ISTANBUL, Turkey (Morning Star News) – After a five-year court battle, a U.S. evangelist singled out by Turkey’s Ministry of the Interior for deportation because of his outreach activities has been granted a residency permit to stay in Turkey.
David Byle was issued a residency permit at the end of January after five years of living in limbo. During that time, the co-founder of the Holy Book Information Association, also known as the Bible Correspondence Course in Turkey (BCC-Turkey), was unsure from month to month if he might be detained and deported.
His problems stemmed from an immigration hold placed on his name by Turkey’s Ministry of the Interior that prevented him from getting a regular residency visa. Over the summer, the Fifth Administrative Court in Ankara found that the hold on his file was not legal.
“The court ruled in my favor that the government was not right in putting a restriction on me without justifiable reason,” Byle said. “They [the Ministry of the Interior] said I was ‘a threat to national security and public morals,’ and the court said, ‘But this guy has committed no crime. You have no evidence of anything that could look that way, so we overturn your decision to put a restriction on his file.’”
His residency problems started on Feb. 12, 2010, when he applied at the main police station in Istanbul to have his residence permit renewed. Byle said he “was told that since there were things about me on their records, that they’d need to first check with their superiors in Ankara.”
They gave him a one-month paper extension and told him to check back in a month’s time. He had a record because he had been arrested or detained by Turkish police at least two times for doing street evangelism, though the charges against him were dismissed in each case.
On April 25, 2007, police arrested Byle in Istanbul’s Beyoglu District after, police said, people complained about aggressive evangelism, especially on the part of a South Korean missionary worker. Byle said police charged him with “forceful missionary activity” and disturbing the peace.
Authorities kept Byle in custody for two nights. Before releasing him, they made him sign a document stating that if he wanted to continue doing public outreach, he would need to have some sort of work permit or else be deported. The demand for a work permit was perplexing, since it appeared they were requiring him to obtain one from a Turkish sponsor for an activity they told him was illegal.
A prosecutor dropped the first charge on May 8, 2007, because Byle’s literature was not insulting of other religions and because “missionary activity” is not a crime in Turkey. On Nov. 1, 2007, a judge threw out the charge of disturbing the peace because Turkish law relates it only to selling goods or services in an overly loud and aggressive way, and Byle wasn’t selling anything.
After the two charges were thrown out, Byle wrote a letter to the Ministry of the Interior inquiring about the document he was forced to sign. He never received an answer.
Police detained Byle a second time on Nov. 18, 2009 in Pendik District along with several members of a BCC street evangelism team. While in custody, Byle was disconcerted to see police ask members of the team to give written statements.
“From my experiences before, I knew that this probably meant that they’d be trying to press charges,” he said. “I immediately asked what we were being charged with, and their response was, ‘Nothing at all; it’s just a procedural thing we have to do.’ So we gave our written statements and were then released.”
In February 2010, police told Byle his application would require further investigation, and less than a month later, on March 9 at 10:30 p.m., two plainclothes police officers arrived unannounced at his door and took him into custody for deportation.
“The kids were all asleep and only learned about it the next morning,” Byle said. “In the following days, I learned that apparently my residence permit application had caused them to check my files, at which time they discovered that despite the warning they’d given me, I was still continuing to do these things and therefore needed to be deported.”
Authorities came to this conclusion because, despite assurances to the contrary, police in Pendik District had filed a report of charges into a confidential record system but never through the court system for prosecution. Byle said he believes police wanted higher authorities to know what happened, and that they thought his activities were illegal, but that they didn’t want to go through the effort or public scrutiny of bringing the case into the courts.
“Police can’t just accuse you of a crime and not let you contest it though the legal system,” Byle said.
The next day, Byle retained a lawyer to request a court injunction to temporarily block the deportation order until it could be reviewed in court. An Ankara court granted the injunction, the paperwork of which was presented to the deportation center on March 12. For some reason, Byle was held in the center for six more days and then given a three-month temporary residence permit.
It took until December 2010 for the first court hearing in Byle’s deportation case to take place. During this time, he was allowed to extend his temporary residence permit for six months at a time. The judges requested more documents in the case, particularly those from the 2009 Pendik District detention.
In April 2011, the court issued its decision. It found that because Byle had never been found guilty of committing any crime, and because he was conducting activities in accordance with the constitution of BCC, which the government approved, the Ministry of the Interior had tried to deport Byle in violation of the law. It ordered the deportation order be cancelled.
The deportation order may have been stricken, but the Ministry of the Interior still hadn’t cleared the entries in Byle’s file. Also, although they couldn’t legally deport him, they stopped issuing him temporary residency permits, instead forcing him to enter Turkey under 90-day tourist visas.
To stay in the country legally, he would have to leave the country every three months to go on a “visa run.” Because of this, Byle had to step down from his role in the BCC and forfeit his membership in the organization, because foreign members of associations are required to have residency permits. Byle’s family, however, was allowed to maintain residency status.
Sometime between 2011 and 2012, the Turkish government began sporadically enforcing new laws regarding tourist visas. Known to expatriates as the “90 days in 180 days” rule, tourists with six-month visas were only allowed to stay in Turkey for 90 days during the six-month period that their visas were valid.
In February 2013, things took a turn for the worse for Byle; he was called to the local police station.
“I had to sign that I had received the letter they had for me from Ankara, which stated that when my visa expired I would need to leave the country,” Byle said. “Nothing else was written, so it wasn’t at all clear whether I would be allowed in again after I’d left.”
The answer police gave him was “cryptic,” but Byle left with the impression he would be allowed in the country if he applied for entry at Ataturk Airport.
“He did say that I could apply for a visa from a Turkish Embassy or consulate in my home country,” Byle said. “At that time I was about to leave for a conference in Thailand and so obviously had no time to fly to the states. I had no option but to continue with my planned travel and hope that I’d be let back in when I returned on 13 March.”
When he arrived in Istanbul, he was informed that he wouldn’t be allowed to enter Turkey, so he bought a ticket to Chicago and flew out the next day.
“I stayed overnight at the airport’s detention center,” he said.
Byle applied for a family reunification visa on March 25, 2013, received a six-month single-entry visa on June 17, and returned to Istanbul the same day. He immediately applied for a residence permit. The first date available to submit an application was Aug. 19.
“When my lawyer and I went in that day, however, we were told that there was a restriction on my file that prevented me from receiving a residence permit,” Byle said.
On Oct. 3, Byle’s attorney sent a legal request to the Ministry of the Interior asking for the reason behind the restriction.
“In late November” he said, “she [his attorney] received an official letter from the Interior Ministry, stating what we already knew, namely, that there was a restriction on my file and that I therefore couldn’t enter the country with generic visas, but could apply for purpose-specific visas at one of their consulates in my home country. Again they avoided explaining the reason behind the restriction.”
On Dec. 10, 2013, Byle sued to have the restriction removed. In June 2014 he won the case, and in October 2014 he reapplied for the residency permit. After losing his application for the permit, the Ministry of the Interior found the paperwork and in January issued the visa.
Byle attributes the visa coming through to God’s power, but he also said it is an example of the system in Turkey – byzantine though it may be – working properly.
“There is tons of negative press about bad things that are going on in this part of the world, and that stuff needs to be made known, and it’s good that we do, but it’s only right and fair to give the other side of the story,” he said. “And this to me is a great story of the legal system in Turkey working. You hear a lot of people say, ‘It doesn’t work,’ and some people want to say that there are other reasons behind the scenes why they do these things, but we don’t know all those things. What we do know is that I was able to open two court cases, the courts ruled in my favor, and the government has submitted to the decision of the court and done what they otherwise would have preferred not to do.”