Persecution in Turkey – From Polycarp to Fikret Böcek

If it’s true, as the ancient Tertullian said, that “the blood of martyrs is the seed of the church,” much seed has been sown on Turkish soil, from the 2nd-century martyrdom of Polycarp to the massacre of Christian Armenians in 1915 (where 1.5 million Armenians lost their lives). And these are only the most notorious cases. In Turkey, persecution against Christians has spanned centuries, perpetrated first by the Romans and then by the Muslims. In fact, it’s still happening today. In every case, the justification is political: Christians are enemies of the state.

A Turkish Pastor Under Fire

            A 1998 graduate of Westminster Seminary in California, Turkish-born Fikret Böcek moved back to his country in 2001 to plant a confessional Reformed church in Izmir – the ancient Smyrna, the persecuted city of Revelation 2:8-11, where bishop Polycarp famously died for his faith.

            From the start, Böcek aimed to make his church completely visible and open to all. He knew the risks. He had already been arrested soon after his conversion to Christianity in 1987.[1]

            Evangelizing Turkey is also a difficult task. “Conversions of Muslims to Christianity have been historically rare here,” he recently told me. He remembers one man converting in 1960, his son in 1970, and about 25 more Muslims between 1970 and 1980. The numbers increased to 80 people between 1980 and 1988, still a drop in a bucket in a country of 52 million people (79.5 million today).

            Convinced of the power of the gospel, Böcek has persevered in spite of the difficulties, preaching, meeting people, distributing Bibles, and translating. He even started a translation of the Bible from the original languages, to replace the current Turkish Bible which is a paraphrased version. Today, his church (Izmir Protestan Kilisesi) includes 153 Muslim converts, an impressive number in less than ten years. He has also helped other pastors to establish churches.

            So far, Böcek has only undergone short-term arrests, but is now is facing the strong possibility of a long-term imprisonment. The Turkish government, in fact, has linked him to Andrew Brunson, the evangelical pastor from North Carolina who is currently in a Turkish prison under charges of plotting with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

The Accusations

            The official Indictment against Brunson mentions a connection between some American churches and the Turkish scholar Fethullah Gülen, who lives in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania. The Turkish government considers Gülen the mastermind behind the 2016 failed coup against Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdoğan.

            According to the official Indictment against Brunson, Böcek has been in touch with the US pastor, sharing the same hotel conference hall to meet converts, and selling him a church building. Böcek, however, calls these points of contact unplanned. It’s not unusual for pastors to use the same facilities for meetings.

            As for the church building, Böcek rented it for three years, until he was able to purchase another in a better location. A year later, Brunson rented the first building from its owner.

            The Indictment builds on these fortuitous connections by accusing Böcek (“certainly a person connected with the CIA”) of passing on “his intelligence mission” to Brunson, adding that it was Böcek who invited Brunson to Turkey.

            The prosecution draws its evidence from the testimonies of anonymous witnesses – frequently prisoners who, according to Böcek, are glad to give false testimony in exchange for a favorable treatment. There are no favorable witnesses, Böcek explained, because all Christians are considered suspects and disqualified from testifying.

            Some evidence is found in the Bible, particularly the Book of Revelation, with its mention of Armageddon and an antichrist “king of the north.” Since Turkey is north of Israel, the Turkish government concluded that Christians have been targeting their country, especially since a few Protestants have posted pictures of Erdoğan with the caption, “Antichrist has come.”

Dire Prospects

            Brunson, who has been detained 21 months, is still waiting for a trial, which has been postponed to July 18. In the meantime, Turkey is waiting for the next presidential elections (scheduled to be held on June 24), when Erdoğan has promised to end the state of emergency. Either one of these dates could bring relief to Brunson, who has also received great support from American and European agencies and politicians.

            What about Böcek? Hopefully, any charge against him will be dropped. At this point, however, he is ready for jail. He has already packed a bag with books he always wanted to read but couldn’t find the time. “We were supposed to use the summer to raise funds for our Bible ministry,” he said, “but when the judge said he will not release Andrew [Brunson] and will not accept my testimony, I saw a high probability that I will be arrested by July 18.”

