After 20 months in bureaucratic limbo, Canadian-American Christian David Byle was arrested on 13 October and detained overnight by security police in Ankara, the Turkish capital.
His detention took place the morning after US pastor Andrew Brunson was ordered released by an Izmir court and allowed to return to the United States.
Although Byle was initially informed he would be deported the next day, the long-term resident of Turkey was then released and ordered to leave Turkey within 15 days. After returning to his home in Istanbul, he flew out of Istanbul to the United States today (25 October), without incident.
As a Canadian-American, Byle had no currently valid residence permit to present to officers conducting routine ID checks when he arrived from Istanbul at the Ankara train station.
But when he was taken to the Turkish capital’s Anti-Terror Police Department, officials quickly confirmed that their latest Western-citizen detainee had in fact been staying in the country legally for the past 1.5 years, protected by a temporary constitutional-court order blocking a previous criminal-court order that had called for his deportation and subsequent re-entry ban.
“They would have no legal grounds to deport me if I was charged only over my religious activities, none of which are illegal under Turkish law, and are in fact protected by the Turkish Constitution. So they needed a more legally justifiable reason to deport me.”
Turkey’s highest court had blocked Byle’s lower-court rulings in February 2017, suspending the earlier directives claiming that his “Christian propaganda activities exceeded usual religious rituals.” Accordingly, the court had concluded that members of other religions could perceive him as a threat, so the Turkish government had the right to consider him a threat to public order and national security.
Byle’s latest arrest this month was not a new experience for the 49-year-old evangelist, who has during his 19 years in Turkey faced a number of similar short-term detentions and interrogations, three times resulting in attempted deportations (stopped in the end by court rulings), and stays abroad for several months to comply with Turkish-visa regulations.
Although throughout the years Byle’s visa renewal requests were repeatedly declined or left unanswered, various criminal charges against him were eventually dropped by local courts, bowing to national laws defining missionary activities as legal and confirming that the Christian literature he distributed did not slander Islam.
Even so, Byle told World Watch Monitor he wasn’t surprised when he was informed shortly after his Ankara arrest that he was to be deported immediately, the very next day. But the authorities’ plans later changed, possibly after learning that his constitutional-court decision was still in effect, prohibiting his legal deportation until the higher court actually reviewed his case and gave a final ruling, confirming whether the allegations against him were backed by credible evidence.
“For many hours I was interrogated by multiple policemen, who painstakingly typed up my answers in their computer,” Byle said. “One of the interrogators was obviously from the secret police, as he knew the names of all sorts of Christian workers and activities around the country, and asked me about my connections with them.”
At one point, Byle said, his interrogators discussed back and forth with each other how to specify in writing the exact charges of which he was being accused, to explain the reason for his deportation. In the end, his exit paper basically cited him for overstaying his expired residence permit, and ordered him to leave the country within 15 days.
“They would have no legal grounds to deport me if I was charged only over my religious activities, none of which are illegal under Turkish law, and are in fact protected by the Turkish Constitution,” Byle said. “So they needed a more legally justifiable reason to deport me.”
Finally, the next afternoon, after some five hours of police interrogations, Byle was allowed a lawyer’s visit and then released after signing the written deportation document
Byle said he was informed verbally by his interrogators that if he paid the regulated over-stay fine when he left Turkey within the stated deadline, he would not be issued a re-entry ban forbidding his return to join his family. “But my lawyer advised me that there was a real chance they could give me a travel ban, because these things are so politicised these days,” Byle said.
A decade of intimidation
In connection with his involvement in active Christian ministries with various Turkish church groups and their members, Byle has been targeted in several Turkish police arrests, Interior Ministry directives and resulting court cases over the past decade. He is also one of the founders of the government-registered Association for the Propagation of the Bible, established legally in 2009 and known among English-speakers as the Bible Correspondence Course.
Byle said it has been “painful” for him and his family to face ongoing intimidation by the Turkish authorities because “they keep insisting that I am a threat to Turkey’s national security”.
“We long to stay in Turkey with the people we have grown to love here, but we are resigned to do whatever God wants.”
“Nevertheless, I was happy to take the many opportunities that arose this time to explain the good news of Jesus to various policemen,” he said.
He and his German wife Ulrike have raised their five children, now aged 12 to 19, in Turkey.
“We long to stay in Turkey with the people we have grown to love here,” Byle wrote to his friends abroad after his release, “but we are resigned to do whatever God wants”.
According to detailed annual rights reports issued by the Association of Protestant Churches in Turkey over the past decade, incidents of deportations, declined residence visas and stressful intimidation practices against non-Turkish Protestant Christians living in Turkey have increased four-fold during the past two years.