A commission of the Turkish Parliament has agreed to consider a proposal to open the Hagia Sophia up to Muslims for worship and officially recognize it as a mosque. See this link for the story. http://communities.washingtontimes.com/neighborhood/looking-luke/2013/feb/5/turkish-parliament-considers-converting-hagia-soph/

We are conducting a survey to understand international sentiment on the issue. Take a minute to respond to the survey (only two questions). 
September 13, 2012 – On the 11th anniversary of September 11th, violent Muslim protests swept over the US Embassy in Cairo and the US consulate in Benghazi leaving 4 dead, including the US Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens. Americans are outraged at these attacks on US sovereignty, attacks that could be viewed as an act of war. Indeed, two navy destroyers are currently being deployed off the coast of Libya.

The attacks were allegedly sparked by negative portrayals of the prophet Mohammed in a film by Sam Bacile. Yet, every thinking person knows that this is nothing more than an excuse for violence. There are hundreds of publications, videos, films, books and blogs in the West that could be taken as an "insult to the prophet", especially given the relatively thin-skin that evolution has apparently selected for in North Africa and the Middle East.

The “insult to the prophet” justification for Muslim violence is beginning to sound a little hollow especially when it is regularly trotted out any time a radical group decides to resort to violence. In fact, the very notion that Allah is so jealous of the prophet's reputation and so impotent at defending it Himself that he is dependent upon mob justice is hardly a flattering portrayal of the ‘Lord of the Worlds’.

It is difficult to imagine there being a strong theological foundation for such a position. Yet the Joint Chiefs Chairman has apparently made an appeal to a Florida pastor asking him to withdraw support for the film. We can, of course, be thankful that this pastor was not put in front of a firing squad or thrown into a dungeon, which is what would have certainly happened in many Muslim countries.

The fact that a senior US military official is making these overtures of appeasement is disturbing, especially when the lastest intelligence is that the attacks were coordinated and carried out by individuals with military training and hardware, hardly your garden-variety mob and more proof that the “insulting the prophet” claims are merely meant to provide cover.

Back to the attacks... These acts of violence should come as no surprise to anyone. But our capacity to be surprised by the obvious is one of the truly baffling things about human nature. So, let’s recap and see if we can make sense of the latest developments in the Muslim world.

The unrest that began in Tunisia in December 18, 2010 and spread throughout the Middle East was eventually dubbed the ‘Arab Spring’, which to the informed observer is a complete misnomer, a sign that ignorance is bliss, hope springs eternal and optimisim can be a psychological disorder indicating a serious disconnect with reality.

Spring? Who thinks up this stuff? If one means the blooming of bigoted Islamic fascism, then maybe, just maybe, ‘spring’ is a fitting description. However, those with experience in the Middle East always knew that the 'Arab Spring', this movement to plant ‘democracy’ in the poisonous soil of the Middle East, would yield a harvest of religious radicalism and further violence.

The reason is simple and can be illustrated with the open elections held in Palestine at the urging of the US in 2006. This democratic process to validate the “will of the people” brought to power the political wing of one of the world’s most radical terrorist groups – Hamas. This immediately led to armed conflict, resulting in the division of the Paletinian territory into the Gaza Strip controlled by Hamas and the West Bank controlled by Fatah.

Would it be a truism to say that a fervently religious population guided by an ideology that explicitly marries religion and politics will elect officials who have similar values? Probably so, but it clearly bears repeating. Democracy is no panacea to the ills of Muslim societies. It does, however, guarantee that the Islamic values held by the majority will play a larger role in politics.

Fast forward from 2006 to December 2010 and the start of the Arab spring that received direct and indirect support from America. First, the admittedly corrupt, but pro-Western president of Tunisia was deposed and eventually replaced with the Islamist Ennahda Party. Islamic Fundamentalists 1 – Middle East Tolerance 0.

Later, Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarek, a staunch US ally in the face of domestic opposition, a leader who honored a peace treaty with Israel, negotiated peacefires with Hamas and kept Muslim fundamentalists from gaining political power in his own country was thrown under the bus.

The result? The ‘relatively’ secular regime of the most influential Arab country in the world was replaced by the Muslim Brotherhood in ‘democratic elections,’ resulting in more fundamentalist government, more persecution of non-Muslim minorities, and the storming of the US Embassy this past Tuesday. Islamic Fundamentalists 2 – Middle East Tolerance 0.

