(From Morning Star News to ANS) – A German pastor fighting expulsion from Turkey is hopeful that he may be the exception to a wave of foreign Christian leaders expelled from the country as “threats to national security.”
Though Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization (MIT) has applied the label to pastor Michael Feulner, he told Morning Star News said that a hearing last week gave him hope that a court will strike the “security threat” designation and allow him to stay.
Pastor Feulner said the three judges in the March 22 hearing in Ankara were much more open to reviewing evidence his attorney presented than judges at a February hearing in Istanbul.
“I felt I was heard by the judges,” Pastor Feulner said. “They asked the police department in Ankara if there was anything against me, and there was nothing. For this reason, I am hopeful they will hear our claim.”
One of the judges seemed to have a genuine interest in the merits of the case, he said. In the February hearing, judges gave the pastor’s attorney only 10 minutes to present his case. Then the court decided to withhold ruling on the deportation order until the Ankara court decided if the security designation was justified.
Last week’s court hearing in Ankara was “different from others,” if only because the judges took the time to listen to the case, Pastor Feulner told Morning Star News. Advocacy group Middle East Concern (MEC) reported that his attorney was able to present evidence that Turkey has long been aware of his ministry without objection, and that the security threat designation is a violation of religious freedom.
The judges then demanded that MIT produce “reasonable grounds” for the designation, according to MEC. Pastor Feulner is asking the court to strike down MIT’s claim that, without publicly issuing evidence, his existence in Turkey is a threat to the country’s national security.
The designation makes Pastor Feulner persona non grata in Turkey and is the impetus behind a deportation order issued in February and an “N82” notation on his passport from the Ministry of the Interior that effectively bars him from reentering the country if he leaves.
Feulner has lived in Turkey and the coastal region of the Sea of Marmara since 1999 when he came as an aid worker to help victims of the earthquake in Izmit. He has been the pastor of Yalova Light House Church, a multi-lingual congregation, since 2003.
Turkish immigration agents in February 2020 arrested Pastor Feulner as he was trying to take a flight out of the country. He was held without charge for 30 hours in an immigration cell at Istanbul Airport. It was there that he learned of his N82 status and was told he had 10 days to leave the country.
His lawyer then opened two court cases: one to appeal the deportation order, and one seeking to remove the designation as a security threat. The deportation order is on hold until the security threat case is decided.
Pastor Feulner is one of the scores of expatriate Christians in Turkey the government has targeted for expulsion over the past few years. Turkey has a longstanding history of deporting “active” expatriate Christians categorized as missionaries, but relatively few Christians were expelled. After a coup attempt in the summer of 2016, however, the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan ratcheted up the number of Christians identified for possible expulsion or denied entry into Turkey. The trend has continued.
According to the 2020 edition of the Annual Human Rights Report issued by the Association of Protestant Churches in Turkey (TEK), the government selected 35 foreign Protestants for expulsion in 2019. In 2020, the government targeted 30 more Christians. “These people and their families have been residents in our country for many years. Not one of them has a criminal record or conviction of any form,” according to the association. “This situation represents a major humanitarian problem. These entry bans, imposed with no forewarnings, disrupted family unity and created a state of chaos for all members of the individual’s family.”
Families in which one spouse is a Turkish national and the other a foreigner also suffer. Last year the Turkish government targeted at least five such Christian couples, according to TEK. The government has ordered another member of Yalova Light House Church, a foreigner married to a Turk, out of the country. Their case is pending.
Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party have allied themselves with Turkish nationalists who have long seen Christians as secret agents of foreign governments bent on undermining Turkey and a Turkish “Manifest Destiny” throughout the Middle East and Europe, with adherence to Sunni Islam seen as a crucial element. The government has singled out Christians for deportation in spite of constitutional protections for religious freedom and “missionary” work in Turkey.
Turkey ranked 25th on Open Doors’ 2021 World Watch List of the countries where it is most difficult to be a Christian.
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