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Turkish game show a leap of faith

Convert to religion and win! That's the premise of a new show offering a vacation with every salvation.

“The point of the show is to convert atheists, as if there is something wrong with them that needs to be fixed,” argued Selma Ergec, a dancer, sitting in a cafe off of Istanbul’s crowded Istiklal Street. “Yes, I am a Muslim. But no one should be manipulated into changing their beliefs by a game show.”

The makers of the show insist that "Penitents Compete" is meant to spread awareness of other religious faiths, not mock them.

“The project aims to turn disbelievers on to God,” the station’s deputy director, Ahmet Ozdemir, told the Hurriyet Daily News and Economic Review.

The program’s slogans are testament to these goals. Advertisements range somewhere between fortune cookie-like messages (“You will find serenity in this competition”) and the motto for a religious retreat (“We give you the biggest prize ever: we represent the belief in God”).

“We don’t approve of anyone being an atheist. God is great and it doesn’t matter which religion you believe in. The important thing is to believe,” said Seyhan Soylu, Kanal T’s chief executive.

Then there is the problem of those contestants who, tempted by the thought of a free holiday, may just claim to have seen the light. The show promises that the converted will face rigorous scrutiny to guarantee the legitimacy of their salvation.

“They can’t see this trip as a getaway, but as a religious experience,” Ozdemir said. How this determination will actually be made, however, remains vague.

Sociologist Nilufer Narl from Istanbul Bahcesehir University argues that the project focuses attention on the issue of religious identity in Turkey, where rights groups have raised concerns over freedom of religion for non-Muslims.

"It is the reflection of rising curiosity toward religion," said Narl, adding that for the past 10 years there has been an increase in people’s interest in topics such as religion.

It appears that there are already a number of atheists looking for either salvation or vacation. Already there are more than 200 atheist applicants eager to ponder whether to believe or not to believe, 10 of whom will be selected for the show’s premiere.

Which leaves us with only one more question: “What do the atheists win if they get one of the clerics to abandon his faith?” asked Ergec with a smile.

More GlobalPost dispatches from Turkey:

Saving Istanbul's skid row

Healing a populist rift with Turkey

Young Turks: a question of identity

Turkey seeks economic salvation in Africa