Amid rising Christian persecution, Turkey has denied a visa to a U.S. citizen and wife of a Protestant pastor there, reportedly in an attempt to force the entire family out of the country.
Florida native Joy Anna Crow Subasiguller, a U.S. citizen and wife of Turkish pastor Lütfü Subasiguller, is legally contesting the government’s decision. Turkey’s Ministry of Interior gave the family no reason for the denial, but such tactics are indicative of growing persecution against Protestants there, International Christian Concern (ICC) said.
The denial of her visa is believed to be a tactic to force the entire family to leave Turkey and end their ministry in the majority Muslim country.
“Starting last year actually is when things really began to heat up, and we saw about 35 foreign Christians receive this notice,” said Claire Evans, ICC regional manager for the Middle East. “But if you count in the families they have, that number is in the hundreds. … So the impact is really, it’s a huge number once you count the families.”
The Subasigullers have been married seven years and have three children, ages 4, 2 and 4 months. The youngest is still nursing, the husband told German media outlet Deutsche Welle.
History of persecution
In one of Turkey’s most visible cases of Christian persecution, American pastor Andrew Brunson was imprisoned there from 2016-2018 on charges of fomenting terrorism. Brunson and the U.S. government said the charges were phony; he was released after pressure from the Trump administration, including sanctions on top Turkish officials and tariffs.
Pastor Subasiguller has led a Protestant congregation of about 50 adults and 10 children for more than six years. Joy Subasiguller has been in the country 10 years.
“Turkey is my home. I love Turkey and the Turkish people very much,” Joy Subasiguller said, according to a press release from ICC. “My family has very strong ties with Turkish friends here and especially with Lütfü’s family, who would be devastated if we had to permanently relocate to another country.”
The U.S. State Department said in its 2019 Report on International Religious Freedom that visa denials are becoming a common tactic of religious persecution against Turkish Protestants, who number fewer than 10,000 of the country’s 81.9 million people.
“Media outlets and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) reported an accelerated pace of entry bans and deportations of non-Turkish citizen leaders of Protestant congregations,” the State Department said. The ICC estimates there are only 170 Protestant churches in the nation.
Deportation of Christians common
Joy Subasiguller said the deportation of foreign Protestants is common in Turkey.
“Many foreign Protestant Christians (including many Americans) have been forced to leave Turkey and issued an entry ban on the grounds that their Christian activities are a ‘threat to national security and public order’ even though their activities are legal,” she told ICC. “In fact, some Protestants have been denied residency just because they attended meetings such as the annual Turkish Protestant Association family conference and a seminar concerning how to legally and effectively serve Christian children in the church.”
The Subasigullers’ active case in the Ankara Administrative Court has allowed the wife to remain in Turkey since the June 5 visa denial. But if she has to leave Turkey for any reason while the case is active, she would not be allowed back in.
Evans considers the government’s decision especially disturbing.
“It’s a new level of wrong, because Turkey, they don’t usually target people whose children are Turkish. They need to be called out on this,” Evans said. “Her family’s all Turkish. … By denying this visa, it’s essentially forcing the entire family, forcing Turkey’s own citizens, to leave the country in order to stay with her.”
In such cases, Turkey generally labels Protestants security threats, but gives no further details.
“We join with the Subasigullers in seeking prayers for the ongoing court case that appeals the decision made by Turkey’s Interior Ministry,” the ICC said in a press release. “That Turkey would threaten to separate a family for no other reason than that they are Christians is alarming. We ask that Turkey speedily review their appeal with full transparency and in accordance with the country’s own international commitments to protecting human rights.”
Fighting for religious protections
Protestants in Turkey don’t distinguish themselves by denomination, Evans said, but are united in fighting for religious protections there. Turkey’s constitution guarantees freedom of religion and worship, but the rights are not upheld.
Among the family’s supporters is Istanbul’s Protestant Church Association, formed in 1999.
“It is with great sadness that we have to report that since 2019 it has been made more difficult for foreign clergy who serve the Protestant Church community in Turkey to be resident in our country, and that our requests for information concerning this matter have not received a satisfactory reply,” the association said in a press release. “We have received information that many foreigners, both clergy and lay members of the Protestant faith, have been required to obtain prior approval before entering the country, on grounds that we cannot understand and for reasons that we have been unable to ascertain.
“Furthermore, as a result of the imposition of this requirement for prior approval, which acts as a form of entry ban to Turkey, we have learned that foreigners already resident in our country have not had their residence permits renewed, or even have had them cancelled.”
The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom recommended in its 2020 Annual Report that Turkey be placed on a special watch list because of severe religious freedom violations.
Turkey is 99 percent Muslim, according to State Department numbers.