is a lot of misunderstanding about us here,” said Mr Topal, 45. “They think that missionary work is part of a foreign-financed effort to split the country.”
Turkey is home to about 100,000 Christians, most from ethnic communities such as Greek Orthodox, Armenians and Syriac Christians, whose status is legally defined.
For Turkish Protestants, a community of about 4,000, that came into existence 20 years ago, there is no recognisable role. Mr Topal was one of the first converts 17 years ago. Mr Tastan, the son of an atheist and grandson of an Alevi Muslim, said that he read the Koran and then was given the Bible by a friend.
He converted during his mandatory military service. The pair and their lawyer, Haydar Polat, think that their indictment is part of a plot.
The three plaintiffs, young men aged 16, 17 and 23, contacted them through a friend saying that they wanted to find out more about Christianity. After two meetings, charges were filed.
The two missionaries were accused of calling Islam a backward religion and claiming that Turks would never become civilised unless they converted. They were also accused of trying to sell women and of possessing guns.
“I don’t mind going on trial for my religion. We expected to be accused and imprisoned for that — the Bible says so,” Mr Topal said, adding that Saint Paul was stoned for preaching in the Roman city of Ephesus, where the Pope held a Mass on Wednesday.
“But some of those accusations are so revolting it’s upsetting — it just shows the mentality behind the case. They have this idea that we are rich and get a lot of money from abroad,” Among the accusing lawyers is Kemal Kerincsiz, an ultra- nationalist campaigner behind many of the high-profile 301 trials that have embarrassed the Turkish Government.
Mr Topal and Mr Tastan have forgiven their accusers. “We have a woman in our group who puts up with so much from her husband who is a Muslim. But even she has to love him because the Bible says so,” Mr Tastan says.