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article imageA year after Turkey's Gezi Park protests, freedom elusive

By Lonna Lisa Williams     May 31, 2014 in World
Istanbul - A year ago, I covered Turkey's Gezi Park protests first-hand. I took photos, videos, interviewed protesters, got attacked by the Turkish police, and was almost arrested for a photo I'd published. As Turkey prepares new protests, is freedom possible?
I spent 2.5 years teaching English in Turkey, at private language schools and universities. I traveled around that beautiful country and saw historic sights, amazing landscapes, and interesting people. I did award-winning photo essays about Turkey for Digital Journal and put those essays into a Kindle eBook. I married a Turkish man who has a Muslim mother and an Armenian Christian-descended father. I visited active Christian churches in Istanbul, Izmit, and Antalya and heard about more congregations in other cities. I learned about Muslim minorities like the Alevi who are persecuted by the Sunni majority controlled by Islamist Prime Minister Erdogan and his Ak Party. I covered the Gezi Park freedom protests first-hand, beginning on May 31, 2013. I took photos, videos, and interviewed protesters. On a Sunday afternoon, along with a group of Istanbul tourists, I was attacked by the Turkish police.
I'll never forget what an Alevi university colleague once told me,
"There is no freedom in Turkey."
At least 7 of the 8 civilians killed during the Gezi Park protests were Alevis, including a 15-year-old boy police shot in the head with a tear gas canister as he was on his way to buy bread for his family. The boy, Berkin Elvan, was in a coma for several months before he died, and his death sparked new protests. See The Huffington Post's amazing collection of 40 photos from these protests. These photos clearly show how brutally the Turkish government responds to protesters who merely want to be heard, express their sorrow, and enjoy freedoms people in Europe and America take for granted.
I saw fear in everyone's eyes when I lived in Turkey. People knew that they could be arrested (like so many protesters were, including doctors and lawyers who helped the protesters). Hundreds of people were injured, and several were blinded. Yet the protests continued, blocked out by state-controlled Turkish media and barely covered by the world after the first Istanbul protests stretched into follow-up protests. Then scandal hit Turkey's Ak Party elite (even Erdogan's own son Bilal was implicated), and Turks again took to the streets in January, calling Erdogan a thief and demanding, again, his resignation. He survived a debated election in which the Ak Party held a 42% "majority." Now he has his eyes on running for President, with more power given by a new constitution.
Ironically, on the eve of the One Year Gezi Park Protests anniversary, Erdogan announced that he plans to convert the famous Haggia Sophia into a mosque. Ayasofya, as it's called in Turkish, was build in the 5th Century and stood for nearly a thousand years as the world's tallest Christian cathedral. When an Ottoman sultan conquered Istanbul in 1453, it was defaced and changed into a mosque. When Ataturk disbanded the Ottoman Empire in favor of a modern Turkish secular democracy in the 20th Century, Ayasofya was, wisely, turned into a museum. After all, the majestic Blue Mosque is just a few steps across a park from Ayasofya, and there are over 3000 mosques in Istanbul with expensive new ones being built every day.
There are over 80,000 mosques in Turkey, and only a handful of Christian churches. Erdogan has converted many ancient churches and monasteries into mosques. Erdogan does not recognize Christians as being part of Turkey, although their history there dates back to the 1st Century travels of Paul the Apostle, and the Seven Churches mentioned in the Book of Revelation were all located in Turkey. Recently, Erdogan refused to give permission to a Christian group to build a church in Ankara, the capital, which has no Christian churches except on the grounds of foreign embassies.
Erdogan also does not recognize the right for Turks to be atheist or gay. He passed recent laws that target women's rights and everyday freedoms like when you can drink alcohol or how bakers make bread. Like all dictators, Erdogan sees himself as all-powerful, a sultan. This attitude cost him dearly when he slapped a mine worker and his aide kicked a protester after the recent tragic mine explosion that killed 301 Turkish miners, the worst mining incident in Turkish history. Erdogan had to take refuge in a supermarket as grieving families and minors protested his insensitive arrogance.
I received a warning email from the U.S. Embassy in Ankara, advising all Americans to stay away from the Gezi Park Anniversary Protests that will occur throughout Turkey later today. You see, I am writing this from northeast China where I now teach English, and our time is earlier than in Turkey. My Turkish husband and I had to leave Turkey because he was tortured by police who threatened me, his "Christian wife." A few days after I arrived in China, I found out that police had gone to my old apartment near Istanbul to arrest me for a photo I'd published.
Turkey has more journalists in prison than any other country. After the January scandal, thousands of police officers and judges were relocated, fired, or arrested. How long can Erdogan maintain dictatorship over Turkey? Turks are resilient people who love freedom. They will not be restricted forever. It will be interesting to see how much media coverage the new protests receive and if the world cares about the future of Turkey, which Ataturk established as a modern secular democracy, and which Erdogan wants to return to a medieval Islamist state.
"There have been so many protests all over Turkey," a Turkish man told me recently on the telephone. "People remember what has been happening this past year, starting with Gezi Park. I don't see how Erdogan can keep ignoring the people's pleas for freedom. The media barely covers what's been happening. Please get the word out for us."
The latest news to come out of Turkey is that Erdogan has deployed tens of thousands of police to prevent any Gezi Park Anniversary protests. We will see what happens.
Reporter's Update: To see how police handled the Gezi Park Anniversary Protests, read this excellent coverage by BBC News. Also, "The Wire" told how CNN reporter Ivan Watson was detained and kicked by Turkish police during a live broadcast of the Gezi Park Anniversary in Istanbul where police did not hesitate to use water canon and tear gas on protesters. Reuters reported that Prime Minister Erdogan called Ivan Watson a "flunky" and an "agent" who sought to harm Turkey. In Washington, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf labeled the accusation "ridiculous" and defended CNN as "independent and non biased." Harf added, "We strongly support freedom of the press in Turkey." Groups including the Committee to Protect Journalists, and Human Rights Watch have expressed concern about the treatment of journalists in Turkey.
Fox News reported that 154 people were arrested and several injured when protesters defied Erdogan's ban and went to the heavily-guarded Taksim area of Istanbul. On June 2, BBC reported that police continue to use water canon and pepper spray against protesters who are still assembling in the capital of Ankara. The Council of Europe's commissioner for human rights condemned this. How can Erdogan seek membership in the European Union (as he desires) while he treats his own citizens this way, who by their very constitution have the right to protest?
A protester holds up a portrait of Ataturk
A protester holds up a portrait of Ataturk
Police pose in Taksim
Police pose in Taksim
Well-oufitted  professional German journalists hang back by a building in Istanbul during the Gezi P...
Well-oufitted, professional German journalists hang back by a building in Istanbul during the Gezi Park freedom protests
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