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Explainer: What you should know about the coup in Turkey

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July 16, 2016

What is going on in Turkey?

A group within the Turkish military that call itself a “peace council” is attempting to take over control of the country from the Islamist leader, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who was out of the country on vacation. Erdoğan has returned to Istanbul and taken action that is leading some to assume the coup is faltering.

According to the BBC, it is unclear who is leading the army group that is plotting the coup or to know how much support it enjoys. Some top army officials are said to be detained.

The soldiers involved in the coup took control of the state television, notes Reuters, and announced a countrywide curfew and martial law. An announcer read a statement on the orders of the military that accused the government of eroding the democratic and secular rule of law, and said the country would be run by a "peace council" that would ensure the safety of the population.

On late Friday night (10 PM EDT) Turkish government officials said the coup appeared to have failed. Speaking on national television, Erdogan said the government was arresting coup supporters in the military and "they will pay a heavy price for their treason to Turkey.”

Is Turkey an Islamic state?

Although the majority of the population is comprised of Sunni Muslims, Turkey has been a secular, democratic constitutional republic since 1923. Although Turkey’s constitution provides for strict secularism, this secularism is maintained through state control of religious expression in a variety of ways. For instance, all imams, or Muslim religious leaders, are employed by Turkey’s Ministry of Religious Affairs, which reports directly to the Prime Minister’s office. Further, Turkish public education curriculum includes compulsory Islamic education.

Where exactly is Turkey?

Turkey is on a peninsula in Western Asia that serves as crossroads between the continents of Europe and Asia. Turkey is bordered by eight countries: Georgia to the northeast and Bulgaria to the Northwest; Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic on the east; Syria and Iraq to the south; and Greece to the west. The Black Sea is to the north, the Mediterranean Sea to the south, and the Aegean Sea to the west.

What exactly is a “coup”?

Coup (pronounced “coo”) is short for coup d’etat, a French word meaning “blow of state.” Coups d’etat are defined as “overt attempts by the military or other elites within the state apparatus to unseat the sitting head of state using unconstitutional means . . . there is no minimal death threshold for defining a coup. A coup attempt is defined as successful if the coup perpetrators seize and hold power for at least seven days.”

What is the U.S. government’s strategic interest in Turkey?

Turkey is a member of NATO and has the second largest standing army in that treaty organization (the U.S. has the first). The U.S. has an airbase in Incirlik, Turkey with approximately 5,000 service members. This base has been a primary point of operations for the U.S. airstrikes against Islamic State (ISIS).

What is the U.S. government’s position on the coup?

On Friday, the White House issued the following statement:

The President spoke tonight by phone with Secretary of State John Kerry to discuss the events in Turkey. The President and Secretary agreed that all parties in Turkey should support the democratically-elected Government of Turkey, show restraint, and avoid any violence or bloodshed. The Secretary underscored that the State Department will continue to focus on the safety and security of U.S. citizens in Turkey. The President asked the Secretary to continue to keep him updated as the situation unfolds.

The Foreign Assistance Act also requires suspension of foreign aid to any country that suffers a military coup. According to the law, the U.S. government "restricts assistance to the government of any country whose duly elected head of government is deposed by military coup or decree." However, the U.S. is only slated to give $3.8 million in assistance to Turkey in FY2017.

Hasn’t Turkey had other coups?

Yes, there have been five (or six) military coups in the past 60 years. Turkey had military coups in 1960, 1971, 1980, and 1993. In 1997, the country also had what has been called the first “postmodern coup” in which the military sent a memo that led to the resignation of the prime minister.

As Michael Rubin notes, in the past the military “has never tried to retain power; rather, it has always assumed a caretaker role, seeking to repair the constitutional checks and balances in order to return Turkey to democracy.”

What areas of Turkey are mentioned in the Bible?

Numerous areas now located in modern Turkey are mentioned in the Bible, including: Mt. Ararat (Genesis 8:1-5); Haran (Genesis 11:31); the lands of the Hittites (Genesis 15:19-21); Tarsus [the original home of Paul] (Acts 9:11); Iconium (Acts 13-16 and II Tim. 3:11); Galatia (Galatians); Antioch in Pisidia (Acts 13:14); and Ephesus (Ephesians).

What is the religious freedom situation in Turkey?

The Turkish Constitution (1982) guarantees freedom of religion to its citizens. Article 24 of the constitution states:

Everyone has the freedom of conscience, religious belief and conviction.

Acts of worship, religious rites and ceremonies shall be conducted freely, as long as they do not violate the provisions of Article 14.

No one shall be compelled to worship, or to participate in religious rites and ceremonies, or to reveal religious beliefs and convictions, or be blamed or accused because of his religious beliefs and convictions.

Religious and moral education and instruction shall be conducted under state supervision and control. Instruction in religious culture and morals shall be one of the compulsory lessons in the curricula of primary and secondary schools. Other religious education and instruction shall be subject to the individual’s 12 own desire, and in the case of minors, to the request of their legal representatives.

No one shall be allowed to exploit or abuse religion or religious feelings, or things held sacred by religion, in any manner whatsoever, for the purpose of personal or political interest or influence, or for even partially basing the fundamental, social, economic, political, and legal order of the State on religious tenets.

Despite such guarantees, the U. S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) lists Turkey under their Tier 2 countries. Tier 2 countries are those in which “religious freedom conditions do not rise to the statutory level that would mandate a [country of particular concern] designation but require close monitoring due to the nature and extent of violations of religious freedom engaged in or tolerated by governments.”

Joe Carter

Joe Carter is the author of The Life and Faith Field Guide for Parents, the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible, and the co-author of How to Argue Like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History’s Greatest Communicator. He also serves as an executive pastor at the McLean Bible Church Arlington location in Arlington, Virginia. Read More