Then, just last year, the US and NATO encouraged and assisted a popular uprising in Libya aimed at overthrowing that murderous tyrant and dictator Muammer Gaddafi. The Libyan dictator had a troubled history with the West due to issues such as the Lockerbie and Berlin bombings, his demands for greater revenues from Libyan oil, intense opposition to the state of Israel and a laundry list of other sordid and sundry crimes.

Yet, he was no friend of fundamentalist terror groups either. He is reported to have personally presided over executions of members of the Islamic extremist group Hizb-ut Tahrir. Religion was for Gaddafi a political tool not an ideology.

In 2003, however, after the downfall of Iraq, he renounced his WMD program and began full cooperation with international inspectors. Yet, his sins caught up with him, and the tryant had to go to make room for democracy. It is not yet clear, but if the murder of the US ambassador on Tuesday is any indication, the Islamic Fundamentalists are advancing on an unprotected goal and likely to score again.

If the secular “Butcher of Damascus” Hafez al-Assad is brought down in the months to come, the next Syrian government will also be a fundamentalist Sunni government as the Free Syrian Army has already proven itself to be just as violent but more “pious” than its oppponent.

If there is a common thread here, it is that the US has overtly supported the overthrow of all these admittedly corrupt but also non-fundamentalist regimes while equally corrupt but overtly religious governments like those in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, which also faced popular dissent as a result of the Arab Spring, were spared any negative coverage and the uprising were quietly and resolutely suppressed without receiving US support.

Apparently, the US policy of supporting democracy only applies to dictators that are non-religious like Gaddafi, Saddam, Mubarek, and Assad, but not to the House of Saud and Bahrain.  

On Tuesday, the US reaped the first fruits of the ‘Arab Spring’ in the form of death and mayhem.  Let’s all hope that this ‘Arab Spring’ doesn't transform the Middle East into a Muslim Brotherhood fraternity house of such religious intolerance and fanaticism that we one day long for men like Saddam and Gaddafi.

Students of the New Testament know it best as Asia Minor, Paul's destination on his first missionary journeys to preach the Gospel to the Gentiles. The names of the Roman provinces through which Paul traveled preaching and teaching are still read every week in Sunday Schools across America.

The ancient names for the modern state of Turkey - Bithynia, Galatia, Pontus, Cappadocia, Phrygia, etc. are not all that unfamiliar to American believers.

Paul's preaching attracted converts but never failed to draw fierce opposition from the local population. On more than one occasion the natives, who might have been Greeks, Phrygians, Romans, Lycians, or any mixture of Assyrians, Hittites and Persians, tried to kill him and his companions for introducing to the Empire an unknown god, a new teaching of peace and love.

This has never been a popular message with Empire (think Darth Vader), but it eventually prevailed and all of Anatolia embraced the gospel. In fact, several of Paul's epistles were addressed to Anatolian congregations and all of the seven churches of Revelation are found in modern-day Turkey.

Now, two thousand years later, things have come full circle and those bearing Christ’s message of peace in Turkey find themselves facing opposition very similar to that encountered by the early apostles. In fact, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom claims that state persecution has become so serious that the very survival of Christian communities in Turkey is at stake.

The report released last week reclassified Turkey as a Country of Particular Concern (CPC).   
This article is Part II of a series on religious freedom in Turkey. The first article introduced the USCIRF report, touching on troubling issues related to its politicization and Turkey’s state control of religion.  

Even though the commission recommended Turkey be put in the same category as offenders like Saudi Arabia, the USCIRF report listed a number of positive developments in the country. Numerous articles have been written in the West about how Prime Minister Erdogan's "mildly Islamist" government heralds a changing of the tide and will knock Turkey out of NATO’s orbit and lead to more radical Islamic policies. Yet, the facts tell a slightly different story.

1) Erdogan has promised to replace the current constitution implemented by the military in 1982. This is particularly significant since much of the institutionalized “persecution” of religious groups in Turkey is connected with its peculiar view of secularism, which essentially makes the state the final arbiter in all religious affairs.

