22 09 2007 - U.S. State Department Issues Scathing Report on Turkey’s Dismal Record on Religious Freedom
By Appo Jabarian
Executive Publisher/Managing Editor USA Armenian Life Magazine
On September 14, the U.S. State Department issued a critical report on Turkey’s dismal record on religious freedom.
The report, released by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, lists several cases of blatant violations of human rights by Turkey. It also reveals the fact that besides the three officially recognized minorities, there are several hidden minorities that have not been recognized by Ankara.
The report, covering the period from July 1, 2006, to June 30, 2007, titled "Turkey: International Religious Freedom Report 2007," notes: "The Constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the Government … imposes some restrictions on Muslim and other religious groups and on Muslim religious expression in government offices and state-run institutions, including universities."
It lists too many abuses to fit in this column. Here is a partial list:
- In late April 2007, police arrested four street evangelists in Istanbul for "missionary activity," disturbing the peace, and insulting Islam. The arrested included a U.S. citizen, one Korean, and two Turks;
- On June 26, 2007, Members of the Greek Orthodox community said the legal restrictions particularly threatened the survival of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Istanbul;
- In April 2007 four suspects were arrested after an armed assailant was caught preparing for an attack against the president of the Higher Board of Education;
- In May 2007 the Council of State ruled as illegal a 2005 regulation issued by the Education Ministry, which would have allowed imam hatip students to earn degrees from regular high schools by taking distance learning courses;
- After the April 18, 2007, killings in Malatya of three Christians, Turkish victim Ugur Yuksel was denied a Christian burial and given an Islamic/Alevitic burial instead. In October 2006 a prosecutor pressed criminal charges against two (Muslim) converts to Christianity for violating Article 301 ("insulting Turkishness"), inciting hatred against Islam, and secretly compiling data on private citizens for a Bible correspondence course;
- On April 18, 2007, three members of a Protestant church in Malatya, including a German citizen, were tortured and killed in the office of a company that publishes books on Christianity. The suspects of the killings had notes on their persons claiming, "We did it for our religion. May this be a lesson to the enemies of religion."
- There were multiple religiously motivated attacks on persons during the reporting period. On May 28, 2007, two Georgian priests touring the country were beaten in Artvin because they were believed to be missionaries;
- In February 2007, two persons fired guns in the air after a memorial service commemorating the 40th day following the Hrant Dink assassination. The suspects were arrested shortly after the incident and reportedly claimed they intended to target Armenian Patriarch Mesrob II, who presided over the ceremony;
- On April 21, 2007, the International Protestant Church in Ankara was firebombed with Molotov cocktails. Local police investigated the attack promptly;
- In March 2007, a hand grenade was thrown into the courtyard of the President of the Syriac Churches Foundation in Mardin’s Midyat district. The police started an investigation, but there were no reports of arrests following the incident;
- On January 28, 2007, vandals attacked the building of the Agape Church Foundation in Samsun;
- In the May 2007 deposition of accused Malatya killer Emre Gunaydin, he … revealed that he planned to kill a different Christian. The report also underlines that, "There were reports of societal abuses and discrimination based on religious belief or practice. Violent attacks and threats against non-Muslims during the reporting period created an atmosphere of pressure and diminished freedom for some non-Muslim communities. Although proselytizing is legal in the country, some Muslims, Christians, and Baha’is faced … harassment."
What is now Turkey occupies an area of 301,383 square miles and has a population of 72.6 million. Contrary to Ankara’s claims that "99 percent of the population is Muslim, the majority of which is Sunni," the human rights nongovernmental organization (NGO) Mazlum-Der and representatives of various religious minority communities insist that "the actual percentage of Muslims is slightly lower. The Government officially recognizes only three minority religious communities—Greek Orthodox Christians, Armenian Orthodox Christians, and Jews—although other non-Muslim communities exist. … In addition to the country’s Sunni Muslim majority, academics estimated there are 15 to 20 million Alevis. ... The Government considers Alevism a heterodox Muslim sect."
In a gross violation of human rights and an obvious effort to commit retroactive injustice, "In 1936 the Government required all foundations to declare their sources of income. In 1974 amid political tensions over Cyprus, the High Court of Appeals ruled that the minority foundations had no right to acquire properties beyond those listed in the 1936 declarations. The court’s ruling launched a process, under which the state seized control of properties acquired after 1936.
Minority religious groups, particularly the Greek and Armenian Orthodox communities, have lost numerous properties to the state in the past and continued to fight ongoing efforts by the state to expropriate properties. … Non-Muslim minorities complain that … the law on foundations have led to interference in the elections of foundation boards, the treatment of charitable community foundations as business corporations for tax purposes, the freezing of revenue from real estate transactions, and a ban on transferring surplus income from one foundation to another. In other words, groups are disallowed from using funds from properties in one part of the country to support communities in other parts of the country."
