ISTANBUL // When a Protestant minister in the city of Izmir left his church one day this month, he saw a man pointing a weapon at him and shouting: "Stop proselytizing! You will pay!"
The attacker in front of the Dirilis Kilisesi, or Church of the Resurrection, was quickly overwhelmed, but the incident on the evening of April 1 was a reminder of the hatred that some radical Turkish nationalists feel for Christian missionaries. Radical nationalists in Turkey are not opposed to Christian missionaries for religious reasons, Ferhat Kentel, a sociologist at Istanbul's Bilgi University, said about the hatred against missionaries.
"It is an effort by nationalists to create enemies, a perception of threat," Dr Kentel said. "It has nothing to do with Islam. It is an ideological phenomenon." He said the fear of missionaries was "a symbol for dangers coming from outside". Turkish nationalists see Islam as a unifying force of the country that will be undermined if Christians are allowed to proselytize.
Four years ago this month, three Christians were killed by young nationalists in the city of Malatya. The main suspect told the court he had acted partly because he had heard "that Christianity and missionary work had the goal of destroying the country".
The suspect in Izmir opened fire with a blank gun and then reached for a real weapon, according to press reports. Before he could use it, he was wrestled to the ground by Andrew Brunson, the US priest at the church, and others that included plainclothes policemen, the reports said.
The man was arrested by anti-terror police. In a message posted on Facebook hours before the attack, he had written that "imperialists engaging in [Christian] missionary work will pull their blood-stained hands back from my country", according to news reports.
Fear of Christian intervention goes back to the years between the end of the First World War and the establishment of the republic in 1923, when European powers such as the United Kingdom, France, Italy and Greece made plans to carve up Anatolia.
Although missionary work is legal in secular Turkey, the mistrust of missionaries has been expressed by state institutions. In 2001, a report prepared for Turkey's National Security Council, which brings together generals, politicians and the president, said missionary activities constituted a threat to national unity as their ultimate aim was to "divide Turkey".
"Missionary activity, the prime threat to Turkey, has nothing to do with freedom of religion," Namik Kemal Zeybek, leader of the Democrat Party, or DP, a small right-wing group, said in a speech last week, according to press reports. "These missionary activities, called 'Evangelical' and supported by US dollars, are a threat for the whole of humanity."
The fact that both the numbers of missionaries and Turkish converts to Christianity are very low has done little to allay those fears. "In a Turkey of 75 million people, the number of missionaries is 50," Mehmet Ali Birand, a commentator wrote in the Posta newspaper. "And, what is even funnier, in this country of 75 million people, only 500 (!) people left Islam and converted to Christianity in the past ten years, according to official figures."
There are about 100,000 Christians in Turkey, including the Greek-Orthodox and Armenian communities. Protestants, who are the target of most of the anti-missionary violence, number about 3,000 to 3,500, according to the website of the Association of Protestant Churches in Turkey. Most of the Protestants were once Muslims or atheists, the association statement said.
Prosecutors say some attacks on missionaries are planned acts of terror. They say there is evidence linking violence against missionaries to efforts by an underground nationalist group to stage a coup against the Islam-rooted government in Ankara.
Last month, a court issued arrest warrants for seven people in connection with the killing of a German and two Turkish Christians in Malatya in April 2007. The suspected killers were arrested immediately after the murders, but the investigation continues. The suspects arrested last month are accused of belonging to Ergenekon, a nationalist network that prosecutors say wanted to prepare the ground for a military coup by raising tensions with the assassinations.
Orhan Kemal Cengiz, a lawyer for the families of the victims of the Malatya crime who writes for a Turkish newspaper, says he is convinced of "a connection between Ergenekon and the Malatya massacre". He argues Ergenekon wanted to spread fear of an alleged Christian onslaught and at the same time give the impression that the religiously conservative government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister, allowed violence against non-Muslims.
"The Malatya massacre was an important event in the game of manipulation that the Ergenekon gang was playing," Cengiz wrote in his column for the Today's Zaman newspaper on April 1. "They, on the one hand, wanted the Turkish people to believe that there was a serious 'missionary' danger in Turkey and wanted to mobilize nationalist sentiments. On the other hand, they wanted to send a message to the whole world by showing that as soon as an 'Islamist party' came to power, Christians were massacred."