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TURKEY: LITTLE PROGRESS ON RELIGIOUS FREEDOM

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    FORUM 18 NEWS SERVICE, Oslo, Norway http://www.forum18.org/ The right to believe, to worship and witness The right to change one s belief or religion The right
    Message 1 of 1 , Jul 28, 2006
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      FORUM 18 NEWS SERVICE, Oslo, Norway
      http://www.forum18.org/

      The right to believe, to worship and witness
      The right to change one's belief or religion
      The right to join together and express one's belief

      =================================================


      26 July 2006
      TURKEY: LITTLE PROGRESS ON RELIGIOUS FREEDOM

      http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=817
      By Dr. Otmar Oehring, head of the human rights office of Missio
      <www.missio-aachen.de>

      The Turkish parliament has now departed for the holidays - without
      approving the new Law on Foundations as it had been expected to do. The
      proposed Law would regulate how "community foundations" - the
      organisations allowed to some non-Muslim ethnic/religious communities -
      own and recover property. Parliament said it would come back early from
      holiday and reconvene in September, rather than October, to consider this
      proposed law and other laws aimed to bring Turkish laws into line with
      European Union (EU) norms. The aim is, reportedly, to approve at least the
      Foundations Law before the EU reports again on accession in early October.

      Although politicians and the EU are concentrating now on the Foundations
      Law, this focuses only on one fairly narrow issue: what to do with
      buildings and other property taken from religious communities by the
      government and sold to third parties (see F18News 13 December 2005
      <http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=704>). The government
      cannot now give these properties back, so it will have to offer
      compensation. However, it is not willing to do so and parliamentary
      deputies think Turkey should not offer such compensation. As the European
      Commission is telling the Turkish government it must do so, the issue is
      deadlocked.

      Despite the urging of the European Commission's Enlargement
      Directorate-General that Turkey should use the good offices of the Council
      of Europe, both to help it understand what needs to be done in the area of
      religious freedom and to help draw up laws on religious freedom and the
      status of religious communities, the Turks are reluctant. In April 2006,
      the Turkish government contacted the European Commission to ask for
      specialists who could advise on these issues. The EU was willing to send
      three experts, two from the Council of Europe as well as a French expert
      on "laicism". But to the astonishment of those involved, the day before
      the experts were due to travel the Turkish government informed them there
      was "no need" to come.

      The involvement of the Council of Europe in helping Turkey's
      transformation is very tricky. Its Venice Commission - which advises on
      how constitutions and other fundamental laws could conform to European
      democratic standards - could help Turkey on religious freedom, but can
      only get involved if Turkey invites it to do so. But Turkey is not
      interested.

      Official religious affiliation records

      One small step has been taken in the way the state records individuals'
      religious affiliation. A new Personal Status Law approved on 25 April
      gives citizens for the first time the possibility to ask the authorities
      to remove information about their religious affiliation (or presumed
      religious affiliation) from their official records. However, the law is
      contradictory: while Article 35 paragraph 2 allows individuals to ask for
      their religious affiliation to be removed from their records or amended,
      Article 7 paragraph 1(e) specifies that citizens have to provide such
      information.

      Yet despite discussion for at least the past decade, Identity Cards still
      carry a section giving the holder's religion. One of the major
      contributors to the debate was Ahmet Necdet Sezer, who is now Turkey's
      President, in his former capacity as Chief Justice of the Constitutional
      Court. A committed secularist, he argued that, in a secular state, an
      individual's religion should not be mentioned in official documents.

      Changing religious affiliation on an individual's personal records was
      possible before, but required an individual to do this through the courts.
      Fear of social ostracism or hostility meant that few did this.

      Although the new Personal Status Law appears to be a positive step, this
      is not the case. In practice, individuals trying to change their religious
      affiliation in their official records could still face problems. For a
      start, they would have to tell officials - who could just record that the
      individual had requested to change their religious affiliation without
      actually changing it. At least this Law offers the possibility to remove
      any religious affiliation from individuals' Identity Card, but if this
      does not become common any official or police officer would then ask an
      individual why no religion was given. Giving no religion would be
      tantamount to an admission that the individual is possibly a Christian or
      a Jew - the only faiths apart from Islam allowed to be listed.