His opponents rightly understand this as an attempt to unshackle religion, thereby giving Islamists a greater voice. But, in all fairness, religious freedom cannot be guaranteed otherwise. Practically all religious minorities have welcomed the idea of a new constitution, proof that there is an urgent need.

2) In 2008, the Foundations Law was amended to facilitate the operations of religious foundations. Soon after it went into effect, 1,400 applications were received asking for the return of religious properties seized during the Republican era by the government. Over the next three years, 200 properties were, in fact, returned.

In 2011, Erdogan also passed an executive order that made it possible to obtain compensation for properties that had been previously seized by the state and could not be returned. Both of these steps are significant.

3) The Associations Law passed in 2004 and amended in 2007 makes it possible for all religious organizations to hold religious services and determine their own religious curriculum. This too was progress made by Erdogan’s government, yet one cannot help but wonder why it took “modern”, “democratic” Turkey so long to provide some legal underpinning for such a basic right.

Celebration of victory regarding this important civil liberty could be premature, for associations may not own property and their status may be revoked by local governors.

4) Erdogan’s AKP government has also granted unprecedented permission for minority religious services as well as building and restoration projects (e.g. the Armenian Akdamar church and Sümela Orthodox Monastery), indicating a new era of openness. The government has even been severely criticized by nationalists for its “leniency” with minority religious groups.

5) Although anti-Semitism has spread throughout the Middle East like a malignant tumor and Erdogan’s unprecedented popularity with Arabs is due almost entirely to his pro-Palestinian positions and criticisms of Israel, Jews in Turkey continue to enjoy rights seldom given to them in other Muslim countries.

In fact, Prime Minister Erdogan once called Turkey Israel’s most important friend in the region, and said that anti-Semitism was a “crime against humanity,” statements one can hardly imagine coming from most Arab states. Furthermore, on January 29, 2012, Turkey became the first majority Muslim country to broadcast the 9-hour documentary Shoah on state television to commemorate International Holocaust Remembrance Day!

This is only a summary of the AKP’s progress regarding religious freedom, progress unparalleled in the history of the Republic of Turkey, progress which has been affirmed by every religious minority in the country, and progress the USCIRF report dismisses as ad hoc.

Why are these impressive reforms being dismissed? Why is the AKP not being congratulated in the West for taking steps to promote religious freedom that no other government in the history of Turkey has been able to achieve?

It’s a simple question with a simple answer hidden in a phrase used several times in the report – ad hoc.

In other words, the commission believes that none of these efforts address the institutionalized injustice that places onerous restrictions on religious freedom in Turkey. All of these reforms could be reversed tomorrow because no real protections have been afforded these communities.

At the end of the report, the commissioners offered this jarring explanation for their surprising recommendation to have Turkey downgraded from the “Watch” list to a Country of Particular Concern:

“After past genocide, and other violence, and current, suffocating legal restrictions, Turkey's Christian communities are barely hanging on.

Every year that passes without substantial religious reform places these minorities in greater peril and helps seal their fate. In the Arab Spring, Turkey holds itself out to be an Islamist model. But it is no model for religious freedom. We have waited for ten years for the AKP to make a real difference in the Christians’ fate. We can no longer sit by and just “Watch.”

Let’s look at the restrictions faced by Christians, Jews and religious minorities in Turkey.

Restrictions related to property. Since its founding, the Republic of Turkey has seized thousands of properties such as schools, businesses, hospitals, orphanages and cemeteries from religious minority congregations. The government’s right to confiscate such property is still in effect, putting the ownership of any religious minority in jeopardy and insuring “submission” to the powers that be.

Turkey does not recognize the corporate legal status of any religious minority. Instead, it has drafted a byzantine labyrinth of laws to control property ownership, transfer and operations. It not only restricts the flow of funds from a congregation in one part of the country to sister congregations in another part of the country, but only Armenian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox and Jewish communities may refer to their buildings as churches or synagogues. All other groups are merely “cultural centers” or “community centers.”

One of the most striking examples of the state’s draconian control is the Turkish government's confiscation of the 1,600-year-old Mor Gabriel Monastery, which served as the headquarters of the Syriac Church from 1160 to 1932. This seizure was realized with a ruling from the Turkish Supreme Court overturning the ruling of a lower court and granting a significant portion of the property to the Treasury.

