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4 May 2011

TURKEY: The Diyanet – the elephant in Turkey's religious freedom room?

The Diyanet, or Presidency of Religious Affairs, is a state institution reporting to the Prime Minster's Office and exerts a very large influence on the extent to which freedom of religion or belief can be enjoyed in Turkey, Forum 18 News Service notes. Massive state financial and institutional support of the Diyanet along with its activities - including its biases against Muslim and non-Muslim beliefs it dislikes - make it difficult for people inside and outside the Diyanet's structures to exercise freedom of religion or belief. This has been reinforced by the latest law governing the Diyanet, which increases its influence without addressing its current incompatibility with Turkey's human rights obligations. For a political party to propose removing the Diyanet from the state's structures would render that party liable to be closed down under Turkish law. Despite the need for change in the Diyanet-state relationship, civil society proposals for change have been described by the government as "unjust" and "too assertive for such a sensitive issue".

2 March 2011

TURKEY: The right to have places of worship – a trapped right

The right to establish, own, and maintain places of worship is set out in the international human rights standards Turkey is a party to. Yet religious communities face serious obstacles – both formal and informal – preventing this, Forum 18 News Service notes. Only the state-run Diyanet can open mosques and administer them. The largest community demanding to have its own places of worship is the Alevi community, which is around one third of the population. But despite government promises of a solution, none has yet appeared. Indeed, the state is currently attempting to close down an Alevi association because its statute describes its cemevi as a place of worship. Communities, such as Protestants and Jehovah's Witnesses, face serious obstacles in establishing places of worship, while Catholics, Greek and Syriac Orthodox and other communities face serious problems in maintaining places of worship. The right of all to establish places of worship is trapped in political inaction and the arbitrary decisions of public administrators. To implement human rights obligations this right must be freed from this trap.

7 February 2011

TURKEY: The fundamental problem and how it might be solved

Turkey should allow full legal status for all religious and belief communities, Otmar Oehring of the German Catholic charity Missio http://www.missio.de/de/themen/menschenrechte, argues in a commentary for Forum 18 News Service http://www.forum18.org. No community independently exists or has ever existed in Turkish law – whether Muslim, Jewish, Armenian Apostolic, Greek Orthodox, Syriac Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant, Baha'i, Jehovah's Witness, or any other. This leads to bizarre situations, such as communities being unable to prove they are liable for the taxes they already pay. It also raises the question of whether Turkey really is – as officials repeatedly claim – a secular state. Achieving legal status for all would not solve all problems, but the changes in official and social attitudes necessary would help resolve the other problems. To achieve this, both the Constitution and the Civil Code must be changed. Anything less than directly resolving the fundamental problem - independent legal status - will fail to meet Turkey's human rights obligations and aspirations.

5 January 2011

TURKEY: Education should facilitate, not undermine, freedom of religion or belief

Many in Turkey see an urgent need to reform primary and secondary school education to facilitate freedom of religion or belief. This is because, Forum 18 News Service notes, aspects of the school system play a role in fuelling a type of nationalism behind intolerant attitudes, violent attacks and possibly even murders experienced by vulnerable groups. Key problems identified by members of various religious communities and atheists include compulsory Religious Culture and Knowledge of Ethics (RCKE) school classes, strict limits on exemption from such classes, discrimination against those seeking exemption, and misleading information in textbooks on the History of Turkish Republican Reforms and Atatürkism. An overdue first step would be to implement an October 2007 European Court of Human Rights judgment to legally enable all parents to exempt their children from RCKE classes. Implementing respect for everyone's freedom of religion or belief in school education will contribute to Turkey flourishing as a truly pluralistic democratic society.

9 November 2010

TURKEY: Syriac Orthodox land - All people are equal, but some are less equal than others?

Turkey's Mor Gabriel Syriac Orthodox Monastery in the Midyat (Tur Abdin) district faces five separate lawsuits contesting its right to its own property. Some of these cases are being brought by the government, and the state's actions suggest it wishes that the Monastery no longer existed. Otmar Oehring of the German Catholic charity Missio http://www.missio.de/de/themen/menschenrechte, in a commentary for Forum 18 News Service http://www.forum18.org, argues that as long as the international community shows an interest in the fate of the Syriac Orthodox community, nothing drastic will happen it. But this will not prevent the lawsuits dragging on, leaving the Monastery and the community insecure and emotionally and financially drained. Should international interest fade, the state and local tribal leaders will do what they have long sought to do: take over the Christian-owned land. The fate of the Syriac Orthodox is important not just for that community, but for the signal it sends to other minority religious communities – and indeed to all who want full equality for everyone in Turkey.

8 October 2010

TURKEY: Time to end state recording of individuals' religious affiliation

The compulsory recording of people's religious affiliation is the subject of debate within Turkey, Forum 18 News Service notes. Citizens must either declare one of a limited number of religions – atheism is not a possible choice - or leave the religion part of ID Cards and the Public Registry blank. This makes people vulnerable to discrimination, because of both the very many situations in which identification must be shown, and the many people who can access this information. Under the international human rights treaties to which Turkey is a party, individuals cannot be forced to declare their religion, belief or non-belief. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs told the then UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief in 1999 "that Turkey is preparing to suppress mention of religion on identity cards", but there has been no apparent progress. A recent European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) judgment on an Alevi who wanted this designation recorded on his records and ID Card found against Turkey, but along with other ECtHR judgments it has not been executed. Substantial structural and mentality changes are required for change to occur.

11 August 2010

TURKEY: Why state interference in the election of Chief Rabbi, Greek Orthodox and Armenian Patriarchs?

Turkey continues to interfere in the choices made by the Jewish, Greek Orthodox and Armenian Apostolic communities of who should lead them, Forum 18 News Service notes. The government makes no attempt to hide this interference, which raises serious questions in relation to its international human rights commitments to allow religious communities to select the leaders of their choice. It also interferes in the appointment of the leadership of the Diyanet (Presidency of Religious Affairs) and running of the Muslim community, the country's largest religious community. Any resolution in line with Turkey's international human rights obligations would also have to entail granting legal status to all existing religious communities. Communities of all Turkey's faiths should be free to structure themselves as they choose. But at present no religious community in Turkey has independent legal status in its own right – which means for example that no religious community can own property. So the Jewish, Greek Orthodox and Armenian Apostolic leaders are chosen with government permission as leaders of religious communities which do not exist in law and whose personal positions are not recognised in law.

22 April 2010

TURKEY: What criminal trials do and don't reveal

It was expected that Turkey's trial of those accused of murdering three Malatya Protestants would end last week, Güzide Ceyhan notes in a commentary for Forum 18 News Service http://www.forum18.org. But an indictment related to Operation Cage – an alleged Navy plan targeting Turkey's non-Muslim communities - has been added to the case file but not yet merged with the case. The murders of journalist Hrant Dink, Catholic priest Fr Andrea Santoro and the three Malatya Protestants - Necati Aydin, Tillman Geske and Ugur Yüksel - are expressly identified as helping Cage realise its purposes. This Operation aimed to destabilise the AKP government by both targeting non-Muslims and encouraging protests about their targeting. But what have the criminal trials – very important as they are - really revealed? The tragic irony is that even if Cage is fictitious, freedom of religion or belief for all in Turkey is both limited and under threat. The government has focused on the issues which can most damage the AKP, i.e. possibly Ergenekon-related violent attacks on non-Muslim individuals. But Turkey's many other serious challenges to freedom of religion or belief have not been resolved. The government needs to take action now on those challenges, whether or not they feature in trial proceedings.

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