Between discrimination and hope: Christians in Turkey
Between discrimination and hope: Christians in Turkey
Walter Flick, ISHR Germany
Even in 2004 Christians in Turkey are harassed and disadvantaged
Although sneering remarks directed at Christians in their daily
lives are decreasing, Christians continue to be disadvantaged. A
decreasing number of Christians have truly Christian fist names such
as Hannah, Amsih or Mesih. They would rather not attract attention,
especially not as conscripts in the army.
This is how Dr Rainer Hermann, correspondent on Turkey of the German
daily newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung describes the
situation of Christians in Turkey. Christian communities are still
waiting for permissions to build churches. Despite official
promises, the Greek-Orthodox seminary on the island of Heybeliada
(Greek: Chalki), which has been closed since 1971, was not able to
re-open in 2004. The training of new priests remains thus
impossible. Christian communities are still not legally recognised
and are therefore, for example, unable to acquire property or open
bank accounts. They cannot register their land which is consequently
considered state property which can be claimed by the state at any
Land property, in particular the land of Armenian foundations, is
confiscated without compensation or is threatened by confiscation.
The communities thus lose their income from renting out flats and
houses or offices. The fact that training priest and other
theological personnel is suppressed, hits the Christian community in
Turkey at its core. Evangelical-Protestant communities like for
example in Diyarbakir still fear official dissolution and closure,
as happened for example in summer 2003 in Mersin. Talking openly
about the Armenian and Assyrian genocide during World War I is a
punishable offence. In October 2003, employees of the "Directorate
of Religious Affairs" (Diyanet) closely observed the conference of
the "Council of European Bishop's Conferences". Established
communities are suspicious and worried, when a Turkish citizen whom
they do not know comes to them to request to be baptised. It has
been officially prohibited since 1997 to teach in Aramaic in
monasteries and churches, the language of the Syrian-Orthodox
church. The Lausanne Treaty of 1923 is interpreted in a way that
does not allow the Syrian-Orthodox church to establish its own
schools and educational centres. The schools of the Armenians and
Greeks are under the control of Muslim deputy headmasters, despite
provisions of autonomy in the Lausanne Treaty. Christian priests are
not allowed to teach in schools. Christians do not have access to
higher positions in the military or administration. There are no
Christians in parliament.
Occasionally, the media publishes anti-Christian propaganda. Thus,
for example, in autumn 2001, evangelical pastors were accused in TV
talk shows of "undermining Turkey", and at the end of 2003 there was
a smear campaign in the newspapers against the Armenian Dean of a
medical faculty in Istanbul. Even nowadays, Christians have the
number 31 stamped in their passports to signify that they are
Christian. During passport controls cases of discrimination have
occurred. Traders rather keep quiet their Christian names, for
example at the bazaar. These few examples show that Christians
suffers from discrimination and difficulties even today. At the same
time, there have also been reforms, promises of reforms and real
improvements in Turkey as a candidate to EU membership.
Improvements for Christians
The Turkish constitution guarantees religious freedom (Art.24), and
Christians are allowed to practice their religion. Indeed, there are
about 150 churches in Istanbul and a plethora of services both on
Sundays and during the week.
Due to the fact that Turkey was admitted as a EU membership
candidate in December 1999 several reform laws have been passed
which also include provisions for non-Muslim minorities. For
example, in summer 2003 a series of reform plans were passed with
measures to combat still widely applied torture, and measures
concerning freedom of opinion and freedom of assembly as well as
cultural rights. However, contentious issues such property rights
and building churches have still not been dealt with satisfactorily.
Nevertheless, improvements are such that the EU progress report of
November 2003, for example, acknowledges that the authorities have
concluded reformulating the sections on Christian denominations in
Turkish religious education school books. However, the communities
are still waiting for the new books with the actual reformulation in
A non-denominational religious community in Istanbul received its
status as a foundation in 2001. In autumn 2003, the renovation of
two Bulgarian-Orthodox churches, which had been in ruins since 1922,
began in Edirne. The Roman-Catholic Church won 30 trials over
parcels of land in Iskenderun (close to the border to Syria) and
Christian communities are, like mosques, exempt from water,
electricity and rubbish collection costs.
According to the Roman-Catholic Bishop Francheshini, a considerable
number of so-called hidden Christians, e.g. Muslims who are
decedents of Christians, are increasingly coming forward and
approach Christian communities. The Turkish journal "Milliet"
reported in January 2004 that in 2003 there were 35,000 conversion
from Islam to Christianity. There are several Protestant convert
communities, and the Roman-Catholic Bishop of Istanbul hold a public
meeting every year in which he welcomes groups of converts into the
Catholic Church. According to newspaper articles in January 2004,
the official procedures to obtain the papers of religious conversion
is to be made easier. In individual cases the baptising or
conversion certificates of new Protestant groups was not recognised.
According to the new plans, the legally recognised certificate by
the religious community would become unnecessary and only the
application of the convert is to become necessary. At the same time,
it would in future not be compulsory to answer the questions on
religious affiliation in official forms.
