Turkey Closes Door on American Church Volunteer
After 12 years of voluntarily serving a church in Turkey, Jerry Mattix has suddenly been blacklisted. Officially, the government has deemed Mattix a threat to national security. The church’s lawyer asked the government why Mattix had been blacklisted, denied a visa and barred from entering Turkey. The police responded with a letter that avoided those questions and invited the American to apply for an appropriate visa.
Mattix and his family, U.S. citizens, have resided in Turkey under a long-term residency visa, as do most foreigners who are not employed with a formal work permit. Renewal of the residency visa was refused in November 2012, prompting his church sponsors to seek a religious-worker visa for him. Although the law in theory permits churches to hire foreigners, there are very few known cases of foreigners living in Turkey under religious-worker visas.
Mattix did not learn from police that he had been officially blacklisted on two counts until tried to enter Turkey at Ataturk International Airport in June. The first was his fine for “working,” which he had already paid. The second count alleged that Mattix was involved in activities that threaten national security. “In other words, they had declared me an enemy of the state, on a par with terrorists,” he said.
“For 12 years he never did anything but be a peaceful man,” said Ahmet Guvener, pastor of the Diyarbakir Protestant Church. “But when he applied for the ‘religious worker’ status in April and June, the government had already decided he was a national threat to the point that they blacklisted him, with no chance of him returning to the country indefinitely.”
Mattix’s troubles began in September 2012 when undercover police attended a Sunday morning service at the church. Four months later, Mattix was fined 679 Turkish lira (US $352) for “illegal work.” Diyarbakir Church was fined 6,795 lira ($3,530) for employing Mattix illegally.
“The police came and observed our service and in their internal police report said, ‘Jerry Ian Mattix preached for 30 minutes and then prayed.’ That was ‘work’ for them,” Guvener said. A lawyer for the church and Mattix is appealing the fines, claiming Mattix is a self-supporting volunteer whom the church has never paid for his ministry involvement.
The 2010 charter granting association status to the Protestant church in Diyarbakir specified it could employ local or foreign clergy or religious workers on a paid or volunteer basis for the purpose of educating its members. Turkey’s constitution, furthermore, grants all citizens freedom to choose, study, and communicate their religion. But Pastor Guvener said losing Mattix has left them ill-equipped to do so. “This is leaving us in a really difficult position,” he told World Watch Monitor, “because [now] we don’t have a religious worker, and in Turkey it is forbidden to train our own [Christian] theologians. We invite foreign Christian workers, but here we encounter serious residency problems and we are left at a loss as to what to do.”
Such is the perplexing state of affairs in Turkey’s southeast province of Diyarbakir, where Mattix and several other once-welcome Christian foreigners have become personae non gratae. “What exactly they cite as my crime that is so threatening to national security I do not know,” Mattix told World Watch Monitor from the United Kingdom, “but I can only guess that it has to do with the fact that I have been serving the local Turkish churches all these years.”
Mattix situation is part of a growing trend; in the past two years, at least six other foreign-born families have either been deported or denied renewals of their residency permits. “Sadly, this is not just a personal vendetta on the part of the government,” Mattix said. “Several other Christian workers in our region and connected to our church have been forced to leave in the last year.” Mattix and Guvener said they believe the deportation of Christian foreigners could spread across the country, further depriving the churches of their right to obtain help and support from foreign workers.
“All in all it seems like a planned and systematic effort to root out foreign Christians who are ministering alongside local Turkish Christians, especially in the eastern provinces,” Mattix said. “It is the easiest and most natural place to begin this purging, because there are fewer foreigners in the eastern provinces and the region in general is rife with political tensions, which serve as ample justification for this type of cleansing.”
Guvener said he fears for the future of the churches throughout the southeast. “There is a discomfort with foreign Christians here, and slowly they will clean them out. In the end the churches in the east will become weak and scattered, because there are no mature Christian workers among us.”
Source: World Watch Monitor
Father, from a worldly perspective, the government of Turkey is able to weaken Your church in Diyarbakir and other parts of south eastern Turkey. We pray that the ruling against Mattix will be overturned so that he and others might return to their work of equipping the church there. But we know that the work You have begun, You will sustain, and so we lift up the churches there that even in the absence of foreign help, You will strengthen them and raise up leaders, that all will know that You have done it. May that strength be a testimony to all, that many will turn to You and that Your church might worship You, the One True and Living God, with a mighty voice. In the name of Jesus, the head of His church. Amen.