For 600 years, Turkey was known as the Ottoman Empire. After the collapse of the empire, Mustafa Kemal, also known as 'Ataturk' (Father of the Turks), established the Republic of Turkey in 1923. The old empire had established the religious and ruling institutions, called the Sultanate and the Caliphate, which were later abolished by the Republic.
Turkey is a secular state at the moment and has recognized certain Christian groups as religious minorities. 99 percent of the population is Muslim, the majority of whom are Sunni. The Government officially recognizes only three minority religious communities--Greek Orthodox Christians, Armenian Orthodox Christians, and Jews. The government is keen on preserving its identity as a secular state, thereby restricting all religious activities to some extent. Christian organizations estimate there are approximately 1,100 Christian missionaries in the country.
Government: The constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the Government generally respects this right in practice. But it also imposes certain restrictions on some religious groups.
A separate government agency, the General Directorate for Foundations (Vakiflar Genel Mudurlugu), regulates some activities of "non-Muslim" religious groups and their affiliated churches. There are 161 "minority foundations" recognized by the Vakiflar, including approximately 70 Greek Orthodox foundations and 50 Armenian Orthodox foundations. This group also includes Syrian Christians, Chaldeans and Maronites.
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 continuing today.
The Constitution establishes compulsory religious and moral instruction in primary and secondary schools. Religious minorities are exempted. However, some religious minorities, such as Protestants, face difficulty obtaining exemptions, particularly if their identification cards do not list a religion other than Islam.
Persecution: In 2005, Protestants in Tarsus were subjected to repeated threats and harassment from a variety of sources including individual law enforcement officials and municipal officials.
In May 2005, the High Board of Radio and Television ordered a program of the Christian station Radyo Shema off the air for one episode as punishment for a broadcast it deemed "discriminatory." Christians affiliated with the station said the broadcast featured only passages read directly from the Bible. In June, the High Court of Appeals reportedly annulled the decision to sanction the station.
Proselytizing is often considered socially unacceptable; Christians performing missionary work are sometimes beaten and insulted. If the proselytizers are foreigners, they may be deported, though generally they are able to reenter the country. Police officers may report students who meet with Christian missionaries to their families or to university authorities.
The Government waged a public campaign against Christian missionary activity by drafting an anti-missionary sermon and distributing it to imams (priests in mosques). The sermon, delivered in mosques across the country in March 2005, depicted missionaries as part of a plot by foreign powers to "steal the beliefs of our young people and children." The sermon also implied that Christians are polytheists.
State Minister Mehmet Aydin, issued a written statement in January 2005 in response to a question from a parliamentarian about missionaries. In the statement, Aydin calls missionary activity "separatist and destructive," and claims that, "history, as well as contemporary developments, have demonstrated that missionary activities are not an innocent act of communicating one's religion or exercising religious freedom, but a highly planned movement with political motives." Aydin also advised citizens to report missionary activity to authorities.
Citizens who convert from Islam to another religion often experience some form of social harassment or pressure from family and neighbors. Proselytizing on behalf of "non-Muslim" religions is socially unacceptable and sometimes dangerous. A variety of newspapers and television shows regularly publish and broadcast anti-Christian messages, and government officials have asserted that missionary activity is not covered under the concept of religious freedom.
Religious pluralism is widely viewed as a threat to Islam and to "national unity." Nationalist sentiments sometimes contain anti-Christian or anti-Semitic overtones.
There was a significant increase in anti-Christian media coverage following the distribution of Bibles in December 2004 by missionaries in Istanbul, Ankara, and Izmir. ATV, one of Turkey's national channels, for example, broadcast a report in January 2005 mixing coverage of a Protestant church with footage of a sex cult. In May of the same year, the Islamist daily Yeni Safak published an interview with a person who claimed missionaries were using hypnosis to convert Muslims. The negative publicity coincided with the Government's anti-missionary campaign, and was followed by an increase in threats against Christians and attacks on churches.
Vandalism and beatings of Christians have become common, and the government has failed to step up to protect the churches on grounds that they are not officially registered as places of worship.