01 February 2024, The Tablet

Istanbul shooting victim was Mass-going Muslim

by Courtney Mares, CNA

“He was very loved by the congregation. He was killed in vain. We are very sad.”

Istanbul shooting victim was Mass-going Muslim

Reporters inside the Santa Maria Church in Istanbul following the shooting on 28 January.
Zuma Press Inc / Alamy

The victim of Sunday’s attack on a Catholic church in Istanbul was a Muslim man who regularly attended Mass, according to his relatives.

Tuncer Murat Cihan, a 52-year-old Turkish man, was killed when two gunmen opened fire in Santa Maria Church in Istanbul’s Sariyer district during Mass on 28 January.

Cihan was an Alevi Muslim with a mental disability who had attended Mass on Sundays in the months before he was killed in the terrorist attack, two of his relatives told local Turkish media.

“He was coming to church with me,” Kazim Aydemir, the Cihan’s uncle, told the Gazete Duvar news site.

“He was very loved by the congregation. He was killed in vain. We are very sad,” he said.

Çagin Cihan, the victim’s nephew, told the site: “He was my uncle…He was a simple, innocent person and definitely an innocent victim. He was retired with a slight mental disability.”

“He had been going to church on Sundays for the last two months,” he said.

Tuncer Murat Cihan was laid to rest in a funeral on 29 January held at a cemevi, an Alevi place of worship. The Alevis, Turkey’s largest religious minority, belong to a sect of Shia Islam with unique Anatolian folk practices and do not perform ablution before prayers or fast for Ramadan.

According to the Turkish government, 99 per cent of the country’s population is Muslim, including Alevis. There are about 25,000 Roman Catholics living in Turkey, including migrants from Africa and the Philippines, according to a 2022 report by the US State Department.

Bishop Massimiliano Palinuro, the apostolic vicar of Istanbul, attended Cihan’s funeral.

“He was like a pure angel. He lost his life for the community there,” Palinuro said at the funeral, according to Turkish news outlet BirGün.

“He was a Muslim Alevi, believing in Jesus as saviour and frequently used to join the holy Mass,” the bishop told CNA.

According to Sukru Genc, the mayor of the Sariyer district, approximately 35 to 40 people were inside the church at the time of the attack, including the Polish consul general Witold Lesniak and his family.

“When the first gun went off, everyone threw themselves on the ground. After the second explosion, the gun jammed and [the attackers] came out. It is unknown what would happen next, whether the attack would continue,’” Genc told BirGün.

“During the attack, a citizen from Bayburt lost his life, a Muslim citizen. According to the priest, he was a regular visitor to the church and the priest knew this person, he said he was a good person,” the mayor said.

The Islamic State has claimed responsibility for the Istanbul attack, according to the Associated Press.

Two suspects – one from Tajikistan and another who is a Russian citizen – have been arrested. Turkey’s Minister of the Interior Ali Yerlikaya said the two suspects were members of the Islamic State group.

The Turkish bishops’ conference has asked for prayers for the victim and his family. 

“We firmly demand that the truth be revealed and that greater security be guaranteed to our communities and churches. We ask everyone not to spread the culture of hatred and religious discrimination,” said Archbishop Martin Kmetec of Izmir, the president of the bishops’ conference.

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