Restrictions on Training Clergy The only center for Greek Orthodox theological education, the Halki Seminary on the island of Heybeli, has been closed since 1971. As a result, there is no way for the church to train new leaders in Turkey. Of course, the Greek Orthodox population of Istanbul has shrunk from approximately 100,000 to 4,000 since the 1955 pogrom executed to force Greeks out of the country.

The government has indicated a willingness to reopen the seminary, but maybe that is only because the congregation has dwindled to the point that its extinction is all but certain. Whatever the case, 41 years later, the seminary remains closed and there is disagreement over the school's official status.

Other religious minorities are in the same boat. The country's largest non-Muslim religious minority, the Armenian Orthodox church, also has no seminary for theological education and currently has only 26 priests serving population of approximately 65,000.

Religious Education Religious education is constitutionally mandated in Turkish primary and secondary schools and the curriculum is determined by the Ministry of Education’s Department of Religious Instruction. Although non-Muslim children are not, by law, forced to attend, some schools have refused to allow the exemption.

Moreover, the curriculum’s description of minority beliefs is biased, factually incorrect and encourages societal discrimination because of the insulting language employed. For example, Christian missionaries are referred to as criminals and children are taught that the Bible has been changed.

The only minority schools allowed by law are for communities covered by the Lausanne Treaty – the Armenian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox and Jewish minorities. But regulations make is difficult for minority children to register even in these schools and there are no schools for minorities such as Catholics, Protestants, Alevis, Syriacs or Jehovah’s Witnesses.

In short, the policies of the Turkish government seem to be designed to ensure that the influence and growth of minority religions is strictly controlled, even over their own children. The purpose of these policies seems obvious: to force assimilation and thwart diversity.

The accuracy of the Commission on International Religious Freedom was confirmed by a conversation with Turkish pastor Ibrahim Deveci. Here are the highlights of that interview:

“It is a difficult place for a Christian to live. It's hard to find a job, get married or even express my views in public. It is difficult to work in certain organizations or obtain a security clearance.

“It is really hard for children. In Diyarbakır, one child was pressured to repeat the Islamic confession of faith and when he refused, he was slapped by the teacher. From that time forward, the other children treated him as an enemy.

“Sometimes, people are afraid of persecution so they don’t change the religion on their ID cards and are forced to take the mandatory religion (Sunni) classes.

“The biggest threat we face is the threat to our lives. There have been more martyrs during the last few years than at any other time in modern history. Two Catholic priests have been killed and three brothers in Malatya.”

When asked how Christianity was perceived in Turkey, he said, “I'm afraid we are viewed very negatively and it has gotten steadily worse over the last 18 years.”

In response to a question about whether the AKP was turning Turkey away from the West and towards the world of Islam, Mr. Deveci said, “I don’t get that involved in politics. But, this government (AKP) is clearly more strategic and more determined to spread Islam. Ironically, it was more difficult under previous governments. This is the easiest time in modern history for the Turkish church. We don't know what will happen in future, but we seem to have more freedom now.

“This is because we are a very small minority - around 4000 believers. So they don't take us seriously. Yet, at the same time, we are viewed as a threat. It seems that some rights have been given back due to the EU. Some foundations are being returned to ethnic minorities, some churches are being repaired and restored. It is good but inadequate. A little make-up on a few churches is not enough. Christians need to be recognized as legitimate citizens of the State.” 

Mr. Deveci clearly feels like Christians in Turkey are viewed as turncoats or traitors.

When the conversation turned to the fact that 20% of Turkey was Christian when the Ottoman Empire collapsed and yet today Christians make up a mere 0.1% of the population, Mr Deveci said:

“There are many reasons for this. Essentially, it is an ‘evaporation’ policy, an anihilation policy. Most Christians have immigrated to other countries to escape persecution. The AKP thinks the new generation is a bit luke-warm when it comes to Islam. They want to see a religious revival. I will be happy with my country when I see that Christians are granted the same rights as Muslims.

“There was and is an effort to unify the nation in terms of both language and religion. They say, ‘Every Turk is born a Muslim.’ Actually there is incredible diversity here, but people have not been free to express this. Turkey has suffered greatly due to the loss of cultural diversity.