      It remains unclear how many people have asked to change the affiliation on
      their official records since the new law came in. In the past, individuals
      did of course change their religion, but were not always prepared to do so
      publicly through the courts. The authorities have given conflicting numbers
      of such converts. In February 2005 the Interior Ministry's
      Directorate-General for Administration of the Provinces told parliament
      that 344 people had converted from Islam to Christianity between 1997 and
      2004, while six had converted from Islam to Judaism. No converts to other
      faiths were mentioned. However, Minister of State Mehmet Aydin, quoting
      figures from the government's Presidency of Religious Affairs (Diyanet)
      (see F18News 12 October 2005
      <http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=670>), said 368 people had
      converted "under the influence of missionary activities".

      There is much hostility to the peaceful sharing of non-Islamic beliefs,
      which may have been a factor in the murder of Fr Andrea Santoro (see
      F18News 9 February 2006
      <http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=724>).

      The way officials record religion on personal records is predictable.
      Children born to parents who are recorded as Muslims are automatically
      recorded as Muslim. De facto, only three religions are permitted in the
      records: Islam, Christianity and Judaism. Atheist or non-believer are not
      in practice allowed as options. Nor are Baha'i or Jehovah's Witness, to
      take two other examples. It remains unclear whether this has now changed,
      though in practice the whims of the official are likely to override any
      official decision. And if an individual asks to change the religion on
      their identity card, there is no guarantee officials will also change it
      on their personal record on the national register. And when you need any
      official document, the first place officials look is on the register.

      Islam, Islamic Minorities and Citizenship

      In the Muslim world, there is a tradition that the nationality is Islam:
      the nation is the umma, the body of Muslim believers. The concept of
      citizenship separate from religion is not known in Islamic law and
      tradition. Despite the government's insistence that it is "secular",
      Turkey remains a deeply Islamic society so these views have a strong hold
      on the population.

      For almost a quarter of a century, Alevi Muslims have been pushing for
      recognition as a distinct community able to organise themselves in
      accordance with their own beliefs. But in May, Professor Ali Bardakoglu,
      the head of the government's Diyanet <http://www.diyanet.gov.tr/english> -
      which controls all official Muslim life in Turkey, despite the claimed
      secularism of the state - declared once again that Alevis are de facto
      Sunni Muslims. This is like saying that all Protestants are Catholics.
      Predictably, Alevis were unhappy over this statement, which means that in
      practice, the government does not recognise that Alevis and Sunnis are
      different. The government maintains that Cem Houses, where Alevis worship,
      are not considered places of worship but cultural centres. "We're not
      against Cem Houses, but they're no alternative to mosques," is the
      government message.

      The Alevis are divided as to how to respond to the government's attitude -
      some groups are broadly pro-government, some anti-government and some
      pro-Kurdish. The Republican Education Foundation, which is under Alevi
      control, is regarded as more ready to work with the government. It says it
      does not want to see a separate government body to handle Alevi affairs,
      but argues that taxes from Alevis are being used (or misused) solely on
      Sunni mosques and imams. It insists that as Alevis are Turkish citizens
      and taxpayers it wants to see their taxes used to support Alevi
      structures.

      Islamic groups that do not regard themselves as being under government
      control - such as the Islamic brotherhoods (the Sunni Nakchibendis,
      Mevlevis and others as well as the Shi'ite Bektashis) or new Islamic
      movements (such as the Nurcus and Suleymancis) - are in practice left
      alone. Yet there is no chance that the government will recognise Muslim
      differences, even though Turkey has Sunnis, Alevis and a small Shia
      minority. This indicates that the government is not just Muslim, but
      specifically Sunni Muslim, despite its proclaimed secular nature.

