Source AP ©

Christian in Turkey: insecurity

The grave of the quite and religious German man was dumped over with dirt in Eastern Turkey. His murder case has drawn attention to the plight of Christians in this Muslim country.

Tilmann Geske, a shy and hardworking man, lived almost 10 of his 46 years in Turkey. He and two Turkish Christians were found dead last Wednesday, bound hand and foot and with their throats slit, at a publishing house that distributes Bibles. Five young men were detained and charged with murder; they allegedly said they killed to protect Islam.

On Friday, after Tilmann's funeral, his wife Susanne discussed her husband and her future in an interview at her apartment in Malatya, a gritty town that was home to Turkey's first Kurdish president, Turgut Ozal, and to Mehmet Ali Agca, who tried to kill Pope John Paul II in 1981.

"I feel this is my place," Susanne said, vowing to remain in Turkey with her three children.

The victims in last week's attack were members of a tiny Christian population in Malatya numbering less than 20. In Turkey, Christians and other non-Muslims make up less than 1 percent of the population, but nonetheless are objects of suspicion, main actors in many conspiracy theories and occasionally the targets of violence.

Susanne and Tilmann met at church in Lindau, Germany, when he was working mornings as a pastor at a Protestant church and afternoons as a forklift operator, and she was looking for a job. They first came to Turkey in 1992 on their honeymoon.

The next year they came again, spending three weeks in Turkey's undeveloped east, the setting for fighting between Kurdish guerrillas and Turkish government forces. The Geskes were undeterred, and a few years later decided to settle permanently in Adana, near the Mediterranean coast. They learned to speak Turkish and raised their two girls and a boy: Michal Janina, now age 13, Lukas, 10 and Miriam, 8.

Missionary work is severely frowned upon in Turkey and missionaries are often deported. The Geskes, like many other devout Evangelical Christians, wanted to spread their religious beliefs.

Tilmann, who had invited people into his house for Bible study, also taught English and German, translated and helped send Turkish children abroad for school.

"He didn't have the idea of tossing out Bibles," Susanne said of her husband. "If you knew Tilmann, he was never like that. He was very shy, he would never do that.

"This was his dream - not to be just a Christian worker, but to be a part of the world," Susanne said. "He wanted to work like the Turks, not just to be a foreigner who gets money from abroad. He wanted to show that you can be both a Christian and a normal worker."

The deep-seated suspicion of Christian influence was evident Friday at the morgue where Tilmann's body was being held, and where a separate family drama played out.

In a cold drizzle, a man leaned on a cane fingering Islamic prayer beads. His name was Hatem Aydin, 56, older brother of one of the two murdered Turkish Christians, and he had just come 22 hours by bus to pick up his brother's body.

Hatem wanted to get Necati Aydin's body before Necati's wife did, and quickly bury it in an Islamic ceremony, but the morgue wouldn't let him. Hatem said his family hadn't spoken to Necati in years, the split driven by the younger brother's decision to convert to Christianity after marrying a Turkish Christian.

"First he told us, 'I'm reading the Bible,' and we were OK with that," Hatem said. "But after he got married, he starting bringing Christian books, then CDs, and after that we didn't talk to him anymore."

Hatem, a tailor, said he would not go to his brother's Christian funeral, and turned back for the long ride home.

Tilmann's funeral was held at an overgrown Armenian cemetery, where a Turkish pastor said the Geskes had forgiven the suspected killers.

Tilmann's body was lowered with ropes into its grave. Throughout most of the ceremony, only the smallest girl, Miriam, broke down in tears. But as rocks and dirt thudded down and Tilmann's coffin began to disappear, the family collapsed into a tight little circle, blocking the sounds out with their sobs.

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