“They talk about tolerance. Yes, there is tolerance – that is, until Christians become a bit more informed and start sharing their faith. That's where tolerance ends.”

Mr. Deveci’s perspective certainly seems to corroborate the 2012 US International Religious Freedom Report. In fact, anyone who knows anything about Turkey has known about the severe restrictions on religious freedom for years.

Consider the following US diplomatic cable published by Wikileaks regarding an anti-missionary sermon sent to every mosque in the country by the Directorate of Religious Affairs, proof that American officials have long been aware of Turkey’s infractions.

“Turks tend to be profoundly hypocritical on issues relating to Islam and Christianity. Hypersensitive to any perceived Western slights or misconceptions about Islam, they routinely spread misinformation about Christianity and sow fear about missionaries. Gormez, like other pious Turks, considers conversion to Islam a natural progression, but is deeply resentful of Muslims who convert to Christianity. It is important to remember that this insidiously anti-Christian sermon was prepared not by a private Islamic group but by one of the largest branches of the GOT (Government of Turkey) bureaucracy.”

However, NATO membership and a strategic partnership with the US have their advantages, one of the most important of which is special treatment when it comes to violations of basic human rights.

Maybe this report signals an end to these days of privilege and the beginning of genuine pressure on Turkey to change. Unfortunately, even if it does come, it will be too little and too late for the thousands of religious minorities who have immigrated or been absorbed. As the commission stated so well, it is time for America to stop being a bystander when it comes to the violation of individual civil liberties.

Being a "strategic partner" must not be a Get-Out-Of-Jail-Free card.  

The sign reads - End tyranny - free the headcovering...

For those who take the time to examine Turkey's relationship with the West, it can be confusing. Like lots of relationships today, ‘it's complicated.’

Last week, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) released its 2012 report, which among other things, designated Turkey a “Country of Particular Concern.” This puts it in the same category as such tyrannical regimes as Saudi Arabia, Iran and Pakistan. It is hard to imagine anything that would have insulted Turkey’s neo-Ottoman sensibilities more.

To be lumped in with Wahhabi-led Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran. Oh, the injustice! For indeed Turkey is far freer, far more modern, far more tolerant than those countries. The Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs expressed its displeasure by saying,

“No impartial observer could take seriously the allegations in this report, which             intentionally turns a blind eye to the advances and the political will that has          constituted the basis for reforms. This report is null and void for us.”

Apparently, not all of the Commission members thought it was the right decision either. Four of the nine commissioners wrote dissenting opinions.

Does Turkey deserve to be classified as a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC)? Anyone who reads the facts of the report would have to agree it does.  The problem is that putting Turkey in the same category as Sudan or Pakistan is patently unfair. The solution? A new category that would suit regimes like Saudi Arabia. We could call this new designation Hypocritical Extremist Loathers of Liberty (HELL).

Is this new category likely to be created? No. The reason is simple. Politics and pandering. Case in point – again Saudi Arabia.

This is the same country that refuses to acknowledge diversity of any kind when it comes to religion and prohibits any non-Muslim worship; yet, it was not even classified as a Country of Particular Concern until 2004, fully six years after the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 became law.  The worst violator on the planet managed to keep its name off the list for six years! This taints the objective value of the report considerably.

Ratings like this should be based on objective criteria and the facts on the ground not politics. Yet, after this year’s report was released, it came to light that Don Argue, one of the five commissioners who recommended the CPC classification for Turkey, tried to change his mind at the last minute. The reason for his sudden change of heart? A visit from Assistant Secretary of State Michael Posner.

This unacceptable State Department intrusion into the affairs of an “independent commission” apparently occurred after one of the commissioners informed State about the results of the deliberations. This news was not well received, but it was too late to change the designation because business and debate had already been concluded in accordance with the commission’s duly accepted procedural timetable.

The Obama administration has, like the Bush administration, maintained close ties with the government of Prime Minister Erdoğan, an outspoken Muslim whose religious values have wide appeal in the Middle East. But the administration's last-minute attempt to keep its NATO ally from being embarrassed left it with egg on its face. It is a veritable scandal.

