Turkey’s Christians become political pawns

Turkey stands accused this week after it emerged that the state’s military may have had a hand in a notorious case of triple murder of Christians in 2007.

The deaths of German missionary Tilmann Geske and converts to Christianity Necati Aydin and Ugur Yuksel are better known locally as the Zivre murders, the name garnered from the Christian publishing house run by Geske in the south eastern town of Maltaya. It was at the offices of Zivre where the trio was restrained, it is alleged by up to 11 attackers, on April 18, 2007 and brutally tortured before being stabbed to death.

Blind hatred

A case of anti-Christian violence, few doubted at the time that locals with anti-Christian sentiment had given vent to blind hatred, such was the barbarity of the killings, condemned at the time as “savagery” by Prime Minister Recep Erdogan. Little wonder, then, that justice appeared to be taking its proper course when five young men, aged 19 and 20 were subsequently detained and charged in relation to the killings, with their trials ongoing since 2009.

Now, however, a much darker aspect to the killings and the motivations of the alleged killers have come to light amid allegations of a secretive group working to target non-Muslims, its strings pulled by the army’s intelligence service.

Hidden hand

Media questions around an apparent ‘hidden hand’ in the Zivre killings (and others) surfaced soon after the trial in Maltaya got underway, with the name ‘Ergenekon’ mentioned in reports. Ergenekon, for Turks, is the shadowy ‘state within a state’ that is believed to be the military’s true face of control over the state, despite surface pretensions to democracy. (In recent months, the ‘Ergenekon Plot’ was the title given to the latest alleged plan by certain generals to overthrow the current Justice and Development Party (AKP) government, a plan which resulted in high profile trials and the imprisonment of dozens of conspirators, including former General Ilker Basbug, who received a life sentence in August).


The stuff of conspiracy thrillers, whatever doubts ordinary Turkish citizens may have entertained over the existence of Ergenekon have been dealt a killer blow by files which have now been wrestled from the military by prosecutors in the Zivre case on orders from the trial judge.

The documents, compiled and held by the military’s Tactical Mobilisation Group, confirm the existence of undercover army groups tasked not alone with surveillance but with the extrajudicial killings of selected members of the country’s Christian minority. Having consulted the documents, prosecuting lawyer Erdal Dogan told Turkish media that it was not only possible to now perceive the ‘hidden hands’ in Zivre, but to see the conspiracies which lay at the heart of other assassinations, including that of Catholic priest Fr Andrea Santoro in 2006. In that killing, the Italian cleric was shot dead at his church in Trabazon by a 16-year-old who lay the blame for his actions at the door of the contentious Danish cartoonist who caused Muslim outrage with his depictions of Mohammed. However, it has since emerged that in the weeks before his death, Fr Santoro’s phone had been tapped by the authorities. “These documents have made it easier for us to see the big picture of what kind of an organisation this is,” Dogan said.


The big picture, it appears at this point, is a plot by Ergenekon (as partially revealed in the August trials) to seize upon the very anti-Christian sentiment at the heart of the Zivre killings to create a heightened sense of anxiety around Islamic fundamentalism, leading to the toppling of the government in favour of the army’s ‘secular dictatorship’.

This fantastical double-dealing and subterfuge has been lent further credence by the appearance at the Zivre trial of a key witness for the prosecution, Ilker Cinar. Described as a former undercover soldier who actively targeted priests and missionaries in Turkey for black propaganda, Cinar has laid bare the plot to target and kill the Zivre three. In his evidence to the court, Cinar claims to have worked with elements of the National Strategies and Operations Department of Turkey (TUSHAD), described as the armed wing of Ergenekon, and with civilian activists to monitor the victims and ultimately kill them in the barbaric fashion finally employed. Cinar claims that he came forward to testify when he learned to his dismay that he was not working on behalf of the state, but the subversive Ergenekon, and that the Zivre attack was not a beating but outright murder.


The investigation has now landed at the door of both the commander of the Malatya gendermarie, Mehmet Ulger and former military general, Hursit Tolan, allegedly the founder of TUSHAD. Previously arrested and investigated unsuccessfully, Commander Ulger now stands accused of coordinating the Zivre killings directly, though, as Cinar has pointed out, the commander and other named officers have worked hard to destroy all incriminating evidence against them.

The case against the previously charged five proceeds, with the next hearing scheduled for October 30, time enough, perhaps, for those with hidden hands to join them in the dock.