The report also highlighted the Alevi plight: "Alevis in the Kartal district of Istanbul continued to fight a court battle, which began in 2004, against a decision by local authorities to deny them permission to build a cem house. In May 2006 authorities in the Sultanbeyli municipality of Istanbul reportedly banned the construction of a cem house on the grounds that the Pir Sultan Abdal Association, an Alevi group, had not acquired the necessary construction permits. … many Alevis alleged discrimination in the Government’s failure to include any of their doctrines or beliefs in religious instruction classes in public schools. Alevis currently have more than 4,000 court cases against the Ministry of Education regarding this alleged discrimination. … Practically, the Diyanet budget is reserved for the Sunni community. In January 2004 an Alevi parent filed suit in the European Court of Human Rights, charging that the mandatory religion courses violate religious freedom; the case of Zengin v. Turkey is ongoing.
The report detailed the additional hardships inflicted upon the Armenian, Greek and Jewish communities: "Officially recognized religious minorities may operate schools under the supervision of the Ministry of Education. The curriculum of these schools includes Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, and Jewish instruction. Such schools are required to appoint a Muslim as deputy principal; reportedly, these deputies have more authority than their nominal supervisors. Additionally, regulations have made it somewhat difficult for non-Muslims to register and attend these schools. The Ministry of National Education reportedly checks to make sure that the child’s father or (as of 2006) mother is from the minority community before the child may enroll. Moreover, non-Muslim minorities that are not officially recognized do not have schools of their own."
Also revealed is the assault launched by secular Turks against the devout Muslim Turks: "The National Security Council categorizes religious fundamentalism as a threat to public safety. President Sezer delivered a speech in April 2007 in which he repeated concerns that separatism and religious fundamentalism are threats facing the country. The President stated that the ‘fundamentalist threat has been following the Republic as a sinister shadow since its establishment.’ According to human rights NGO Mazlum-Der and other groups, a few government ministries have dismissed or barred from promotion civil servants suspected of anti-state or Islamist activities. Reports by Mazlum-Der, the media, and others indicated that the military periodically dismissed religiously observant Muslims from military service. Such dismissals were based on behavior that military officials believed identified these individuals as Islamic fundamentalists, which they were concerned could indicate disloyalty to the secular state."
Some members of the Greek Orthodox community are quoted as having stated that "the legal restrictions particularly threatened the survival of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Istanbul because, with no more than 4,000 Greek Orthodox remaining in the country, the community was becoming too small to provide enough Turkish citizen prelate candidates to maintain the institution. The Ecumenical Patriarchate in Istanbul continued to seek to reopen the Halki seminary on the island of Heybeli in the Sea of Marmara. The Government closed the seminary in 1971 when the Patriarchate chose not to comply with a state requirement for all private institutions of higher learning to nationalize; the Patriarchate found it impossible to comply. Government officials have reportedly not responded to formal communications from the Greek Orthodox Church regarding the re-opening of Halki Seminary and resolutions to other concerns affecting the Ecumenical Patriarchate."
The Yedikule Surp Pirgic Armenian Hospital Foundation which has been targeted for many decades is not overlooked either. The report describes the extent of losses inflicted on the Armenian foundation and numerous other Armenian establishments in Turkey.
The "Nationalist"-controlled racist and chauvinist Turkish media gets a slap in the face too: "A variety of newspapers and television shows regularly published and broadcast anti-Christian messages, and at least one municipality distributed anti-missionary publications. Anti-missionary and anti-Christian rhetoric appears to have continued among government officials and national media sources such as Hurriyet and Millyet. Government ministers, such as Mehmet Aydin, Minister of State in charge of religious affairs, called missionaries ‘separatist and destructive.’ Additionally, nationalist sentiments sometimes contained anti-Christian or anti-Semitic overtones.
The well-balanced report highlighted some "Improvements and Positive Developments in Respect for Religions." But alas, the section on "positive" developments is dwarfed by the vast section of the 13-page report that lists heart-rending and mind-boggling human rights abuses. According to the report, the types of abuses range from outright harassment of non-Sunni minorities to gruesome killings. These non-Sunni minorities include the Kurds, Alevis, the Jews, the Armenians, the Greeks, the Syriacs, the Maronites and others.
This latest condemnation by the United States, re-confirms the fact that Turkey still has a long way to go to be eligible to join the international community of civilized nations. No matter how much it claims to have achieved "higher" level of democracy, Turkey continues to remain a pariah state.