      Nationalism in Education

      Discussion continues over changing the school curriculum to treat all
      faiths in Turkey in a new way. The Alevis - like other religious
      minorities - complain that no progress has been reached for their
      teachings to be mentioned in school curricula. Further, Alevis have warned
      that if the government does not introduce separate religious education for
      Alevi children, they will lodge a case against it at the European Court of
      Human Rights in Strasbourg - to which Turkey is subject, as a member of the
      Council of Europe.

      Education remains very nationalistic (see F18News 12 October 2005
      <http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=670>). Some officials of
      the EU and of EU member states have complained of what one privately
      described as "massive nationalistic indoctrination" in schools. So it is
      highly unfortunate that the Education and Culture chapter (Chapter 26) in
      the EU accession negotiations was opened and closed on the same day,
      without addressing this central point. Without change in the curriculum
      and teaching, there can be no progress in a society whose nationalism has
      a noticeable impact on social attitudes (see F18News 19 January 2006
      <http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=716>).

      Non-Muslim Minorities

      Meanwhile, tensions for religious minorities remain high, as evidenced by
      the murder of one Catholic priest and attacks on other priests this year.
      Speculation persists that the "deep state" - the nationalist circles in
      the army, police, National Intelligence Organisation (MIT) secret police
      and state administration which regard themselves as the custodians of the
      Ataturkist ideology - might have been behind the murder in February of
      Italian priest Fr Andrea Santoro in his church in the Black Sea port of
      Trabzon, an area well known as a nationalist stronghold. Other factors
      behind the murder are also suggested (see F18News 9 February 2006
      <http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=724>). Such attacks on
      priests could spread to other nationalist areas. Some Catholic leaders
      still have police outside their residences, though how an unarmed,
      plainclothes police officer could offer any protection remains unclear.
      Some wonder whether they are there more to listen to what those leaders
      are saying than to protect them.

      Of course, all religious minority leaders remain under government
      surveillance, forcing them to be very cautious in everything they say - or
      to be willing to pay the price for their frankness. They know their
      telephones are occasionally tapped and mail is sometimes opened before it
      is delivered. "Walls have ears," religious minority leaders say. Secretive
      officials occasionally come to visit them to ask questions - people
      speculate that they are from the MIT secret police.

      In what is seen by Turkish Christians as a continuing humiliation, all
      Christian Churches - whether their leaders and members are Turkish
      citizens or not - are regarded as foreign. This attitude persists, even
      though Christian communities were present on the territory of what is now
      Turkey many centuries before the Turkish state, its ancestor the Ottoman
      Empire, and Islam. Discussions between Christian Churches and the state
      are normally handled by the Foreign Ministry, or sometimes by another
      state authority chosen by the government. This humiliation is clearly
      deliberate.

      Nothing has happened about plans for the Ecumenical Patriarchate to be
      able to reopen its seminary on the island of Heybeliada (Halki in Greek)
      in the Sea of Marmara, once famed for its scholarship throughout the
      Orthodox world. Closed in 1971, Turkey has grudgingly promised to reopen
      it under US and EU pressure, but that now seems further off than ever.
      Discussion has now fizzled out, though Patriarch Bartholomew always tries
      to raise the issue whenever he can. The Armenians saw their Holy Cross
      seminary in Istanbul closed at the same time, but have given up any hope
      to be allowed to reopen it as a separate institution. Armenian Patriarch
      Mesrop has instead proposed inaugurating a chair of Armenian Studies at
      one of Istanbul's state universities - so far with no result.

      Pope Benedict's Planned Visit

      The planned visit of Pope Benedict XVI, due in November 2006, could also
      raise tensions. Benedict is scheduled to meet the Turkish President and
      government in Ankara, and address a selected public in the capital.
      Presumably, the Pope will want to talk about relations between the
      Christian and Islamic worlds and seek to overcome ideas about the "clash
      of civilisations". The Turkish public is unlikely to be present. Any views
      they might have of the speech will be formed by how the local media covers
      it. In Istanbul, Benedict will meet the Ecumenical Patriarch, the Armenian
      Patriarch and other local religious leaders, as well as the Catholic
      community.