Back to the report. A casual reader of this detailed description of obstacles to religious freedom in Turkey will be surprised to find the following assertion (emphasis my own):

“The state’s strict control of religion in the public sphere significantly restricts religious freedom, especially for non-Muslim religious minority communities – including the Greek, Armenian, and Syriac Orthodox Churches, the Roman Catholic and Protestant Churches, and the Jewish community – as well as for the majority Sunni Muslim community and the country’s largest minority, the Alevis.”

Apparently, there is no religious group in Turkey that isn’t persecuted! And strangely enough there is some truth to this. I say “some” truth because, well, it’s complicated, which is why restricted religious freedom even for the majority Sunni Muslims is, for Americans, counter-intuitive.

First of all, the Republic of Turkey is a secular state as defined by its 1923 constitution, a fact reiterated in the 1982 constitution. What outsiders don’t understand is that “secularism” is the state religion; a fact our readers will see shortly.

Second, the openly Islamic Justice and Development Party (AKP) led by Prime Minister Erdoğan has ruled the country since 2002, sparking a wide-ranging debate about how Turkey was moving out of the West’s orbit and towards an axis that displayed more solidarity with the Muslim world.

Thirdly, according to government statistics, Turkey is 99.8% Muslim (Alevis are included here). If this figure is adjusted for “atheist” or “agnostic” Muslims, then the number is probably more like 95%. Ninety-five percent is still an overwhelming majority by any definition, so how is the religious freedom of Muslims restricted in a majority Muslim population?  

It is at this point that Americans find themselves in a realm that defies description by all modern paradigms. To illustrate this, consider that 1) until 2007 the Turkish Department of Religious Affairs determined the content of all Friday sermons.

Imagining a United States of America where Southern Baptist preachers and TV evangelists utilize outlines they receive from Washington bureaucrats to provide weekly spiritual nourishment for their flocks is almost as hard as imagining a US Department of Religious Affairs in the first place.

2) The salaries of all the Sunni Muslim clerics in the country are paid by the government and mosques are generally built by the state, not individual congregations, a fact that is extremely unpopular with tax payers such as atheists, Alevis, and other minority religious groups who do not benefit from this state largesse.

When the French courageously passed a law banning the burqa, it was hotly contested in the West as an infringement of Muslim rights and only a decade of the fear and tension arising from the War on Terror actually gave the ban any chance at all. So, my American friends are always shocked to learn that, until very recently, 3) women in Turkey were not allowed to attend any university classes or work in government buildings if they wore a head-covering.  

Though restrictions on the freedom of religious expression have improved for Sunnis in the last five years, the report still finds this "progress" unacceptable:

“The government officially does not permit the individual or communal practice of Islam   outside of government-regulated institutions. The majority Sunni Muslim community is       under the control of the Diyanet, or Presidency of Religious Affairs, which reports directly to the Prime Minister.”

Anyone can see that such restrictions on religious expression are antithetical to a free society. The Turkish state controls religion even if there has been some relaxing of this control since the Islamist AKP came to power in 2002. The military coups in 1960, 1971 and 1980 were in part justified by referring to a "threat to the secular order", and pious Turkish Muslims have long complained of state persecution.

This sort of “government interference” in the affairs of religious communities is simply inconceivable in America. The Turkish tradition of exercising state control over religious leaders is not, however, new. It was common practice in the Ottoman Empire, but in the Republic of Turkey, secularism was a deceptively innocent term that served as a disguise for the social engineering the survivors of WWI felt was necessary for Turkey to survive as a nation.

It did not mean freedom of religion in the sense that the state is neutral. The state is anything but neutral. After all, the Hanafi school of Sunni Islam is the defacto doctrine of the state and freedom of religion is not the primary concern. Control is. (The third part in this series entitled "The Backside of Empire” will address this issue in detail).

To be fair, some modern Turkish secularists have insisted that without such state control, the majority Muslim population would naturally revert to a governmental system based on sharia law and that the only way to ensure the “secular” country envisioned by the great reformer Mustafa Kemal Atatürk is to keep a tight rein on the expression of religious zeal in order to counteract the various religious groups that still want to restore the Caliphate and sharia law.

This approach could be described as ensuring not “freedom of religion” but “freedom from religion” as there is no compulsion about matters of faith in Turkey. The freedom guaranteed is essentially the freedom to not practice their faith. The importance of this freedom cannot be overlooked in a region where countries like Saudi Arabia actually have “religious police” to ensure that the population is ‘walking the straight and narrow’.

