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Turkey denounces grisly murders, Christians decry 'witch hunt'
MALATYA, Turkey (AFP) - Turkey on Thursday condemned the gruesome murder of three people at a Christian publishing house, as church leaders warned of a "witch hunt" against their tiny minority in this largely Muslim nation.
Police detained 10 people over Wednesday's attack in this conservative eastern city in which three people, among them a German, were tied to chairs and had their throats slit.
"This is an attack against Turkey's stability, peace and tradition of tolerance," Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul said in Ankara, as he voiced concern for the country's image abroad.
"There have been similar attacks in the past... We will certainly take stricter measures," he added.
Turkey is under pressure to guarantee the protection and freedom of non-Muslim minorities as part of its efforts to join the European Union.
The Zivre (Summit) publishing house, which distributes bibles and publishes Christian literature, had previously been the target of protests by nationalists, media reports said.
In remarks to the Italian daily La Stampa, the papal envoy to Turkey linked the killings to upcoming presidential elections, noting the "presence of well-known fanatical, ultra-nationalist groups."
"Events like this have already happened during electoral campaigns," Monsignor Antonio Lucibello said.
Pope Benedict XVI made a landmark visit to Turkey in November -- his first to a Muslim country -- during which he stressed that respect for religious freedom must be a criterion for EU membership.
Ambassadors from the 27 EU member countries met in Istanbul on Thursday, after which the envoy from Germany, which currently holds the rotating EU presidency urged Ankara to take measures to protect religious freedoms.
"We see the murders as an attack not only against individuals, but also against the principles of freedom and tolerance," German Ambassador Eckhart Cuntz said.
Turkish newspapers said all those arrested at the scene were carrying copies of a letter that read: "We did it for our country. They are trying to take our country away, take our religion away."
Protestant leaders here spoke of a growing intolerance towards Christians, which they said was being fuelled by politicians and the media.
"Today in Turkey, there is a missionary hunt, just like the witch hunts of medieval times," Ihsan Ozbek, a leader of the Alliance of Protestant Churches in Turkey, said.
"Turkey is facing dangers and threats unprecedented in its history. The fact is that Turkey has become a place of unprecedented intolerance and rejection," he said.
Speaking to reporters in the southeastern city of Diyarbakir, European Parliament member Joost Lagendijk said the killings would send Europe a negative message.
"Europe will perceive the killings to mean that those who attempt to seek converts to other faiths in Turkey will face a similar fate," Lagendijk said. "It is very important for the government to appeal for the acceptance of different religions and ethnic backgrounds."
The dead were identified as German Tilman Geske and Turkish nationals Ugur Yuksel and Necati Aydin, the pastor of Malatya's 30-strong Protestant community.
Proselytizing is not banned but generally viewed with suspicion in Turkey, whose population is 99 percent Muslim; small Greek Othodox, Catholic, Armenian and Jewish communities are concentrated mainly in Istanbul.
The Protestant community consists of some 3,200 people, Ozbek said.
In February 2006, Italian Catholic priest Andrea Santoro was shot dead as he prayed in his church in the northern city of Trabzon. A teenager was convicted of the murder and jailed for nearly 19 years.
In January, journalist Hrant Dink, a prominent member of Turkey's Armenian community, was gunned down in an Istanbul street. A 17-year-old, detained along with 11 other suspected ultra-nationalists, confessed to the killing.