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Religious Minorities in Turkey: ‘An Endangered Species’?

Religious Minorities in Turkey: ‘An Endangered Species’?

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.” 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.

AKP rule

In regards to the AKP, in power since 2002, the commission noted that “While some view the AKP as a moderate party that espouses Islamic religious values within a modern, democratic society, others contend that it has more radical intentions, such as the eventual introduction of Islamic law in Turkey.” USCIRF also noted the concerns of some critics who believe the AKP is “solidifying power,” especially in the judiciary.

According to the commission, reforms introduced by the AKP may only be a temporary fix that could be annulled at a future date—as they are not encrypted into law or the constitution. The constitutional reforms the ruling party has promised may take years to materialize, and will likely face much opposition. “Although most religious minority communities in Turkey have noted that Prime Minister Erdogan‘s government has made positive gestures toward them in recent years, these generally have not been through permanent, institutional, or legal reforms. Rather, rights and privilege have been granted on an ad hoc basis, leaving open the possibility that they could be revoked or discontinued,” warned USCIRF.

Expropriation, demolition, and Akhtamar diplomacy

USCIRF lists the periods in Turkish history—within the past 75 years—marked by the expropriation of minority properties: “First, in 1936, with the passage of the Foundations Law; second, with the passage of the 1971 Private University Law, which required all private colleges to be affiliated with a state-run-university; and third, in 1974, when Turkey ruled that non-Muslim communities could not own properties other than those registered in 1936.”

“The government continues to retain the power to expropriate religious minority properties,” it added.

The 2008 Foundation Law amendment allowed religious communities to apply for the return of confiscated properties. Some 1,400 applications were sent in; of those, 200 properties were returned by August 2011. Some 940 applications were returned for not having sufficient documentation; of those, only 500 were resubmitted.

In August 2011, Erdogan passed a new order that allows individuals or institutions to apply for the restitution of properties that were not specifically described during registration in 1936—for instance, they could be numbered, but not named. Unlike the 2008 decree, the new law also allows for applicants to receive monetary compensation for properties that were sold to third parties. Since August, 19 properties have been returned, and the Vakiflar (the General Directorate for Foundations) is reviewing around 1,500 applications, noted USCIRF.

The new laws shouldn’t be cause for joy, however, as they are not set in stone, and the government can still expropriate properties. “While this action is commendable, it is not codified by law,” the USCIRF report read. “In addition, the 219 properties returned since 2008 represent only a small portion of the minority properties expropriated by successive Turkish governments over many years. Moreover, despite the 2008 amendments and the August 2011 decree, the Turkish government retains the right to expropriate land from religious communities, although it has not confiscated any religious foundations’ properties since 2007.”

USCIRF was also told that some religious minority groups do not register their properties for fear of harassment or discrimination, and that officials have used bureaucratic means to prevent groups from opening and maintaining properties.

On Jan. 12, an Istanbul court banned the Vakiflar from selling or using an historical Armenian building, the Sansaryan Han. The Armenian Patriarchate had applied for its return, but the Vakiflar claimed the Patriarchate did not hold the proper title for it. The report also notes other victories for religious minorities in recent months, such as the return of the Greek Orthodox orphanage on the Turkish island of Buyukada to the Ecumenical Patriarchate.

USCIRF also noted instances of recent appropriations, including the Turkish government’s “attempted seizure” of parts of the ancient Syriac Mor Gabriel Monastery. The Turkish Supreme Court granted “substantial” parts of the property to the Turkish Treasury.

The “accidental” demolition in February of an Armenian cemetery was also mentioned. The property, located in Malatya, included a chapel and an annex. In response to the demolition, the mayor and governor publically apologized, vowed to rebuild it, and to, as an expression of goodwill, also restore an Armenian church in Hrant Dink’s neighborhood.

