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Turkey : Little Progress On Religious Freedom

By Dr. Otmar Oehring,

7/26/2006 Turkey (Forum 18) 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 organizations 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. 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. It’s 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 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.

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

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.

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 Organization (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 suggest. 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.

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 civilizations”. 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 scrutinizing 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 Catholics, 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 Catholics 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.

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.

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