In the Presence of Martyrs: A Reflection from Turkey
Recently Dindy [Mark’s wife] and I attended a funeral here in Izmir. I have attended many funerals, but this was my first in Turkey. And it was also the first time I attended the funeral of a martyr. I have been teaching and writing about martyrs and martyrdom for many years. We live in biblical Smyrna noted as the place where Polycarp was martyred in the second century. But such martyrdoms are personally and historically distant.
Then on April 18 three believers-Necati AydÃ½n and UÃ°ur YÃ¼ksel (Turks) and Tilman Geske (German)-were tortured and murdered in the southeastern city of Malatya. Needless to say, this brutal act deeply shook the Christian community, both national and expatriate. Persecution in Turkey to this point had taken the form of harassment, intimidation, and imprisonment, but never death. (If you are not familiar with the details of the story, see a summary at http://edition.cnn.com/2007/WORLD/europe/04/20/turkey.christians.ap/index.html.)
On Saturday, April 21, Necatis funeral took place on the grounds of an historic Protestant church in Buca, a suburb of Izmir. Necati had lived and fellowshipped in this city for many years, and was well known and loved. (He had portrayed Jesus in a Passion play in the past.) The sanctuary was too small to contain the crowd of around 500 persons who came from throughout the country to attend. So the service was held outdoors on a balmy spring afternoon.
As we entered the church grounds, people were given a picture of Necati to pin on their clothing. Therefore throughout the crowd Necatis smiling face radiated forth. Before the service I wandered in the church’s cemetery among the gravestones that belonged to British believers who had lived and died in Izmir in the nineteenth century. On most gravestones were chiseled scripture verses, many from the book of Job. One verse that especially caught my attention was James 4:14: “What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.” Standing in such an historic place only reiterated the truth of that verse.
The Turkish media were there in full force and recorded the entire service. The cameras were indeed intrusive, but nevertheless tolerated because the nation was seeing what a Christian home-going was all about. (Of course, the Turkish security police were also present, making note of those in attendance.)
The next two hours were a unique tribute to Necati as eulogies were given to him and worship and prayers offered to his Lord. Especially moving was a time of special prayer for his wife Shemsa and their two children. After the funeral a motorcade took Necatis body to the Christian cemetery at KarabaÃ°lar for internment. I had passed this cemetery numerous times to and from the airport, and had wondered about the crosses that marked its graves. Such a sight is unusual in this largely Muslim country.
At the grave site there were again prayers, scripture reading, and worship. And tears flowed once more because of this senseless death of a beloved brother and friend. Then Necati was laid to rest-ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Before leaving the cemetery I again wandered among the crosses that marked the graves of other believers who had died in Smyrna decades before. And I reflected that this cemetery was especially hallowed now because a martyr had been buried in its midst.
The collective grieving of the Christian community in Turkey has continued, and this past Saturday, April 28, a memorial service for the three martyrs was held at the Anglican Church near our apartment. The church was packed when I arrived, and I had to stand for the three-hour service. Taped to the walls were the pictures of the three men-youthful, handsome, full of Gods joy and love. (Their pictures can be seen at http://www.compassdirect.org/en/display.php?page=news&length=long&lang=en&idelement=4836.)
Personal remembrances, worship, and the ministry of the word comforted those who were gathered, and the sweet presence of the Lord filled the sanctuary. The most memorable part of the service occurred when the widows of Tilman and Necati shared their hearts with the congregation. Their words of forgiveness for these senseless acts to their loved ones have demonstrated the compassion of Christ to a nation searching for truth and reality at this time.
Tears came to everyones eyes as Necatis young son sang “Jesus loves the Little Children of the World”. Special prayer followed for these families as they stood directly under a wooden banner inscribed with Genesis 28:17: “This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven”. These three martyrs have passed through that gate of heaven. Necati, UÃ°ur, and Tilman have received their white robes, their crowns, and their palm branches. God has wiped away the tears of sorrow and pain experienced in the final hours of their earthly lives. Although I never met them, my life has been profoundly affected by their witness. How can someone not be changed when he has been in the presence of martyrs?
Dr. Mark Wilson Director, Seven Churches Network