Situation, Facts and Events

“This is a signal”: what stands behind the terrorist attack on a Catholic church in Istanbul

New details have emerged about the January 28 attack on Istanbul's Catholic Church of St. Mary Draperis which was founded in 1584 and is one of the oldest Catholic churches in the city. According to the Turkish newspaper Hurriet, law enforcement agencies published photographs of two people detained in this case.


During the investigation, it turned out that the attackers worked as chefs in a Chinese restaurant in the Bahçelievler district. One is allegedly a citizen of Russia, the other is a citizen of Tajikistan. The detainees tried to change their appearance; one of them shaved his beard off. In addition, an abandoned car of the alleged terrorists with Polish license plates was found, from which the license plates were removed.


There are many mysteries in this story. Immediately after the terrorist attack, the IS group (an organization banned in Russia) took responsibility for it. The motivation was the urge of the group leader to “kill Jews and Christians everywhere.” However, the only person killed during the attack was a Turkish citizen, who was a Muslim. According to his relatives, 52-year-old Tuncer Cihan suffered from a mental disorder. He had visited the Church of St. Mary Draperis several months before. They knew him in the church; the parish priests called Jihan “a good man.” In addition, Hurriet writes, “questions have arisen about the departure from typical IS methods.”


The terrorist group last attacked in Turkey in 2017. During New Year's celebrations in one of the Istanbul nightclubs, a gunman fired 180 bullets at the guests. In that attack, 39 people died, both Turks and foreign citizens. In the case of Church of St. Mary Draperis, only one person was injured. As Turkish Interior Minister Ali Yerlikaya said, the attackers' weapons were faulty, and this was the reason there were no further casualties. But it would be strange for IS fighters who usually take great care in preparing for attacks to be so careless in the case of the Istanbul church attack.


The main question is why was the Catholic Church targeted by terrorists? Attacks on Christians in Turkey have happened before, but they had a different appearance. In January 2006, Protestant church minister Kamil Kiroglu was beaten unconscious by a gang of young men shouting “Give up Jesus or we will kill you now!” A month later, Italian Catholic missionary Father Andrea Santoro was shot dead by a 16-year-old boy in the town of Trasbon, allegedly in retaliation for Danish cartoons satirically depicting the Prophet Muhammad. Four years later, Anatolian bishop Luigi Padovese was killed by his driver and longtime assistant Murat Altun, who stabbed him multiple times and then beheaded him.


However, there were no attacks on churches. Moreover, while many Western media, including Catholic ones, when covering the attack at Church of St. Mary Draperis, claimed that Turkish Christians “regularly complain of harassment and marginalization, especially by ultranationalists who view Christians as agents of the West allied with Kurdish separatists”, in recent years the overall situation in Turkey had not been unbearable for Christians. The recent terrorist attack, notes the Christian Today portal, causes confusion in addition to concern, since Christians, like many Turkish citizens, “are confused by the details that defy simple explanations.” According to the CEO of the Turkish evangelical radio station Petra Media Group Soner Tufan, the terrorists “killed one person, they could have killed more, but we cannot understand why it does not matter to them, one or many.” In turn, the president of the Association of Protestant Churches of Turkey Ali Kalkandelen believes that the attack may have been a “political message.” But to whom?


The Church of St. Mary Draperis has been run by Franciscan monks for many centuries; a week before the attack, Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni visited Turkey. Polish Consul General Witold Leszniak was present during the mass when the Turkish citizen was shot. Italy and Poland can hardly be called flagship countries of the West; if terrorists had a desire to loudly declare themselves, they would attack the Americans or Israelis, which would be met with “understanding” among certain circles in the Middle East and beyond. This is one side of the matter. On the other hand, it can be said that Italy and Poland are seen as Catholic countries. In this case, an attack on a church run by Italian monks during a service attended by a Polish diplomat makes sense from the point of view of discrediting the Turkish authorities and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan among Catholics in particular and Christians in general.


To some extent, this is what happened. Many Christian media, describing the attack, recalled previous persecutions and murders of clerics, also emphasizing Erdogan’s “pro-Islamist” course. But, at the same time, in Turkey itself, politicians from both the ruling party and the opposition did not use the terrorist attack to attack each other. The President personally called the priest of Church of St. Mary Draperis Anton Bulay. Statements by a number of Turkish politicians emphasized that Turkish Christians are an integral part of the country. Perhaps over time it will become known exactly what was behind this strange terrorist attack on a Catholic church in Istanbul. Presently there are more questions than answers.


Stanislav Stremidlovsky