11/03/2006, 00.00
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Two converts to Christianity accused of "insulting Turkishness"

The two men are charged under Section 301 of the Penal Code of trying to convert teenagers. Nobel Prize laureate for literature Orhan Pamuk was also charged under the same section, which is challenged by the European Union.

Ankara (AsiaNews) – Turan Topal and Hakan Tastan, two converts to Christianity, are facing trial on November 23, and could get six months to three years in prison for "insulting Turkishness", inciting hatred against Islam and secretly compiling data on private citizens for a local Bible correspondence course.

Both men, who reject the accusations, were charged under Section 301 of Turkey's Penal Code which makes "insulting Turkishness" an offence. This is one of the thorniest issues on Turkey's path to entry in the European Union.

Turan Topal, 46, and Hakan Tastan, 37, are not the only Turkish citizens hauled into court for allegedly violating Section 301—97 other preceded them, among them the 2006 Nobel Prize laureate in literature Orhan Pamuk.

Haydar Polat, attorney for the two Christians, told Compass Direct News, a Protestant news agency, that his clients are accused of approaching grade school and high school students in Silivri on the Marmara Sea coast, 70 kilometre (45 miles) west of Istanbul, and attempting to convert them to Christianity.

According to the written charges, the three plaintiffs, identified as Fatih Kose, 23, Alper, 16, and Oguz, 17, claimed the two Christians had called Islam a "primitive and fabricated religion" and had described Turks as a "cursed people."

They also accused the defendants of opposing the Turkish military, encouraging sexual misconduct and procuring funds from abroad to entice young people in Silivri to become Christians.

Tastan and Topal deny all charges.

Not until 8 am on October 11, when two carloads of police officers arrived with a search warrant at Tastan's home, did either of the men knew they were under investigation.

Tastan, who is married and has two small children, was informed that a complaint had been made against him claiming he had unlicensed guns and was conducting illegal missionary activities.

When he was told to come to his small Istanbul office to find Turan, he found out that he had been under surveillance for a month, secretly photographed and taped. At the office, police confiscated two computers and an array of books and papers.

During their interrogations, the two Christians realised that the charges were based on three or four trips they had made to Silivri months earlier to meet a teacher and several high school students who had contacted an Istanbul-based Bible correspondence course requesting a visit.

Just four days after the two were released some newspapers carried stories about the affair, reporting that parents of some Silivri students had complained that the two men were promoting missionary activities among grade school students. The papers claimed that their office, linked to the Taksim Protestant Church, had compiled names and detailed private data on 5,000 residents in the Marmara region.

One paper, Zaman, even claimed that the two Christians were connected to Hakan Ekinci, the man who on October 3 hijacked a Turkish Airlines plane to Italy where he claimed to be Christian and a conscientious objector, and had appealed to Pope Benedict XVI for asylum.

For the spokesman for the Alliance of Protestant Churches in Turkey, Isa Karatas, there is no evidence against the men. Charges filed against them are based only on verbal allegations without any proof.

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