ISTANBUL, Turkey (AP) – Two men who converted to Christianity went on trial Thursday for allegedly insulting “Turkishness” and inciting religious hatred against Islam, the Anatolia news agency reported.
The trial opened just days before a visit to Turkey by Pope Benedict XVI. During his visit, the pontiff is expected to discuss improved religious rights for the country’s tiny Christian minority who complain of discrimination.
Hakan Tastan, 37, and Turan Topal, 46, are accused of making the insults and of inciting hate while allegedly trying to convert other Turks to Christianity. If convicted, the two Turkish men could face up to nine years in prison.
The men were charged under Turkey’s Article 301, which has been used to bring charges against dozens of intellectuals – including Nobel Prize-winner Orhan Pamuk.
The law has widely been condemned for severely limiting free expression and European officials have demanded Turkey change it as part of reforms to join the EU.
They also are charged under a law against inciting hatred based on religion.
Prosecutors accuse the two of allegedly telling possible converts that Islam was “a primitive and fabricated” religion and that Turks would remain “barbarians” as long they continued practicing Islam, Anatolia reported.
The prosecutors also accused them of speaking out against the country’s compulsory military service, and compiling databases on possible converts.
Tastan and Topal denied the accusations in court.
“I am a Turk, I am a Turkish citizen. I don’t accept the accusations of insulting ‘Turkishness,'” Anatolia quoted Tastan as telling the court. “I am a Christian, that’s true. I explain the Bible … to people who want to learn. I am innocent.”