As the dust settled on the rubble of Turkish cities, citizens began asking hard questions. Why was the government response so slow, and why did so many buildings fall in the first place?
Some Christians have joined the chorus.
“During the earthquake, some serious mistakes were made,” said Melih Ekener, executive director of SAT-7 TURK, an inter-denominational satellite television ministry with offices in Istanbul. “But with the destruction of cities with large Christian populations, we are feeling more alone than ever.”
The mistakes came both before and after, he said. But the church paid a disproportionate price, as the ancient cities of Antakya, Iskenderun, and Diyarbakir collectively held the majority of Turkey’s Christians—about 1 percent of the overall population of 85 million.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has pledged to rebuild affected areas. And with a local death toll of over 40,000 and one million people displaced across a 10-province region roughly the size of Switzerland, any government would struggle, Ekener said.
But nodding his head at a long list of reported failures both before and after the 7.8-magnitude earthquake and 7.5-magnitude aftershock, Ekener said trust in official institutions has been shaken.
The results are tragic.
Not all can be blamed on the government. The earthquake damaged the local airport and road systems, bottlenecking equipment necessary for rescue. Freezing temperatures, lack of electricity, and the sheer scale of devastation handicapped relief efforts.
But three or more days were lost due to poor coordination in the centralizing of effort.
“The system makes sense,” said Ekener. “But it does slow things down.”
One Turkish Christian, requesting anonymity due to the sensitivity of the situation, was blunt, warning there will be consequences for mistakes.
“Earthquakes don’t kill people; the shoddy works of men do,” said the senior ministry leader. “The government failed this test, and many who could have been saved died.”
Elections are scheduled for June but may be postponed.
Analysts remarked that after a 7.6 magnitude earthquake in 1999 killed 18,000 people in northwest Turkey, the army acted quickly to lead the emergency response. But given the nation’s long history of military coups, when the Islamist-tinged Justice and Development Party (AKP) of now-president Erdogan came to power in 2002 it established civilian control over the largely independent brass.
As an unintended consequence, the military, like everyone else, had to wait on the official Disaster and Emergency Management Authority (AFAD). And AFAD, critics remarked, is headed by a graduate of an Islamic seminary with no experience in the field.
“For years, the AKP has packed almost every institution in the country with their staunch loyalists, often purging people with real know-how and expertise,” said Mustafa Akyol, a Turkish senior fellow at the Cato Institute’s Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity and an expert in Islam and public policy. “The result has been a huge loss of quality and competence.”
Following a 2016 coup attempt, the government removed tens of thousands of civil servants, many connected to a rival Islamic movement accused of conspiracy. Other civil society organizations have also been suppressed, and Akyol said an effective, national effort against disasters is impossible in a climate of suspicion against domestic enemies.
Drawing no connection, an AFAD internal report described deficiencies in personnel and earthquake preparedness. It still consisted of more than 10,000 employees.
Erdogan acknowledged “shortcomings” in the earthquake response, pledging to care for every affected citizen. But he also blamed “dishonorable people” for spreading lies and rumors against the government.
Ekener said that after delays, overall coordination has been smooth.
But while the “after” errors have been tragic, critics point to a criminal “before.”
This article was originally published at Christianity Today on February 23, 2023. Please click here to read the full text.