      Most Turks either do not want the Pope to visit, or are indifferent to his
      visit. Some Western-oriented Turks welcome it, as they think it could help
      Turkish society better understand both the Catholic Church and western
      views of Islam. Some of these Turks also hope that the visit will help
      Turkey understand the progress it needs to make on religious freedom. But
      nationalists who strongly oppose Europe and accession to the EU - who are
      growing more influential - could cause headaches for the police during
      Benedict's visit.

      The government too will be closely scrutinising the Pope's words for any
      hint of anything that could be interpreted as anti-Turkish and
      anti-Islamic. As soon as any comments are linked to Turks as a people and
      a society, problems will arise. The Pope will doubtless be very delicate.

      The row stirred up by remarks about the Armenian genocide in the final
      years of the Ottoman Empire made by the Armenian Catholicos, Karekin II,
      on a visit in June is ostensibly related to a historical ethnic conflict
      dating back ninety years. But it is relevant to a discussion on religious
      freedom, especially as the Istanbul prosecutor's office decided to
      investigate the remarks for a possible prosecution of the Catholicos for
      "anti-Turkish remarks". The very prospect of a criminal case over these
      remarks shows the lack of freedom of speech. But whenever religious
      leaders are prosecuted there is a knock-on effect on the rights of the
      religious community. The Armenian Apostolic community - the largest of
      Turkey's Christian communities by far - was embarrassed by Karekin's
      remarks, knowing they will make their already precarious existence more
      difficult.

      What Prospects for the Future?

      The prospect of Turkey's EU accession seems to be the only thing capable
      of driving change in the area of religious freedom and human rights more
      widely. Yet the government is now not willing to enact change. Indeed, it
      is becoming ever more nationalist - even if this might simply reflect the
      AKP's need for votes from the nationalist constituency. It is careful not
      to show too openly that it is Islamist, as this would cause problems with
      the President and the military.

      All this could change after the next parliamentary elections (due in late
      2006 or early 2007) and the presidential election (due next year), if the
      current ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) wins. If the current
      Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan - or a puppet - succeeds in becoming
      President, the Ataturk legacy could be changed. There will then not be a
      President willing to veto laws that contradict this legacy. This would
      definitely lead to a worsening climate for religious freedom. The position
      for Sunni Muslims would improve, while for Alevis the situation would
      remain as restrictive as it is now. Despite the religious differences with
      the majority population, the Sunnis are still seen as Turks. For other
      minorities - especially Christians - the situation would be worse.

      Government officials sympathetic to the ideal of secularism - and
      secularists more widely - are growing increasingly concerned. They fear
      that, if the AKP substantially increases its vote at the next election, it
      would be strong enough to change the Constitution - even against the wishes
      of the opposition. It could also install a President from its ranks, who
      would not then veto laws deemed to be part of an Islamist agenda, as the
      current President has done.

      Secularists in particular are afraid for the future. Turkish diplomats -
      who are already concerned over the changing mood among state officials as
      an increasing number of AKP supporters fill official positions - are very
      afraid of a fundamental change in the country's course. Many believe any
      sweeping AKP victory in the next national elections would speed up the
      replacement of state officials with AKP loyalists.

      The old establishment is seeking to build up political forces attractive
      to the electorate, in a last-ditch bid to head off the AKP challenge.
      However, it remains unclear if the electorate will back them. Voters threw
      out the old establishment in disgust at its corruption and ineffectiveness.
      The AKP has been careful to be on its best behaviour during its current
      period in office.

      Although there is much talk of a military coup in the event of such
      fundamental changes, no-one knows if the majority of army officers still
      support Ataturk-defined secularism - or if they would be prepared to back
      such an anti-Islamist coup.

      Prospects for EU Accession

      The level of optimism or pessimism over the future depends on who you talk
      to. Western-oriented Turks still hope EU accession negotiations will
      continue and that Turkey will eventually join the EU. They hope
      desperately that the process will generate its own momentum that would
      force the government, the administration and the army to look forward and
      support reforms. This could happen, but it looks unlikely.

      As the general election looms, the government is doing nothing that could
      be seen as a positive step towards the reforms the EU would welcome.

