The attempted coup in Turkey sent shockwaves around the world. Here was a Nato ally, thrown into chaos overnight.
Mid the cacophony of police sirens, low-flying helicopters and rifle fire, there was another sound during the attempt to overthrow president Recep Tayyip Erdogan: The wailing of Turkey’s imams.
From the nations’s 85,000 mosques, their amplified voices were heard calling upon the faithful to take to the streets and defy the plotters. The people listened.
Some bravely stood in front of tanks as they defended the democratically elected president. Around 240 from both sides died and 1,400 were injured.
For others the night presented different opportunities as hardline Muslim Sunnis, whipped up to a frenzy, targeted Turkey’s Christian community.
In Matalya, a sprawling city in Anatolia, once the heartland of Christianity in the East, they targeted a Protestant church.
The word church is a grand term for the small, modern shopfront nestled in the city’s minority Alevi district.
For, despite a tolerant constitution, Protestants are not allowed to build churches in Turkey. Even the name church must be coupled to the non-threatening “association”.
Gangs chanting “Allahu akbar” rounded on it to smash its glass frontage. “The attack on the church was light. But it’s significant that it was the only shopfront attack in those three days,” said its minister, Pastor Tim Stone, last night. “We were the only targets.”
Nor was Matalya alone. In the Black Sea city of Trabzon others attacked the Santa Maria church, smashing windows and using hammers to break down its door.
The events of that Saturday night were not new for either city. In 2007, three Christian employees of a publishing house for bibles in Malatya were attacked. After being tortured, their hands and feet were tied and their throats cut by five Muslim assailants.
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A year earlier Father Andrea Santoro, a 61-year-old Roman Catholic priest, was murdered in the Santa Maria Church. Father Santoro was shot from behind while kneeling in prayer in the church. Witnesses heard the murderer, aged 16, shouting “Allahu Akbar”.
Turkey, which once boasted two million Christians, has barely 120,000 now, fewer even than Iran. But what shocked people most about July 15’s attacks was how much hatred still remains after almost 10 years.
Though it is nominally a secular republic there can be little doubt that the government and Turkey’s 117,000 Sunni imams work together.
Since the night of the failed coup, imams have been chanting the Selah prayer, usually reserved to announce a death, on a daily basis as a rally call.
“The reality is that Turkey is neither a democracy nor a secular republic,” said Yuce Kabakci, a pastor in Istanbul. “There is no division between government affairs and religious affairs.”
Subsidised by taxes the Diyanet, the department in charge of religious affairs, boasts an £1.1billion annual budget, part of which goes to pay imams’ salaries.
The minister in charge is directly appointed by the president. And it is a sermon written by department chiefs that imams read out on Fridays. One sermon warned that Turks should not befriend Jewish people or Christians because they serve the West.
“There’s no doubt that the government uses the mosques to get its message across to its grassroots supporters,” said Mr Kabakci. “There’s is an atmosphere in Turkey right now that anyone who isn’t Sunni is a threat to the stability of the nation” he added.
“Even the educated classes here don’t associate personally with Jews or Christians. It’s more than suspicion. It’s a case of ‘let’s get rid of anyone who isn’t Sunni’.”
Residents heeded their president’s call by breaking the curfew imposed by military forces
Now even Istanbul’s Hagia Sofi a building, a powerful symbol of pre-Islamic Turkey, is under threat, with imams allowed to recite prayers from under its Byzantine dome.
It was one of the most important Christian churches until the fall of Constantinople when it became a mosque. However, in 1935 it was made into a museum, in line with Turkey’s secular approach.
“I very much doubt that it will be turned into a mosque anytime soon but that’s not the point,” said Mr Kabakci. “They have that option open to them any time they want to take it. It’s a daily reminder as to who is in charge.”
Ihsan Ozbek, chairman of the association of Protestant churches, agreed. “Things got better in 2008, but that was when Turkey thought it would join the EU. Now intolerance is growing once more,” he said.
“Erdogan thinks he is the father of the nation. As a father he thinks he is protecting his children by being firm with them.”
Erdogan’s Svengali-like popularity is real. Hundreds of people, even families with young children, have turned out to mass rallies in Istanbul’s Taksim Square every night since the July 15, to watch televised speeches by the leader.
“I’m not saying he isn’t making mistakes. But without Erdogan things would be worse,” said businessman Hosrof Koletavitoglu.
“I went to school with him. He was quiet and a very good soccer player. Erdogan is a populist. He comes from the street. People understand him. He is the only type of person to take the country somewhere.”
Asked about the 50,000 soldiers, academics, journalists and government officials detained since the attempted coup, he added: “Democracy will come. But democracy carries a personal responsibility to the community.”
Notably, many don’t consider joining the European Union worth the price of admission, he said. Nato is viewed as a Western club. Erdogan has threatened to re-introduce the death penalty and has already overturned the ban on women wearing the hijab in Government buildings.
“Turkey is like Iran in 1975,” said one Iranian in Istanbul. “I’m sure we will see it become an Islamic Republic very soon. “But Erdogan is clever. He will survive.”