            In the meantime, his life continues as usual, with a high priority on preaching and strengthening his church. When I talked to him, one of his daughters was doing homework next to him while his dogs were barking fiercely at the wild boars outside their walls – a common occurrence in that area.

            His wife Darlene and their four children (ages 14-21) are prepared for any event. Böcek knows his arrest will cause them pain but adds that he can’t shelter them from all problems. Besides, he is confident that Darlene will be able to continue to lead the family and raise their children in the Lord.

            He describes himself “content in God’s will.” He adds that this mind-set is quite different from “Islamic fateful thinking.” It’s based on a sincere trust in God’s promises, leaving tomorrow in His hands. “We have a great God,” he said. “We cannot complain or worry.”

            This trust doesn’t make him immune to worry. “Once I was pulled over for a routine check that normally takes a couple of minutes and had to wait for an hour, and I worried.”

            He is well aware that Turkish prisons are not just a place to catch up on one’s reading. To Westerners, they bring back memories of the movie Midnight Express. Böcek remembers the beatings and torture that accompanied one of his arrests. While Turkey doesn’t hold the death penalty, some unexplained deaths occur in its prisons. “The Romans were fairer in their persecution of Christians,” he told me.

Ready to Die

            Why not leave? His wife is American, and the family has received several invitations to move to the US or England. The thought must have crossed his mind, but his decision to stay is unmovable.

            How can he leave, when he has spent years encouraging his flock to stand up for their faith and persevere while being victims of persecution and discrimination, and losing jobs, friends, and family for Christ’s sake?

            “Christ promises persecution,” he said. “We see it clearly here, not only with arrests. Christians are disliked.”

            “The converts are looking at us,” he continued, explaining that his testimony from jail may serve to strengthen their faith. He knows this by experience. His previous arrests have only reinforced and toughened his and other Christians’ convictions, as the fear of men was replaced by the fear of God.

            Confirming Tertullian’s statement, within seven years from the 1988 raid, the number of Muslim converts in Turkey jumped from 80 to 500. Presently, there are about 4300 Turkish Muslims attending churches.

            Just in the few months since Böcek decided to stay, God has given his church two new Muslim converts – quite an attainment, especially considering that the new members’ training at his church lasts eight months and requires a serious commitment. “This alone is enough to make it worth it all,” he said.

            Some foreign missionaries have already left the country because of the political situation. In fact, one was leaving as I was speaking to Böcek. “I told him,” Böcek remembered, “’Just when you are about to preach in Turkish, you will leave.”

            Their reaction is understandable, especially under Turkey’s present state of emergency, but Böcek (who calls Turkey “the graveyard of all mission agencies”) believes it has much to do with their initial attitude.

            “They come with a 2-5-year plan,” he said. “We want them to come ready to die, like the missionaries of old.” He particularly remembers Henry Martyn, a British missionary to India and Iran who died of fever in eastern Turkey in 1812. “In those days people came for life.”

            Many of these missionaries, Böcek explains, “want comfort, whatever happens in their churches. I feel like helping them but they don’t listen. All their ideas are developed in Texas or California, and don’t really work here.”

            This scarcity of missionaries is another reason why Böcek believes he should stay. “We are all called for a reason – wherever we are in life and whatever situation we are facing – and we need to look for a way to be a witness to God. I need to persevere in my calling.”

Please pray for Rev. Böcek and his family!

[1] For the story of Böcek’s providential conversion, see “To the Church in Smyrna: The Story of Fikret Bocek,” Office Hours, Westminster Seminary California, July 7, 2010,öcek, “A Christian Mission in a Muslim World,” WHI-1072, October 23, 2011, White Horse Inn, and “Personal Story,” given to Heritage Reformed Congregation, March 15, 2015



Simonetta Carr