      Many observers are not optimistic. They do not believe the Turkish side -
      whether the current AKP government or the "deep state" - is interested in
      seeing such reforms. Many Turks have not even understood what religious
      freedom - for example as defined in the rights set out in Article 9 of the
      European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) - actually means (see F18News 13
      December <http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=704>). Or they
      understand it - but reject it. Turkey ratified the ECHR in 1954, but over
      50 years later has yet to abide by it.

      Ataturkists fear that granting religious freedom as outlined in the
      Convention would give power to the Islamists. Yet Paragraph 2 of the
      ECHR's Article 9 prevents the abuse of religious freedom by freedom's
      enemies. This states that "freedom to manifest one's religion or beliefs
      shall be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are
      necessary in a democratic society in the interests of public safety, for
      the protection of public order, health or morals, or for the protection of
      the rights and freedoms of others." Indeed, Article 9 would safeguard a
      real separation of religion and the state, as the Ataturkists claim to
      want.

      This fear is also felt on the EU side, which means that it too is
      increasingly reluctant to clearly advocate religious freedom along the
      lines of the ECHR. EU governments also fear such rights would open the
      doors to Turkey's Islamist groups. Although EU officials involved in the
      accession process are interested in seeing religious freedom promoted
      properly - indeed, they regard it as the second most important issue after
      recognition of Cyprus - they seem to know that this is seen as a political
      issue which is over their heads.

      Many believe the accession negotiations will fail this autumn, not over
      democratisation and human rights, but over the Turkish government's
      refusal to recognise the government of Cyprus in Nicosia. Many Turks would
      not be unhappy at this. Yet if the EU suspends the accession negotiations,
      the Turks will feel insulted and spurned by Europe. Some believe the
      European Commission is therefore trying to manoeuvre to find a way for
      Turkey itself to suspend the negotiations.

      Possible Impact on Religious Freedom

      Yet any suspension will have a very negative impact on religious freedom -
      indeed, the position for religious minorities could end up being worse than
      when the negotiations started. Suspension would incite nationalist feelings
      and many Turks would openly say that the negotiations and even membership
      of the EU itself would not benefit Turkey. Then a hunt would begin for
      those who had caused the mess. Most Turks would not point to their own
      government but to the Ecumenical Patriarchate, the Armenian Patriarchate,
      the Catholic Church, the Protestants, and other obvious symbols of the
      outside world.

      The only hope many can see for progress towards religious freedom is that
      the EU accession negotiations continue. If EU negotiations stop
      completely, no hope for religious freedom will remain. Yet even if the
      negotiations stagger on, it is doubtful that the majority of the
      population is prepared to change its attitude to nationalism and religion,
      and even consider accepting Alevis and non-Muslim Turks as full Turkish
      citizens. The only other possible hope is that the reform process will
      gather its own momentum independent of the EU. However, at present, there
      is little sign of this happening. (END)

      - Dr Otmar Oehring, head of the human rights office of Missio
      <http://www.missio-aachen.de/menschen-kulturen/themen/menschenrechte>, a
      Catholic charity based in Germany, contributed this comment to Forum 18
      News Service. Commentaries are personal views and do not necessarily
      represent the views of F18News or Forum 18.

      For further overviews by Dr Oehring of religious freedom in Turkey, and of
      the need for fundamental reform of the Constitution, see
      <http://www.forum18.org/Analyses.php?region=68>.

      For commentaries by the Anglican Chaplain in Istanbul on the roots of
      Turkey's attitude to religious freedom see
      <http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=716>, and on Turkish
      society's reaction to the murder of Roman Catholic priest Fr Andrea
      Santoro, see <http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=724>.

      For a personal commentary on religious freedom under Islam, see
      <http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=227>

      For a personal commentary assessing western European "headscarf laws", see
      <http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=469>

      A printer-friendly map of Turkey is available at
      <http://www.nationalgeographic.com/xpeditions/atlas/index.html?Parent=mideast&Rootmap=turkey>

      Adobe Acrobat PDF and printer-friendly views of this article are available
      at <http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=817>.

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