In the 12 May episode of “Iftar with Nihat Hatipoglu,” aired on the Turkish ATV during Ramadan, a 13-year-old Armenian Christian child was forced to convert to Islam, in a live broadcast from Istanbul’s Sultan Ahmet Square, by performing the Muslim declaration of faith. “There is no god but God. Muhammad is the messenger of God,” repeated Arthur after Hatipoglu.
The 13-year-old Arthur wished his name be changed to “Nihat” when Hatipoglu asked him if he would ever change it, the latter advising the boy to know the value of Islam and expressing hope he would undertake the Muslim pilgrimage in the future.
Alina, the mother of the child, made a statement to an Armenian Website saying that her child did not become a Muslim: “We are Armenians. I am a Christian. If I had known myself that my son would appear on screen, I would have been with him, but I did not know. He is an innocent child.”
According to Arthur’s mother, a Syrian friend told Arthur to go on the programme, saying they would “give us toys, and we will eat with the stars”. “My son went with his friend. He’s a child. He made a mistake, but he did not convert, nor was he circumcised,” she told the Website.
“Even if parents had known that their child would appear on TV for religious conversion, it still would have been child abuse and illegal,” Turkish writer Uzay Bulut told Al-Ahram Weekly.
Bulut thinks Islamists do not see it as child abuse or a human rights violation.
More than 20 guests have declared their conversion to Islam on the same programme over the past few years, thanks to the Turkish theologian Hatipoglu.
Nihat Hatipoglu, 64, whose birthday happened to be the same day the episode was aired, is from Diyarbekir city, one of the largest in southeast Turkey and often considered the unofficial capital of Northern Kurdistan.
Hatipoglu said the mother of the teen knew in advance what was to be broadcast, but later denied she did. It was said that one of the assistants of Hatipoglu tried to reach the mother before going live, but failed as her Turkish is not good.
The incident was made worse by subtle references to the country’s past genocide of Christians. “While public conversions to Islam are a normal part of this show, in the case of Arthur, normal procedures taken to obey Turkey’s laws were ignored. His parents never gave consent, and he was encouraged to convert through promises of food and gifts, all in front of thousands of people,” International Christian Concern Organisation’s Middle East Regional Manager Claire Evans told the Weekly.
Nihat Hatipoglu was appointed president of the Islamic Science and Technology University of Gaziantep by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Evans confirms that Hatipoglu maintains close ties with the Turkish government and that his programme on ATV continues with their blessing.
“This sends a clear, public message to others that the government will ignore violations of the rights of religious minorities,” she says. If Turkey is truly concerned about human rights, as it continues to claim in its bid for EU membership, “then they must take these kinds of violations seriously and hold violators accountable for their actions according to due process of law,” Evans told the Weekly.
The mother of the child contacted HDP (People’s Democratic Party) member of the Turkish parliament for Diyarbekir Garo Paylan, and agreed to file a complaint of child abuse. Paylan, 47, is of Armenian descent who became a member of parliament in 2015, among the first Armenian members of the assembly in decades, along with Selina Dogan and Markar Esayan.
The Human Rights Association Commission Against Racism and Discrimination and the Diyarbakır Bar Association filed criminal complaints against both Hatipoglu and ATV executives indicating that Article 115/3 of the Turkish Penal Code (TCK) and Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), to which Turkey is a signatory, governing freedom of thought, conscience and religion, have been violated.
For Armenians, the act reminds of genocide — the forced conversion of minors belonging to the minority, with neither the presence nor permission of the parents, is something the Ottoman Empire used to practise a century ago.
“We have an open wound for one hundred years. During the genocide, many relatives of mine were lost, disappeared and died on the migratory routes. Some of them joined Muslim families,” Paylan told Bianet Website.
On Monday, Paylan tweeted a photo with Arthur. “I met Arthur, he is fine … I will always be with him, I will protect him as far as I can,” he tweeted.
For some time, Arthur attended Istanbul’s Hrant Dink school. Anonymous sources told the Weekly that Arthur suffered health and social problems; he changed school several times and couldn’t finish his education under difficult living conditions. According to the source, his father’s whereabouts is not known.
Meanwhile, Turkey’s Supreme Election Council (YSK) has ruled for a rerun of local mayoral elections in Istanbul, scheduled to be held 23 June, as the AKP objected to the election results, claiming there were irregularities and discrepancies in the balloting.
At the time of the elections in April, the AKP clearly violated the Personal Data Protection Law 6698, in order to access private data to “prove” its case with the YSK.
Will this and the child abuse case affect the results of the upcoming elections rerun?
Bulut doesn’t think so. “While both practices are illegal, they are not among the criteria that will affect the voting decisions of the majority of Turks. Also, there are laws in Turkey that are supposed to prosecute and try those accused of committing ‘crimes against humanity’, but they are not observed.”
Bulut says the mentality in Turkey is such that no one would implement these laws. “The ruling AKP lost the election in Istanbul because Turkey’s currency crisis has been pushing the Turkish economy into a recession. The country’s economic situation is getting even worse, so many people are suffering as a result.”
The government has ordered the rerun of the Istanbul mayoral elections for one reason only: “to win that city again”. “So, the winner of the rerun has already been declared: the AKP,” Bulut told the Weekly.
Istanbul’s Acting Patriarch Archbishop Aram Ateshian, who maintains close ties with the Turkish government and president, issued a written statement in which he described the conversion incident as “unfortunate” and “unacceptable” not only to the Armenian community of Turkey, but to the Muslim society too.
“We have respect to all religions. There is no doubt that you also have respect to other religions.” Ateshian advised Istanbul’s community to follow up on developments calmly, adding that the head of the Religious Affairs Department of Turkey, Ali Erpash, had promised to investigate the incident.
The Supreme Council of Radio and Television (RTUK) is the Turkish state agency for monitoring, regulating and sanctioning radio and television broadcasts. The RTUK was founded in 1994 and is composed of nine members elected by the Grand National Assembly of Turkey.
The pro-government ATV, or Aktüel Televizyonu, where the programme was aired, currently belongs to one of the largest media groups in the country, Turkuvaz Media Group (TMG). It is a nationwide TV channel in Turkey since 1993 and it became the country’s fifth most popular channel since 2013.
“If Turkey does not enforce their own laws protecting the rights of religious minorities, then the government is sending yet another clear and public warning that it does not respect human rights and exploits media in doing so,” Evans told the Weekly.
“At ATV, we are proud of our achievements, and continue to strive to bring you even more,” reads the welcome message on the TMG Website.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 22 May, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Identity and faith abuse under Erdogan