MARY REICHARD, HOST: From member-supported WORLD Radio, this is The World and Everything in It for Thursday, March 22nd. Good morning, I’m Mary Reichard.
NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher.
If you want to get an idea what the future holds for a country, just have a look at the school textbooks. We reported to you last year a substantial change in the school textbooks in Turkey. They began teaching Islamic jihad.
Now, even though Islam is the dominant religion in Turkey, it’s had a secular government since as far back as the 1920s. But that seems to be changing rapidly.
Earlier this week we reported that Turkish forces swept in and seized the Syrian city of Afrin from Kurdish control. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said Turkey will continue such offensive actions along its border with Syria—and possibly even into Iraqi territory.
REICHARD: This is only the latest in a series of provocative actions by the Turkish military.
WORLD Senior Editor Mindy Belz has just returned from a trip to the region—including time in Istanbul. She’s here now to talk with me, and Mindy… give us the context here. What’s going on in Turkey?
MINDY BELZ, REPORTER: It’s important, Mary, to go back to 20-16 when there was an attempted coup against Erdogan. And Erdogan by most estimates has made the most of that attempted coup to sort of solidify not only his role but really an expanded role for himself. He has passed a number of laws, emergency decrees. The country is still basically functioning under an emergency situation since 20-16, even though as you go around Istanbul and other places life seems very much normal. Erdogan has been using these laws as a pretext for a number of things that are moving the country into a nationalist, kind of authoritarian place and that is great concern. Turkey is a NATO ally, it’s always been one of our key allies in the region, and now I think we have real reason to question that.
REICHARD: You’ve traveled the area for years now. What did you observe while you were in Istanbul and other cities this time around?
BELZ: There were some remarkable changes. I mean, on the surface, life seems to be going on quite normally. Erdogan has overseen an incredible economic expansion where you see things like Starbucks throughout the city and a lot of sort of western influences there, but you can’t avoid noticing the tremendous number of mosques that are being built at his direction. One of them sits on a hill at a high point in Istanbul, perched atop Taksim Square, which is just a central part of the city and it is taking over just huge amounts of that square. So you don’t have to scratch far beneath the surface to see that things are moving in a new direction.
REICHARD: We’ve covered the story of pastor Andrew Brunson, a Presbyterian pastor who was arrested in 20-16. Now Turkey wants to imprison him for 35 years?
BELZ: That’s right, the indictment against Brunson came out late last year, but no one really seemed to have access to it until recent weeks. And we know now that the indictment in Turkish runs 62 pages long. Huge parts of it, I’m told by people who have seen it, have been redacted over quote-unquote national security issues. And keep in mind, this is a pastor who operated a church in Izmir for more than 20 years. It’s on a very busy street. He was operating very openly. His ministry was kind of known to all, and he had no problems until after this attempted coup. He had never had any run-ins at all with the government. In fact, when they called him in, he thought they were extending his visa and that’s in fact when they detained and later arrested him. So this seems to be tied more to Erdogan’s political ambitions than it is to anything that Andrew Brunson has actually done. But it’s quite serious. We haven’t seen a situation like this anywhere in this region, possibly even in the world recently, where we would see an American with a long-standing history as a foreign worker actually going to trial.
REICHARD: We’ve heard reports of journalists being arrested as well?
BELZ: That’s right. Turkey has arrested more journalists than any country in the world, an estimated 180-200 are in jail right now. Which is tremendous concern to people like you and me. But should be a concern to everyone because freedom of the press is completely being throttled there right now. Four leading journalists, people that are well-known inside of Turkey, were sentenced to life in prison while I was there, basically for opposing the regime.
REICHARD: And now news of a town in northern Syria being seized from the Kurds by Turkish-led fighters over the weekend. What’s this mean for the war in Syria?
BELZ: The war in Syria grows more and more complex, and Turkey’s new incursions signal two things. You have to go back and remember that the Kurds and these particular forces known as the YPG were supported by the United States. They were instrumental in beating back ISIS both in parts of northern Iraq and in key cities like Raqqa, which had been the headquarters of ISIS, and other parts of Syria. The US forces and other forces would not have been able to succeed without the YPG. Now that we have Turkey attacking the YPG in the heart of its own territory, this is a part of Syria that was not at war. In fact, it is a historically Christian area and we’re hearing from a number of churches within Afrin and in that area. They’re without water, they’re without power. Their children are going without food. What I think is truly astonishing is that we’ve seen no reaction to this by NATO and including by the United States as a member of NATO. And I think it’s very dangerous. I think basically what Turkey is doing is introducing a whole new type of conflict.
REICHARD: Mindy Belz is Senior Editor for WORLD Magazine. She also provides regular international coverage for WORLD Radio. Mindy, thank you.
BELZ: Thank you, Mary.