Also in recent months, the Turkish government allowed religious minorities to use certain religious sites, for example the Akhtamar Armenian Orthodox Church on Lake Van in September 2010 and 2011, and the re-consecration of the St. Giragos Armenian Church in Dikranagerd (Diyarbakir) in October 2011. On this latter point, USCIRF failed to mention that the initiative was not that of Turkish authorities (in fact, none were present at the ceremony), but of the predominantly Kurdish Sur Municipality in Diyarbakir, its mayor Abdullah Demirbas, and Diyarbakir mayor Osman Baydemir. Both are members of the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), which has been the target of government persecution.

In discussing the Turkish government’s interference in religious minority affairs, USCIRF cited the government’s meddling in the selection process of the Armenian Patriarch, after Patriarch Mesrop Mutafian fell ill. The Turkish Interior Ministry, contrary to the Armenian Orthodox tradition, proposed the selection of a patriarchal vicar general. The post was filled following the nomination of Aram Ateshian.

Religious education

The USCIRF noted that despite being the largest non-Muslim religious minority in Turkey, the Armenian Orthodox community cannot produce future generations of clerics as it has no seminaries in the country. “[The Armenian community] today has only 26 priests to minister to an estimated population of 65,000,” wrote the commission, adding, “The lack of institutions to train future religious leaders of the religious minority communities further erodes their long-term viability.”

As to primary and secondary schools, religious minority schools were allowed to operate under the supervision of the ministry of education, and the direct supervision of a Muslim deputy principal. In 2007 that rule changed; non-Muslims are now allowed to fill that post. However, conditions still make it difficult for non-Muslim students to attend their community schools. Ministry of education officials attend student registrations to verify that a child’s father belongs to the said community. In February 2011, the acting Armenian patriarch told USCIRF that around 12,000 children of Armenian migrant workers were not allowed to attend Armenian school. The ministry of education is purportedly drafting a bill to allow such students to attend minority schools as “visiting students.” Since September 2011, some children of migrant workers have indeed been allowed into the schools.

USCIRF also noted that some Turkish textbooks contained antagonistic statements towards minorities.

Other issues of concern

The commission discussed issues concerning the country’s Muslim population, including the marginalized Alevis who face serious legal restrictions; conscientious objectors to military service who lack alternative service options, and face the possibility of imprisonment; and the rights of Jehovah’s Witnesses, a group that is viewed as a “sect.”

It also expressed concern for the religious rights of non-Muslim Cypriots living in northern Cyprus. “…Turkey‘s military control over northern Cyprus supports numerous arbitrary regulations implemented by local Turkish Cypriot authorities,” the report read. “These regulations limit the religious activities of all non-Muslims living in northern Cyprus, deny these religious communities the right to worship freely and restore, maintain, and utilize their religious properties, and threaten the long-term survival of non-Muslim religious communities in the area.”

U.S. Policy

In discussing U.S. foreign policy, USCIRF noted the longstanding U.S. presidential call to reopen the Greek Orthodox Theological School of Halki, and to address the concerns of the country’s Kurdish population; U.S. support of Turkey’s EU accession; the classification of the PKK as a terrorist organization; and U.S. support of the reunification of Cyprus.

In a letter in support of USCIRF’s designation of Turkey as a CPC, commissioners Nina Shea, Leonard Leo, and Elizabeth Prodromou reiterated some of the findings of USCIRF in regards to Hrant Dink, and added, “This continues a pattern of impunity in cases of religious violence. Even starting a discussion on genocide of Christians that occurred 100 years ago is a criminal offense in Turkey. Dink himself was convicted of ‘insulting Turkishness’ for trying to do so.”

“After past genocide, and other violence, and current, suffocating legal restrictions, Turkey’s Christian communities are barely hanging on,” continued the commissioners. “Every year that passes without substantial religious reform places these minorities in greater peril and helps seal their fate. In the Arab Spring, Turkey holds itself out to be an Islamist model. But it is no model for religious freedom. We have waited for ten years for the AKP to make a real difference in the Christians’ fate. We can no longer sit by and just ‘Watch.’”

For the full report, click here.