The Tur Abdin with its ancient monasteries and churches has gathered
momentum since 2001 and there are both individual and state
initiatives to create a Christian-Islamic dialogue which would also
include the Jewish community.
Fundamental problems in the Turkish state system
In spring 2003 the provisional appraisal of the Dutch MEP Arie
Oostlander concerning the Turkish accession to the European Union
caused a storm of indignation in Turkey. In his report to the
foreign policy committee of the European Parliament, Oostlander
questions Kemalism, i.e. the political and social system the founder
of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal, gave to the young republic in 1923.
Kemalism, according to Oostlander's judgement, implies "an
exaggerated fear of the undermining of the integrity of the Turkish
state and an emphasis on the homogeneity of Turkish culture
(nationalism), together with statism, an important role for the
army, and a very rigid attitude to religion, which means that this
underlying philosophy is itself a barrier to EU membership".
Oostlander states that the current constitution of 1982 was clearly
written by the army. Any reform of the state should therefore
include the drawing of a new constitution which unconditionally
bases itself on European political values. The equilibrium between
individual and minority rights on the one hand and collective rights
on the other hand tilted to much towards collective rights,
collective interests and collective security in Turkish state
philosophy. This constituted an important reason for the violation
of human rights and minority rights.
Kemalism is a legacy of the Treaty of Sèvres of 1920 on the division
of Turkey after World War One. An example that the aftermath of
Sèvres still lives on is the fact that in January 2002 Hasan Ekinci,
deputy chairman of the True Path Party, announced that Christian
minorities [e.g. Greek Orthodox or Armenian, own remark] are a
threat to the national security. They should therefore not be
granted the same rights as Muslim Turks. The Turkish constitution of
1982 does not acknowledge the term of minority. According to Article
2 of the constitution, Turkey is a democratic and secular state
which means the separation of religion and state as well as
religious neutrality. But already in the constitutional reality
their is a close proximity to Sunni Islam which is understood as the
principle of unity.
In practice, Sunni Islam is under the administration and protection
of the state. Thus the State Directorate of Religious Affairs
employs approximately 90,000 people, according to other sources even
as many as 123,000 people. In 2000, it had a budget of 471 million
Euros. The budget is used to build and maintain mosques, employ
muftis, the pilgrimage to Mecca and Sunni religious instruction in
schools. In his study "Laicism = Religious Freedom?", which was
published in 2002, the human rights representative off Missio (one
of the Catholic Pontifical Mission Societies), Dr Oehring speaks of
a rudimentary "Islamic" or "Sunni" Republic. The State takes
position in favour of Islam, discriminating non-Muslims.
Demands and Hopes
Is questionable, whether a necessary change of mentality towards
Christians and minorities is possible at all in the near future. Is
it possible to implement constitutional legality according to
western standards? There is "the authoritarian tradition of a "deep
state", a non-transparent complex of secret services, bureaucracy
and the military, which expanded the strict regime of Kemal Ataturk
to a delusional idea." (Professor Claus Leggewie). This is about the
drawing of a new constitution (Oostlander) and the consistent
building of a democratic constitutional state.
Are the laws implemented without harassment from the administration?
This is not the place to decide whether there is an insurmountable
cultural gap between Turkey, by the majority Muslim, and the
occidental Christian values. During his visits to Berlin on 3
September 2003 and 9 January 2004,Prime Minister Erdogan had
promised that Christians will have the same rights to practice their
faith unhampered. He even argued that this was already the case.
Reality in 2004, despite considerable improvements, is different.
Apart from general demands of fundamental changes in attitude,
realpolitik and to the constitution, there are concrete demands as
well, such as those presented to the human rights committee of the
Turkish parliament and the government on 23 September 2003 by
representatives of different churches: Acknowledgement of all
patriarchs and churches as legal persons; granting residents permit
for foreign priests; opening of theological seminaries and the
possibility to acquire property; return of confiscated land and
buildings and the authorisation to operate at least one church in
places with a Christian population.
More demands are to grant access to all professions for Christians,
stop the dispossession of community property, and erect schools and
training centres in all Christian communities. Possible Christian
repatriates to the Tur Abdin must be guaranteed protection and legal
security. The unconditional application of the Treaty of Lausanne of
1923 and all the rights for non-Muslims prescribed by the Treaty as
well as the unconditional implementation of the International
Covenant for Civil and Political Rights, which Turkey ratified in
2002, must be guaranteed.
The majority of Christians in Turkey support Turkey's accession to
the EU, because they assume that their legal and social position
will improve once Turkey is a member of the EU. However, this is
questionable. Turkey would have to become almost another country.
A "privileged membership" has so far not been further developed.
Ensuring human rights, it would closely bind Turkey to Europe short
of a full membership but more than the current customs union. This
type of membership could be introduced as one possible type of
membership to the EU. However, such a possibility is rejected by the
current government under Prime Minister Erdogan.
International Society for Human Rights
D-60388 Frankfurt/M., Germany
phone: ++49 (0)69 420 108 36, fax: ++49(0)69 420 108 29