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Turkey's Atheists Face Hostilities, Death Threats

FILE - President Erdogan addresses members of parliament from his ruling AK Party (AKP) at the Turkish parliament in Ankara.
FILE - President Erdogan addresses members of parliament from his ruling AK Party (AKP) at the Turkish parliament in Ankara.

Onur Romano, a founding member of Turkey’s Atheism Association, opens the office and checks the mail. For once, he says, there are no death threats.

"Sometimes they send photos of some al-Qaida members chopping people off heads and putting all the heads in a bucket," he says. "They tell us your head is going to be in one of the buckets, that's how you are going to leave your office, stuff like that."

In officially secular Turkey, whose population is 99 percent Muslim, atheists are voicing alarm about what they call increasing intolerance fueled by the country’s pro-Islamist government.

"Through Facebook, Twitter, emails, and to our call center, we have received a couple of hundred death threats already," Romano continues. "We have a total of three security cameras, and we have two panic buttons hooked up to the nearest police precinct. But we are determined."

On Turkish TV channels where growing numbers of Islamic clerics espouse their beliefs, Atheists are a popular target. Romano says much of his group's work involves countering such views.

"We don't insult religion, we don't insult people’s values. All we are trying to [do] is to tell people what atheism, because our people think that atheists are people who have orgies every night, rape animals because [and] have no ethical values,” he said. “For them, ethics is equal to religion."

In speech last month, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan warned people to beware of atheist terrorists, accusing them of conspiring to overthrow his government.

Over the past year, people have been jailed for questioning God’s existence on Twitter, prosecuted under a law against inciting religious hatred. Last month, that same law was used to ban 48 websites, including one belonging to the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, as well as the atheist association's webpage.

At their weekly meeting, members discuss the site ban over bottles of wine. Despite the setback, everyone is trying to keep spirits up.

As one member who declined to provide her name, says these gatherings represent an opportunity to hang out with fellow atheists, many of whom are too scared to admit their views even to their own families.

"Unfortunately, people does not even want to say, because they are scared to lose their job, they are scared to have trouble with their family as well," she said. "I had big problem with my family. My mother told me that [she is] going to the government, and say it’s not my daughter anymore. And I told her, 'OK, if it's the way it is for you, go ahead,' because it’s not going to change what I am."

Last month, the head of a fringe Sharia society directed a death threat at the Atheism Association's president, Tolga Incir, vowing to cut off his hands and head. Stepping outside the atheist group's office, Incir says the threat is more serious than usual, but that there's little he can do.

"This threat is very open. When we founded this association, we were aware that we were risking things, especially in a country like this," he said. "I will not be surprised if thousands of people are thinking the same — that atheists should be killed. I carry on with my life and if it happens, it happens."

Incir says his group's biggest concern is not Turks but jihadists, many of whom he says spend time in Istanbul en route to Syria. But he says the society is unbowed and is planning to celebrate its first anniversary with a march through the center of Istanbul.