The sole victim of Sunday’s attack on a Catholic church in Istanbul, Turkey, was a Muslim man who regularly attended Mass, according to his relatives.
A 52-year-old Turkish man, Tuncer Murat Cihan, was killed when two gunmen opened fire in Santa Maria Church in Istanbul’s Sariyer district during Mass on January 28, 2024.
Tuncer was an Alevi Muslim with a mental disability who had attended Catholic Mass on Sundays in the months leading up to his death in the terrorist attack, two of his relatives told a local Turkish news outlet.
“He was coming to church with me”, Kazım Aydemir, the victim’s uncle, told the outlet.
“He was very loved by the congregation. He was killed in vain. We are very sad”, Kazim said.
Çağın Cihan, the nephew of Tuncer, told the same news outlet: “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 on January 29, at a funeral held at a cemevi, an Alevi place of worship. The Alevis are reportedly Turkey’s largest religious minority, and are a sect of Shia Islam with unique Anatolian folk practices. They do not perform ablution before prayers or fast for Ramadan.
According to the Turkish government, 99% of the country’s population is Muslim, including Alevis. There are about 25,000 Roman Catholics living in Turkey, including migrants from Philippines and Africa, per a 2022 report by the U.S. State Department.
Catholic Bishop Massimiliano Palinuro, the apostolic vicar of Istanbul, attended Tuncer’s funeral.
“He was like a pure angel. He lost his life for the community there,” Bishop Palinuro said at the funeral, according to a news outlet .
“He was a Muslim Alevi, believing in Jesus as savior and frequently used to join the holy Mass,” the bishop commented to sources.
According to Sukru Genc, the local mayor of Istanbul’s Sariyer district, about 35 to 40 people were inside the church attending Mass 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 they (the attackers) came out. It is unknown what would happen next, whether the attack would continue,” the mayor told sources.
“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,” Sukru said.
The Islamic State terrorist group has claimed responsibility for the Istanbul attack on its media outlet, Aamaq, according to reports. Two suspects — one from Tajikistan and another who is a Russian citizen — have reportedly been arrested. Turkey’s Minister of the Interior Ali Yerlikaya, described the two suspects as members of the Islamic State group.
The Turkish bishops’ conference has also asked for prayers for the victim and his family.
The president of the bishops’ conference, Archbishop Martin Kmetec of Izmir said: “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”.