In summary, it’s complicated…

In our next post, we will look at state control over minority religious groups – the real reason for the new rating given by the USCIRF.

This is part one in a series on “Understanding Freedom in Turkey”

I want to thank The High Tide and the Turn for the interview. It was a lot of fun but then I do love intelligent discussion about writing, politics, religion and the direction of our society. The first part was published here. And the second part is available here.

The fairy tale continues... Yesterday, I received the a link to an audio recording in which a section of the Gospel of Barnabas, page 97 it claims, is read by a computer reader. The sound is eerie, the images Orwellian, the message clear. "The church has duped the world by hiding the truth about Mohammed." The Vimeo account belongs to wawin fauzani and the whole video is only 2.24 minutes long.

The permanence of a lie and the fragility of the truth are indeed amazing. The truth seems to fall out of favor at the slightest hint of scandal while a lie can brazenly continue to exist and assert its relevance in the face of overwhelming proof that it is false.

Take this article I found today on the "Arab news" website by someone who calls himself Dr. Afnan Hussein Fatani. The reason I say "who calls himself..." is because it is hard to believe anyone with even a modicum of training in research, and I assume someone with a PhD has more than a 'modicum', could string together such an incredible list of lies, misrepresentations and twisted facts.

The article contains so many fallacies it is impossible to debunk them all here in a short blog post, which is, of course, the whole point of the Turkish proverb. "Sling the mud. Even if it doesn't stick the stain will remain." The point is to create doubt.

1) The author begins by correcting an error he made in a previous article which was pointed out by a reader. The error? He had given the date of the Gospel of Barnabas as the 2nd century BC. That's right. A gospel containing the message of Jesus before Jesus was born! 

He claims to have made this error inadvertently, that it was a "copy-paste" error. Fair enough. We're all human. But then he proves his lack of breadth on the topic by saying further down, "The Gospel of Barnabas and the Dead Sea Scrolls have often been associated and confused since they do have something in common apart from the overlapping of dates." What? Whatever...

It gets worse.

He goes on to say, "The Gospel of Barnabas is believed by many historians to be part of the collection of Dead Sea scrolls. According to early sources of the 1950s and early 60s before the 1967 Israeli invasion of Palestine when the Archeological museum was overrun and all the publication of scrolls were blocked, a copy of the Barnabas Bible was discovered by Bedouin shepherds in the Qumran caves along with 30 other scrolls which included handwritten gospels, religious writings, as well as lengthy accounts of buried treasures such as the famous Copper Scrolls."

The drivel continues.

"Unfortunately, this historic discovery of the Barnabas Gospel among the Qumran scrolls cannot be fully collaborated today since direct access to the scrolls, most of which has still not been published, is limited to members of the International Team of Scroll Editors who currently work under the auspices of the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA)."

I knew it. I knew it. The Jews are behind this evil plot. They are behind everything!

But why is it only a Saudi Arabian with no access to the Dead Sea Scrolls is the only person on the planet claiming that the Gospel of Barnabas is among them? Does make one wonder...

2) The author does get some things right though. For example, he knows that a list of banned books dating back to the 5th century does include a work called the "Gospel of Barnabas" but then he blows it by making the following claim.

"Iranaeus, an Early Church Father (130-200), quoted extensively from it."

Now, the problem with this statement is simple and unfortunate for him. It isn't true. There are no quotations from the supposed Gospel of Barnabas preserved anywhere, and that is too bad. Many researchers like myself would love to see one. This spurious piece of "information" is wishful fabrication based on the introduction to the 15th century Gospel of Barnabas, which merely refers to Iranaeus.

3) The following paragraph is so torturous I hardly know where to begin. One would have to write 1000 words to enumerate and debunk all of the mistakes here.  I'll be brief.

