Editor's note: This interview was written prior to this weekend's election in which Erdoğan was re-elected.
A Time to Stay
An audible gasp traveled through the pews as Dr. Michael Horton announced a pastor’s decision to stay in a country where he has been indicted and is expecting to face arrest and imprisonment. This thought is alien to our American minds which tend to look for ways out of problems.
Many are familiar with the plight of Andrew Brunson, the evangelical pastor from North Carolina who has been in a Turkish prison since 2016, in the wake of a failed coup against Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdoğan. Brunson is accused of being a member of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which the Turkish government considers a terrorist group. Specifically, the Indictment accuses him of recruiting PKK members as Christians and sending them abroad “under the cover of the church organization” with the ultimate goal of founding a Kurdish state.
The indictment also tries to establish a connection between some American churches and the Turkish Muslim scholar Fethullah Gülen, who lives in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania and is a suspect in the 2016 coup. In September 2017, Erdoğan offered to free Brunson in exchange for Gulen’s extradition from the US – an offer many Americans see as blackmail.
Turkish pastor Fikret Bocek has been connected to Brunson’s case through the mutual use of a couple of facilities. Because of this, his name is included in Brunson’s indictment as “certainly a person connected with the CIA.”
Bocek’s story of his surprising conversion from Islam to Christianity and his decision to become a Reformed pastor has been told in several interviews, including a 2010 interview on Office Hours and a 2011 interview on the White Horse Inn. After graduating from Westminster Seminary in California in 1998 and paying off his loans, Bocek moved to Izmir (ancient Smyrna), Turkey, in September 2001 with the intent of planting a confessional Reformed church, which, to his knowledge, would have been the first in his country.
Since his move to downtown Izmir, Bocek has witnessed 153 conversions from Islam to Christianity – an unprecedented number. Since the first flow of missionaries in 1960, there had been one Muslim convert reported in 1960, his son added in 1970, 25 more people between 1970 and 1980, and 80 between 1980 and 1988. Against these statistics, 153 converts in less than nine years is an encouraging progress.
And these numbers are not inflated. Bocek takes the word “converts” seriously, meaning individuals who have been duly instructed and baptized. At Izmir Protestant Kilisesi, the membership course for Muslims lasts around eight months and might take longer in some cases.
Besides preaching in Izmir, Bocek spent time helping pastors to plant other churches, encouraging them to adopt a Reformed and confessional theology. He has also begun a new translation of the Bible from the original texts and has translated several Christian books.
A Difficult Decision
Since Brunson’s arrest, Bocek has received invitations from friends in other countries to join them and save his life. Fleeing during persecution is not an unbiblical choice and has several historical precedents. Each situation has to be judged according to its merits, and Bocek has come to the conclusion that, in his case, leaving the country is out of the question.
In his ministry, Bocek encourages prospect Muslim converts to count the cost of becoming a Christian – a decision which, in a Muslim country, often means losing jobs, being disqualified for college, and being rejected by family and friends. How could he, then, look for his own personal safety and leave these suffering believers behind?
The charges against him are serious, and he has been alerted that the government is looking for ways to arrest him. “I have prepared a suitcase to take to prison, with all the books I always wanted to read but couldn’t find the time,” he said.
He doesn’t dismiss the possibility of death. While Turkey doesn’t have a death penalty, some people die in prison for unexplained reasons. On the other hand, he is fully convinced of God’s sovereignty. “Some friends in the UK have encouraged me to move there, but I could die in England of a sudden illness. We have to trust God.”
Besides, he continued, “since the time we decided not to leave, we had two more converts. This alone is enough to make it worth it all.”
He is obviously concerned for his family but feels that his children (ages 21, 19, 16, and 14) are old enough to stand the trial. “My wife Darlene loves the Lord,” he explained. “She will continue to train them well.”
“There will be hurt,” he continued. “Life is like that. We can’t protect our loved ones from every problem. I am very content in God’s will, whatever happens.”
June 24 will mark the presidential election in Turkey. Will Erdoğan be re-elected? “I am not basing my decisions on it,” Bocek said. “I trust God. We have to live each day faithfully.”
Please keep Fikret Bocek, his family, and church in your prayers.