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Devil's Bargain? Why Turkish Referendum Spells Bad News for Religious Minorities


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WASHINGTON – This week Turkey voted to trade democracy for what looks like authoritarian rule. If the referendum stands, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will gain power over all branches of government. That's bad news for Christians and other religious minorities in Turkey already facing persecution.

With a narrow vote that's being challenged after allegations of fraud, Turks lost the checks and balances in their government, just barely handing Erdogan the executive powers he's craved since a coup threatened to topple his reign last summer.

"The problem is that there are serious allegations and not only allegations but evidence of electoral fraud," said Aykan Erdemir, who served in Turkey's parliament until 2015.

"There are hundreds of cases of ballot box stuffing. What's even more scandalous is the Supreme Council of Election changed the rules of counting over an hour into the counting, which is always an embarrassing smoking gun for the government," he said.

Bad News for Christians and Jews

Erdemir, a Muslim Turk, has dedicated his career to defending minority rights in his country, including those of Christians and Jews.

If the referendum stands, Erdogan will have executive, judicial and legislative powers.

Erdemir predicts conditions for Christians, who've already fallen prey to crackdowns and persecution, will continue to worsen.

During his victory speech, Erdogan invoked religious incitement, accusing the West of starting a "crusade" against Islam.

"So he's again using this kind of belligerent clash of Islam versus Christianity," Erdemir explained. "It's the battle of the cross versus the crescent rhetoric."

"And you can imagine if you are a member of Turkey's Jewish or Christian communities you will feel very threatened because you are a citizen," he continued. "And technically on paper you have the same rights as Turkey's majority Muslim population but you have a president who continues to single you out."

US Pastor a 'Trump Card' for Erdogan

It doesn't bode well for American Pastor Andrew Brunson, who has been confined to a Turkish jail cell since October, swept up in a terrorism investigation but never formerly charged.

"Unfortunately, Pastor Andrew Brunson is now a pawn, kind of a trump card in Erdogan's hand," Erdemir continued.

"There's absolutely no rule of law, no due process in that case. It's a completely bogus case. Anyone who has looked at the case knows that these are trumped-up charges," he said.

Resurrecting the Death Penalty?

Still, the vote wasn't the clear mandate Erdogan wanted and now he's set his sights on another proposition for voters: restoring the death penalty.

"My prediction is he will continue to use this inciteful (sic) anti-Western, anti-Christian, anti-Semitism rhetoric because it's really mobilizes people. It brings votes to Erdogan," Erdemir said.

"And he knows firsthand that the magic formula in a majority Muslim country is incitement, religious incitement, and I'm really concerned in the days to come if Turkey goes forward with Erdogan's proposal for a second referendum on death penalty we could see further reprisals against Turkey's minority faith leaders," he added.

Turkey abolished capital punishment in 2004.

The nation has been in talks to join the European Union for years, but a return to the death penalty is a deal breaker.

However, instead of leaning to the West, America's ally is looking more like countries to the East.

Erdogan wants to prevent future coup attempts, but by weakening Turkey's democracy, he's likely made himself more vulnerable.

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