"As many historians have pointed out, the gospel of Barnabas was accepted as a Canonical Gospel in the churches of Alexandria up until 325 A.D. when hundreds of original Gospels in Hebrew script were destroyed by the Nicene Council under the auspices of the Pagan Emperor Constantine. An Edict was issued that any one in possession of these Gospels would be put to death. Fortunately, the Pope secured a copy of the Barnabas Gospel in 383 A.D. and kept it in his private library. This Italian manuscript passed through different hands till it reached Prince Eugene of Savoy in 1713. It now rests in Hofbibliothek in Vienna. Another copy of the Barnabas Gospel was discovered in 478 A.D. when the remains of Barnabas were discovered and a copy written by his own hand was found placed upon his breast.."

a. The gospel of Barnabas was never in a canonical list
b. There is no record of hundreds of Hebrew scripts being destroyed by the Nicene Council, which as convened to discuss the nature of Jesus not the cannon. Besides, the scripts would have been in Aramaic :-) (a fact he referenced earlier but forgot in his rush to judgment).
c. A manuscript written in 383 AD couldn't be in Italian. The language didn't even exist yet.
d. The supposed "remains of Barnabas" are based on legend and a priests "dream" and even then the Gospel found on his breast is the Gospel of Matthew, not the Gospel of Barnabas.

I thought mind-altering drugs were forbidden in Saudi Arabia... What is this guy smoking?

Then, I got to thinking about it and realized they must be mandatory. The entire population is fed a steady diet of the most dangerous drug of all - 'ideology' blended with unadulterated 'bigotry' and 'willful ignorance'.

Societies are shaped by their beliefs, "faith" is shaped by "revelation", and so the king who forges a nation must rely heavily on the "forgerers of Scripture".
Today, WND published an article allegedly written by former CIA operative Reza Kahlili on the infamous Gospel of Barnabas. Apparently, the Iranian mullahs are claiming that this gospel hidden by the church is about to cause the total collapse of the Christian faith as it records Jesus prophesying the coming of Mohammed and the Muslim Messiah.

For those of us who know the truth, it is a ridiculous bit of grandstanding and buffoonery. However, I have no doubt that it plays well in the Middle East and has plenty of pious followers puffing out their chest in anticipation of the imminent victory of their faith.

The sad fact, however, is that this little "factoid" about the evil church suppressing the Gospel of Barnabas and covering up the fact that Jesus predicted the coming of Mohammed has been trotted out with amazing regularity for decades. Of course, the intent is clear. Keep the "us" versus "them" game going and constantly sling mud at the only monotheistic faith that could possibly compete with Islam.

In one respect, Muslims are no different from people anywhere. They are predisposed to believe any report that confirms what they already believe and will do no research to verify the authenticity of the claims being made.

Maybe the question for us today is what have we believed without conducting proper intellectual due diligence?
In the midst of the War on Terror and the increasing polarization between Islam and the West, it is important to maintain perspective. Although the idea that Muslims can be as kind-hearted and merciful as Christians is not a popular one in some circles, it is true nonetheless. There are "good" Muslims and they're not all dead...

Read more from my latest article over at the Washington Times.
I was honored last week by a request from the Washington Times Communities to write a weekly column. Interested reader can find me there weekly under "Looking For Luke".  My first article is an introduction to the issue of politics and religion. Having lived in the Middle East for so many years, the issue of politics and religion is one that strikes very close to home, and it was one of the driving force behind the novel. Open question - why are the two so inextricably intertwined?  I look forward to hearing your answers....
After yesterday's post about the Gospel of Barnabas, I was informed today that this website is not accessible from the country of Turkey! This is fascinating. Less than a week after Turkish newspapers report that the Vatican has requested permission to view what the Turkish government claims is an ancient Aramaic manuscript about the life of Christ, this website you are reading now is blocked by Turkey! I suppose it should be taken as a compliment. Obviously, somebody somewhere thinks this is important. Unfortunately, it is also a sign of paranoia and a lack of commitment to individual liberties.

Dozens of Turkish journalists now languish in Turkish prisons because of this government's desire to control the press and the flow of information. For example, Ahmet Şık, a journalist who wrote a book entitled Imamın Ordusu (The Imam's Army), has been in prison for over a year. He was arrested before the book was even published.

Dan Brown, the author of the Da Vinci Code, is extremely popular in Turkey as many people there believe that the Vatican is the nexus of all evil, and are happy to see Christian values undermined. This says a lot about the predominant paradigm, doesn't it? Still, as a person who loves Turkey and the Turkish people, it is difficult to imagine why a work of fiction would be perceived as a threat, especially when the novel says so many good things about the country and their culture.