"I'm afraid I can't let you through," said the man at the airport desk. "The government has issued a permanent re-entry ban against you."
These words hit David hard. He knew his family was waiting for him just a couple of steps away on the other side of the border. They were expecting him to come home. Although David is Canadian-American, Turkey was home. It had been for the last 19 years. Together with his German wife Ulrike, he had raised his five children there. He had so looked forward to seeing them after a month apart. Now he was being told he couldn't set foot in Turkey. Ever again.
Using the pretext of enforcing vague immigration laws, the Turkish government is hindering people like David Byle from sharing the good news with others. But David will not be silenced. People should be able to hear the hope he has to share. So, he won't give up his right to freedom of religion without a fight.
David is an evangelist who shares the Gospel with passion. He follows this calling no matter the obstacles put in his path. In the 2000s, he began his missionary work preaching on the streets of Istanbul. Turkish speakers hold a special place in his heart.
The seasoned evangelist uses creative methods to tell the story of Jesus to passersby. Be it puppet plays, pantomimes or illustrations accompanied by parables, there was something to catch everyone's attention. Those listening to David were eager to learn more about what he had to share. Many interesting conversations followed. But the government's reaction was not as positive.
"When we talked about our faith on the streets, people were eager to listen and learn. They drank up the stories of Jesus, because they are not stories you commonly hear on the streets of Istanbul. They would often ask us many questions. But some people in the government didn't like what we were doing and wanted to silence us." Throughout his career, David was arrested and questioned many times. Then, they started trying to deport him. But despite facing these obstacles, his heart for sharing the Gospel remained steadfast.
"I learned that missionary work mainly requires two things: courage and creativity," he said. Both are gifts he frequently employed in one of his most fruitful mission fields. While being held in detention cells, sometimes overnight, David would continue sharing the gospel with those around him. After all: "There are rarely other places where people have nothing but time and are happy to pay attention and listen without distraction."
In 2016, the man who'd given his life to missionary service faced an unjust deportation decision. He was told he had to leave Turkey immediately.
This didn't come as a shock.
He had noticed growing hostility as the police became increasingly skeptical of public displays of Christianity from 2007 onwards. But he knew his rights and challenged the legality of the move in court. The court granted him an injunction that allowed him to stay until the results of the case were delivered. But in October 2018 the police unexpectedly arrested David again- only one day after the high-profile release of American pastor Andrew Brunson from custody in Turkey. He was told he had fifteen days to leave the country. "They made it sound like I could just come back, as soon as I followed this order."
It was only at the airport border that David realized the government had no intention of allowing him to return.
"It came as a big blow when the policeman looked across the desk from me and said: 'You have a permanent entry ban.' I thought: Oh, so this is it."
The authorities alleged that David was a threat to public order and security. As his case finally reached Turkey's Supreme Court, they dismissed it right away, reasoning, since David was no longer in the country, the case was moot. The evangelist, and all those who supported him spiritually and financially, were unjustly discriminated against.
"Jesus said: 'Go and make disciples of all nations.' Sometimes that will mean opening court cases to open unjustly shut borders," he mused.
It is a serious violation to use immigration laws as a pretext to interfere with a person's fundamental right to manifest their religious beliefs. The government's systematic suppression of David, and other foreign Christians, aims to stifle Christianity in Turkey. David's missionary work was the reason that they issued an entry-ban against him. They did this ignoring the fact that such missionary work is legal under both the European Convention on Human Rights and Turkish national law, both of which protect freedom of religion. This includes the freedom to share one's faith in public. Even though some people might not like what David has to say, it is important to ensure everyone has the right to speak freely. Censorship does not lead to freedom, but tyranny.
With the support of ADF International, David has brought his case before the European Court of Human Rights.
He has a strong case, but we cannot know whether his case will be successful. A positive ruling would not only affect the Byle family, but the lives of 800 million people in 47 different countries. David may be able to return home. But it's about more than that. Everyone has the right to freely express and share their faith. No one should suffer persecution, imprisonment or deportation because of their faith. Chains, rejection and hardship might be part of the risk taken on by missionaries, but they are nevertheless entitled to their human rights.
"We miss Turkey. It's our home," says David. He has relocated, with his family, to Germany and continues to share the Gospel there. But he has noticed that people stop less often to listen when he is reaching out on the streets. "Something that I've noticed In Germany, is that people believe faith and religion belong in the private sphere. Even believers are extremely cautious about sharing their faith, for fear of saying the wrong thing or offending someone. I think the danger is that we lose the courage to talk about Jesus with conviction. We are not only called to share the gospel, but to proclaim it boldly. Being fearful doesn't do justice to our God. He wants us to confidently trust His mighty power to save."
Sofia Hoerder is Communications Officer for faith-based legal advocacy organization ADF International.