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The right to believe, to worship and witness
The right to change one’s belief or religion
The right to join together and express one’s belief

TURKEY: Is it possible to manifest religion or belief in teaching and education?

Can the right to manifest the freedom of religion or belief in education and teaching be effectively exercised in Turkey? Forum 18 News Service notes that recent developments have highlighted this question. From the 2012-2013 school year onwards the government has introduced optional lessons in Islam. But in many schools these "optional" lessons have not been optional in reality, as both Alevi and Christian pupils have publicly stated. Families have felt pressured by school administrations to choose the "optional" Islamic religion lessons - even though the families did not want to choose them. Also, the government is once-again apparently considering allowing the re-opening of the long-closed Greek Orthodox theological seminary on the island of Heybeliada (Halki). But Halki should not be approached as an isolated issue. For Turkey to meet its international human rights obligations the "optional" lessons should be optional in reality, and all belief communities should be able to establish institutions to train their followers or leaders.

TURKEY: Constitutional Court justifies more freedom of religion or belief restrictions

Surprisingly little attention has been paid in Turkey to an 18 April decision of the Constitutional Court (Anayasa Mahkemesi – AYM), Forum 18 News Service notes. The AYM's decision goes much wider than its starting point of education in schools: it establishes new jurisprudence on "Turkish secularism" (laiklik). This new approach allows more unjustifiable state interference in freedom of religion or belief, by attributing to the state a positive obligation to both provide Islamic religious services and to reinforce restrictions on individuals and groups exercising freedom of religion or belief. This has wide and possibly unforeseeable implications, not least as the AYM's perception of Turkish society is strikingly at odds with the reality of today's diverse society. For the AYM to unequivocally protect freedom of religion or belief for all, it would have to establish a new understanding of secularism that is in practice in line with Turkey's international human rights obligations.

TURKEY: The new Constitution and the headscarf – a selective freedom?

There has been much discussion in Turkey of under the new Constitution making it possible for female public servants to wear headscarves, Forum 18 News Service notes. But there has not been much discussion of the wider issues this move raises. These wider issues include other restrictions based on freedom of religion or belief imposed on those within the public service, and the impact of the change on possible interferences by public servants in the rights of others - for example parents and school pupils. Similarly, there has been little discussion of the right of all people to manifest their religion or belief in different ways, rather than the right of some people to manifest one religion or belief by wearing one symbol. Relatively little attention has also been paid to the contradiction of men wanting women to be able to wear the headscarf, and the same men also not taking steps to further women's participation in society and the public service. It is of the utmost importance to ensure that steps taken to advance freedoms in Turkey are not selective, picking and choosing which parts of freedoms are to be advanced and ignoring other aspects of human rights. Protecting freedom of religion or belief and related freedoms must embrace the protection of everyone's freedoms.

TURKEY: Expectations of the new Constitution and what this means for freedom of religion or belief

A survey by the Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation (TESEV) has found that change in Turkish society is ongoing and there is a certain willingness to see constitutional changes that would protect freedom of religion or belief, Forum 18 News Service notes. Indeed, society seems to be to some degree ahead of the AKP government in its willingness to implement human rights obligations. 74.9 per cent of respondents said that the new Constitution should be compatible with international human rights obligations. But there are inconsistencies in social attitudes which are most apparent in concrete cases, such as attitudes concerning the Diyanet, compulsory Religious Culture and Knowledge of Ethics lessons, and conscientious objection to military service, society does not seem to be ready to accept the implications of human rights treaties. But society's evolving conceptions of Turkish secularism, and the role of the state in relation to freedom of religion or belief, are indications of a willingness to advance democracy and the protection of human rights.

TURKEY: How far will new Constitution protect freedom of religion or belief?

Turkey's Constitutional Reconciliation Commission (AUK) has begun the drafting a new Constitution. But the political parties represented on the AUK have not reached a consensus on freedom of religion or belief, Forum 18 News Service notes. What are the implications of the new Constitution's possible omission of parts of Turkey's international religious freedom commitments, affecting for example religious education, conscientious objection, and the neutrality of the state? The scope of constitutional guarantees of religious freedom in Turkey should not be limited by the boundaries of the AKP government. Constitutional provisions must reflect the provisions on religious freedom in Turkey's international human rights commitments.

TURKEY: Religious groups, expectations of the new Constitution, and the AKP

Turkey's Constitutional Reconciliation Commission (AUK) has started writing the new draft Constitution, starting with the section on fundamental rights. It remains unclear whether the new Constitution will ensure a neutral state and an effective protection of the right to freedom of thought, religion or belief for all. Many religious groups have presented their views to the AUK, which addressed longstanding problems they have encountered exercising freedom of religion or belief. Yet some recent government decisions, and the way they have been taken, appear to contradict hopes for a democratic state that respects fundamental human rights. The AKP's recent policies fail to show a determination to take the bold steps needed to address the realities of Turkey's pluralistic society, and resolve the problems faced by all religious or belief groups.

TURKEY: Selective progress on conscientious objection

Two recent Turkish military court decisions concerning conscientious objection claims have shown recognition of the right to conscientious objection to military service as a human right but a selective application. These come amid contradictory Turkish government responses to Council of Europe pressure backing European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) judgments requiring Turkey to bring its laws into line with international human rights standards. The military court judgments should be read carefully, as they show the limits of the right to conscientious objection currently recognised in Turkey, Forum 18 News Service notes. In particular, the courts suggest that ECtHR judgments on conscientious objection uphold the right to conscientious objection only of objectors who are members of groups that object to military service on intellectual, religious or political grounds. The courts also use selective theological judgments to back this, and appear to question the right to change one's convictions in relation to conscientious objection. The need for a comprehensive legal framework remains urgent. As Muslim conscientious objector Muhammed Serdar Delice stated, "regardless of one's religion, conscientious objection is everyone's right".

TURKEY: "Denigrating religious values" - A way to silence critics of religion?

The prosecutions of - among others - a cartoonist, a contributor to a website, and the publisher of a diary have raised concerns about how the complementary human rights of freedom of expression and freedom of religion or belief can be exercised in Turkey, including the religious freedom right not to believe. All the prosecutions relate to questioning or criticism of all religions, or Islam specifically, from an atheist perspective. Article 216 (3) of the Criminal Code ("Denigrating the religious values of a group") is the legal basis of the prosecutions. The manner in which Article 216 (3) is applied is of great importance in enabling Turkey to implement its international human rights obligations, Forum 18 News Service notes. Restrictions must not be applied "recklessly", as human rights lawyer Orhan Kemal Cengiz puts it. For this silences critics of religions or beliefs, and the right to make such criticism is an integral part of the right to freedom of religion or belief.