U.S. Religious Freedom Report Serves Tough Warning
“The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) in its 2012 annual report recommended designating Turkey as a ‘country of particular concern (CPC)’ for its ‘systematic and egregious limitations on the freedom of religion,’” the Armenian Weekly reports.
By Nanore Barsoumian
4/12/2012 Turkey (Armenian Weekly) – The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) in its 2012 annual report recommended designating Turkey as a “country of particular concern (CPC)” for its “systematic and egregious limitations on the freedom of religion.” Turkey was on the commission’s “Watch List” from 2009-11.
The commission found that restrictions on the rights of religious minorities—from owning, maintaining, and transferring communal and individual property, to training clergy and holding religious classes—have led to the “critical shrinkage” and even disappearance of non-Muslim communities. One senior Christian religious leader grieved, “We are an endangered species here in Turkey.”
USCIRF charges the Turkish government of interfering in the religious matters of minorities, and highlights the presence of “societal discrimination,” occasional violence, restrictions on religious attire, anti-Semitism in the society and the media, and the infringement on the property rights of religious minorities. It notes that religious minorities are targeted within Turkish society “partly because most are both religious and ethnic minorities and, therefore, are viewed with suspicion by some ethnic Turks.”
USCIRF relied on the State Department’s estimates on the number of religious minorities in Turkey, which total about 0.1 percent of the population. According to those figures, the largest non-Muslim group is the Armenian Orthodox community numbering at 65,000, followed by 23,000 Jews; 15,000 Syriac Christians; 10,000 Baha’is; 5,000 Yezidis; 3,300 Jehovah’s Witnesses; 3,000 Protestant Christians; 1,700 Greek Orthodox Christians; and small communities of Georgian and Bulgarian Orthodox Christians, Maronites, Chaldeans, Nestorians, Assyrians, and Roman Catholics.
Religious minorities fall into two categories in Turkey, according to the report: 1) The Armenian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, and Jewish communities (which are protected under the 1923 Lausanne Treaty), alongside the Syriac Orthodox, Chaldean, and Roman Catholic communities (which are not covered by the treaty; referred to as the “Lausanne Treaty plus three‖ minorities”); and 2) religious minorities that are not bound by ethnicity, like the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Protestants, and Baha’is. Those in the former category have certain limited legal rights. Furthermore, only the religious minorities covered by the Lausanne Treaty can call their religious institutions churches or synagogues; the other groups must refer to their houses of worship as cultural or community centers.
In a section titled “Priority Recommendations,” USCIRF advises the U.S. government to urge Turkey to to comply with the Lausanne Treaty; to extend full legal recognition to its religious minorities; to allow clergy to be trained in Turkey; to reopen the Greek Orthodox Theological Seminary of Halki; and to return the Syrian Orthodox Mor Gabriel Monastery. The commission also recommended that the U.S. follow a similar policy in demanding full religious rights for non-Muslim Cypriots, and called for the “restoration” of their religious institutions and cemeteries, and an end to “the ongoing desecration of religious sites.”
USCIRF also recommended that the U.S. government urge Turkey to eliminate Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code; to end the requirement of listing religion on national identity cards; to take away the government privilege of expropriating minority properties; to “expand and expedite” the process of the return of properties to minority groups; to allow the Armenian Patriarchate to establish a theological faculty; to denounce violent speeches and acts against religious and ethnic minorities; to end the use of Maronite, Jewish, Greek, and Armenian religious sites in Northern Cyprus as stables, storage spaces, car repair shops, or entertainment spots; and to cooperate with UN human rights special rapporteurs. It also recommended that U.S. officials “speak out publicly” against Turkey’s human rights violations, especially at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
Violence and arrests
The commission reported on the alleged ultra-nationalist Ergenekon conspiracy against the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and violence against religious minorities. It noted the alleged connection of Ergenekon to the 2007 murder of Turkish Armenian journalist Hrant Dink, and an alleged plot to kill the Armenian and Ecumenical Orthodox Patriarchs. The commission also mentioned the allegation that the Ergenekon story serves as a cover to arrest prominent members of society who are opposed to the AKP.
The recent anti-Armenian protests in Turkey did not go unnoticed by the commission, which charged Turkish officials of possibly inciting violence. It highlighted Turkish Interior Minister Idris Naim Sahin’s words during the February 2012 anti-Armenian rally at Taksim Square, where he said, “As long as the Turkish nation stays alive that blood will be answered for.”
The report also referred to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruling against Turkey for failing to protect Hrant Dink, and the many shortcomings of the murder trials.