Victim of Istanbul attack was a Muslim who often went to Catholic Mass

Bishop Massimiliano Palinuro Tuncer Murat Cihan Bishop Massimiliano Palinuro arrives at the Jan. 29, 2024, funeral of Tuncer Murat Cihan, 52, who was murdered during Sunday Mass at Santa Maria Italian Church on Jan. 28 in Istanbul, Turkey. | Credit: Sercan Ozkurnazli/Getty Images

The sole 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 Jan. 28.

Cihan was an Alevi Muslim with a mental disability who had attended Catholic 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,” Kazım Aydemir, the victim’s uncle, told Gazete Duvar.

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

Çağın Cihan, the nephew of the deceased, told the same Turkish 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 in a funeral on Jan. 29 held at a cemevi, an Alevi place of worship. The Alevis are Turkey’s largest religious minority. They are 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% of the 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 U.S. State Department.

Catholic 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 savior and frequently used to join the holy Mass,” the bishop commented to CNA.

According to the local mayor of Istanbul’s Sariyer district, Sukru Genc, approximately 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,’” 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 terrorist group has claimed responsibility for the Istanbul attack on its media outlet, Aamaq, according to the Associated Press. Two suspects — one from Tajikistan and another who is a Russian citizen — have been arrested. Turkish Minister of the Interior Ali Yerlikaya described the two suspects as members of the Islamic State group.

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

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“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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