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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: The new Constitution drafting process and freedom of religion or belief

Turkey's new Constitution drafting process offers many possibilities for the protection of freedom of religion or belief. Forum 18 News Service notes that the constitutional legal framework will determine how far religious freedom will be protected. Questions that remain to be answered include: Will the Diyanet, or Presidency of Religious Affairs under the Prime Minister, continue to be identified as a constitutional body? Will manifestations of religion or belief in worship, practice, teaching and observance be explicitly protected? Will "laiklik", often perhaps misleadingly translated as "secularism", be maintained in the new Constitution? Will Article 174 ("Preservation of Reform Laws") of the current 1982 Constitution be deleted or re-interpreted? Recent developments on conscientious objection and ongoing problems resulting from legislation and practice suggest that, unless these issues are addressed, there may not be significant improvement in the constitutional protection of freedom of religion or belief for all.

TURKEY: What does Turkey's Restitution Decree mean?

Following the announcement by Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of a Decree allowing non-Muslim community foundations to apply to regain or receive compensation for property the state confiscated from them, Regulations to implement this were published on 1 October. But what does the Decree actually mean? The Decree is best seen as a further step in the process of trying to solve the property problems of non-Muslim community foundations. Yet Forum 18 News Service notes that its scope is narrow, excluding some important categories of confscated property. The Decree relates only to non-Muslim community foundations and does not address property loss of for example, Muslim and Catholic religious communities. Among other deficiencies, the state body that was mainly responsible for confiscations – the Directorate-General of Foundations – has been given control of restitution as well as being given oversight of any compensation to be paid. The absence of an independent valuation and review process to judge compensation increases the possibility that fair compensation may not be paid.

TURKEY: Changes in school religious education fail to resolve fundamental problems

When children begin school on 19 September, they should have new official textbooks for the compulsory Religious Culture and Knowledge of Ethics course, for which exemption is highly limited. For the first time the books are due to include teaching not just of Sunni Islam but of Alevi and Caferi traditions, both widely shared movements within Islam in Turkey, Forum 18 News Service notes. This year also saw a slight easing to allow exemption of Jehovah's Witness children in families who have left the religious section of their official records blank. Yet such changes fail to tackle the fundamental religious freedom problems over the course: the subject remains compulsory, the function of the course – whether it is about religions or the narrow teaching of one faith only (Islam) - is not clarified, exemptions remain limited and require parents to declare their religious or philosophical views, and there is a risk that exempted children suffer bullying from other children and lowered grades from teachers in other subjects. To ensure respect for freedom of religion and belief for all in education, Turkey should consider approaching the matter in a holistic manner.

TURKEY: Can a new Constitution solve religious freedom problems?

Following the AKP's general election victory, political attention in Turkey has turned to the long-awaited new Constitution, Forum 18 News Service notes. It appears that a consensus may exist among Turkey's liberals, leading civil society organisations, religious minorities, legal academics, and the main opposition party, the CHP, that the new Constitution should uphold the right to freedom of religion or belief. Many would not object to this as an ideal, but attention to the detail of the proposals is essential. The AKP's past record would suggest that any predictions of its response should be cautious. Indeed, it is unclear what the AKP itself would propose. It is vital that the new Constitution enshrines full guarantees of freedom of religion or belief for all, fully in line with Turkey's international human rights obligations. But on its own - without good laws, regulations and state actions - a Constitution can only have a limited impact in generating practical change in the daily lives of people belonging to minority religious and belief communities.

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".

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.

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, argues in a commentary for Forum 18. 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.

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.