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ICC Note:

Although writing that Turkey should not be labeled a “country of particular concern” for its religious freedom abuses in a recent U.S. government report, Turan Kayaoğlu, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center, does believes that Christianity is endangered in Turkey.

By Turan Kayaoğlu

3/26/2012 Turkey (Sunday’s Zaman) – In a surprising and controversial move, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) in its 2012 Annual Report released on Thursday recommended that the US State Department categorize Turkey as a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) for religious freedom, a category reserved for the worst such as Iran, China and Saudi Arabia.

Despite my skepticism over how the report characterizes religious freedom in Turkey and its overall conclusion, there is also some truth to it. Certainly, Turkey does not belong in the same category as Iran, China and Saudi Arabia when it comes to religious freedom. Unquestionably, the lot of Christians in Turkey has improved under the Justice and Development Party (AKP). But it is not enough; the government has done little to genuinely care for and help Turkey’s Christians maintain a dignified presence in Turkey.

Sadly, Christianity is endangered in Turkey. What used to be a large and vibrant Christian community has now been reduced to one-tenth of 1 percent of the population over the past century. Growing up in the historically Christian neighborhood of Kurtuluş, Istanbul (only two to three miles from Kasımpaşa where the prime minister grew up), I have witnessed the disappearance of Christians from Turkey. This historically Christian quarter has been “Turkified” since the 1930s. Its original name, Tatavla, was changed to Kurtuluş (independence) to honor the Independence War and to remind Kurtuluş’s residents — then mostly Greek Christians — that they lost the war.

Resettling Tatavla with Muslim residents

The name change came after the burning of a significant portion of the neighborhood in 1929. The municipality did little to stop the fire and used the rebuilding as an opportunity to resettle the neighborhood with Muslim residents. Subsequent waves of attacks and discrimination against Christians (wealth tax of 1942; September 6-7, 1955 mob attacks on non-Muslim shops; the intensification of the Cyrus problem; and the conflict over the Aegean Sea) resulted in Greeks fleeing Turkey in large numbers, turning Kurtuluş into a Muslim-majority neighborhood in the 1960s.

My family unwittingly contributed to the Islamization of the neighborhood. When my father bought a house in Kurtuluş in 1977 in order to move my family to Istanbul from eastern Turkey, a Greek eager to migrate to Greece sold it to him. Not all Greeks were able to sell their homes, however; many simply abandoned them, leaving the neighborhood full of empty or illegally occupied houses. I do not know the exact statistics, but my street-soccer team consisted of eight Muslims and five Christians (Greeks and Armenians). We came to recognize the difference in religion in the form of the colored eggs we were given on Easter, and we returned the favor with sacrificial meat during the Feast of the Sacrifice (Kurban Bayramı) in which some Christian families would occasionally participate by sacrificing their own sheep or goat.

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