COMPASS DIRECT Global News from the Frontlines
(Will be published on January 19, 2001)
TURKISH PRIEST'S TRIAL DRAWS INTERNATIONAL OBSERVERS Father Akbulut Denies Inciting Enmity in Off-the-Record Comments by Barbara G. Baker
DIYARBAKIR, Turkey (Compass) -- A Syrian Orthodox parish priest in eastern Turkey publicly rejected charges in late December that he had "provoked hatred and religious enmity" by telling local reporters that his Christian minority community had been victims of genocide by Turks 85 years ago.

Put on trial December 21 before Diyarbakir's Second State Security Court, Fr. Yusuf Akbulut declared under oath that he had refused to be interviewed by the journalists, agreeing only to chat with them "off the record."

"I was not giving my personal views, but passing on what has been told to me by the elders of my church and visitors who come here," he said. He was not aware, he told the judge, that the last reporter had taped his comments with a video camera as they talked under a tree in the courtyard of St. Mary's Syrian Orthodox Church, where he lives with his family.

In Fr. Akbulut's controversial comments, which he did not retract, he had referred to "Syrian Orthodox Christians who also experienced genocide, not just the Armenians." The Turkish government rejects international allegations that a million or more Armenians were massacred in Ottoman Turkey during World War I.

The priest denied expressing any support for the "so-called Armenian genocide bill" raised this fall in the U.S. Congress. The resolution was later shelved at the request of U.S. President Bill Clinton.

"Making comments privately does not incite hatred," his defense attorney Abdulkadir Pekdemir later told Compass. "The government has the right to protect itself, but it must not intimidate or harm its citizens." The priest, who was charged under Article 312 of the Turkish penal code, could be jailed up to three years if convicted.

The Turkish journalists who testified for the prosecution claimed in court that they had interviewed him in a typical question-answer format and that he knew they planned to publish his comments. They differed among themselves, however, as to whether he said these were his personal views, or he was quoting others' opinions.

Stressing that Fr. Akbulut had been the target of a deliberate plot, Pekdemir requested the court to acquit his client without further wrongful injury. "The real defendants in this case should be the journalists," Pekdemir told the judge, declaring that they had violated press ethics and also deliberately incited ethno-religious enmity.

Pekdemir filed a court exhibit of an interview published by "Radikal" newspaper on November 9, featuring comments from Prof. Halil Berktay, a historian from Sabanci University specializing on 19th and 20th century Turkish history.

"His comments were much stronger than those made by my client," the lawyer pointed out, "but no case has been opened against him or this newspaper."

At the close of the hearing, the presiding judge ordered a copy of the priest's comments, recorded on video by "Hurriyet" reporter Ramazan Oz and later aired on TV Channel D, to be submitted to the court. The footage will be examined at the next hearing, set for February 22.

Some 60 visitors crowded into the courtroom for the hour-long hearing, including at least a dozen foreigners and scores of Turkish journalists and cameramen.

The diplomatic missions of Germany, the Netherlands, the United States and Sweden all sent observers. Other representatives included members of the European, Swedish and German parliaments, a political officer from the European Union, and two German representatives of Sign of Hope, a Christian human rights advocacy group.

According to one Swedish member of parliament, 65 members of the Swedish Parliament signed a letter of inquiry about Akbulut's case that was forwarded to the Turkish government just before the trial.

Akbulut told Compass he was not mistreated physically during his lengthy, early October police interrogation, which was sparked by the media releases about his comments.

He said he found it particularly insulting, however, when he was asked why he still insisted on speaking Syriac with his family, instead of Turkish. Turkey's Syrian Orthodox Christians pride themselves in keeping alive the Syriac dialect of Aramaic closest to that spoken by Jesus in the first century. It is the language still used in their worship and family life today.

Gabriele Yonan, author of "The Assyrian Genocide: An Unforgettable Holocaust" and an observer who came from Berlin for the trial, said she was bemused that the Turkish state would claim the priest's comments constituted a crime, while at the same time allowing her book legal publishing rights in Turkish.

"How is it possible that one can buy such a book here freely, but on the other hand, there is this court case against Fr. Akbulut, who said in short exactly what is printed on my 400 pages?" she commented to Compass.

After the court hearing, Chief Prosecutor Saban Erturk told some of the foreign observers who met him in his office that he was "optimistic on the outcome" of the trial. "It is our desire that diplomats have correct information, and not judge cases here ignorantly," he said. "We cannot accept any attempt to belittle Turkey."