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TURKEY: Turkish nationalism, Ergenekon, and denial of religious freedom

A trial has begun in Turkey of influential people alleged to be part of an ultra-nationalist group, Ergenekon. Otmar Oehring of the German Catholic charity Missio notes, in a commentary for Forum 18, that opposition to religious freedom is widespread. Ergenekon members are alleged to have maintained deathlists of people, including Christians with a missionary background. The Malatya murder trial is revealing plausible links between Ergenekon, the "deep state" and the murders. But local officials – who are almost certainly not in an Ergenekon-type group – are also hostile to religious freedom. The Ergenekon case is part of a power-struggle between the "deep state" and the AKP government, but it is unclear whether the current trials will advance freedom of religion and belief. Given the threats to the day-to-day security and religious freedom of non-nationalist Turks, whether the government effectively addresses the roots of these threats will be crucial.

TURKEY: One year after Malatya murders, time to address the causes

Turkey's Protestants are this week commemorating the first anniversary of the murders of three Protestants - Necati Aydin, Tillman Geske and Ugur Yüksel – in Malatya. Güzide Ceyhan, a Turkish Protestant, in a personal commentary for Forum 18, notes that Turkey's Alliance of Protestant Churches described 2007 as a "dark year" for their community. She says little has changed to give greater protection for the religious freedom of small religious communities, with some hiring private security companies or locking their doors during worship services. Ceyhan argues that dialogue with all religious communities and non-believers must begin so that the State's claim of being "equally close to all religions" becomes a reality; long-term educational efforts must be initiated to foster pluralism and the equality of all citizens; and the state must urgently take steps to remove imminent threats of attacks on smaller communities, as well as punish those who have committed attacks. If Turkey does not do this, she argues, "we will not have started to genuinely address the causes of the three murders."

TURKEY: What difference does the latest Foundations Law make?

Turkey has passed the long-promised new Foundations Law. However, it does not allow Muslim or non-Muslim religious communities to legally exist as themselves, Otmar Oehring of the German Catholic charity Missio notes in a commentary for Forum 18. Bizarrely, religious communities are therefore not themselves allowed to own their own places of worship. For most non-Muslim communities, these are owned by community foundations. This leads to serious problems. For example, only the state can legally make even basic building repairs. As Dilek Kurban of the Turkish TESEV Foundation noted, the Law is "incompatible with the principle of freedom of association, which is guaranteed by the European Convention on Human Rights, the Constitution and the [1923] Treaty of Lausanne". Dr Oehring argues that the way to guarantee freedom of thought, conscience and belief is to make the European Convention on Human Rights' commitments a concrete reality in Turkey.

TURKEY: What causes intolerance and violence?

The trial in Malatya of those accused of murdering three Protestants has drawn attention again to the question of what causes such intolerance and violence. Güzide Ceyhan, a Turkish Protestant, in a personal commentary for Forum 18, identifies three trends behind the murders: disinformation by public figures and the mass media; the rise of Turkish nationalism; and the marginalisation of smaller groups from Turkish society. All three trends feed off each other, and all of Turkey's smaller religious communities – those within Islam and Christianity, as well as Baha'is and Jehovah's Witnesses - are affected by them in various ways. Many Turkish people – of all religions and none - are committed to furthering democracy and human rights, while civil society is growing stronger. But for the fundamental right of all Turkish citizens to freedom of thought, conscience and belief to be truly protected, a human rights-based approach is indispensable.

TURKEY: Dangerous consequences of intolerance of religious minorities

The Turkish government has long failed to tackle deep-rooted discrimination against religious minorities – by refusing to guarantee their position in law or to crack down on intolerance from officials, the media and in school curricula. This has left religious minorities dangerously exposed, argues Otmar Oehring of the German Catholic charity Missio. For, as Dr Oehring observes in this personal commentary for Forum 18, hostility to religious minorities is stoked by widespread xenophobia. Following the brutal murder of three Protestants in Malatya in April, attacks on and threats against religious minorities have only increased. Official "protection" for religious minority leaders and places of worship seems designed as much to control as to protect them.

TURKEY: What chance for religious freedom in Turkey's elections?

Turkey is due to hold parliamentary elections on 22 July, which will have a crucial impact on the presidential election due in autumn. Both elections will strongly influence the chances of greater freedom of thought, conscience and belief, Otmar Oehring of the German Catholic charity Missio notes. Turkish religious minorities Forum 18 News Service has spoken to are highly concerned about the outcome of the elections. For, as Dr Oehring observes in this personal commentary for Forum 18, Turks who want to see genuine freedom of thought, conscience and religion have little expectation that either the parliamentary or presidential election will bring any improvement. No political party with any chance of gaining real power wants either to tackle the dangerous media intolerance of religious minorities or to take the dramatic changes necessary to usher in genuine religious freedom.

TURKEY: Religious freedom via Strasbourg, not Ankara or Brussels?

There are now two major questions in the struggle for full religious freedom in Turkey, Otmar Oehring of the German Catholic charity Missio notes. Firstly, will the controversial Foundations Law be adopted, and if so in what form? Secondly, will the Turkish authorities move towards full religious freedom after a recent momentous ruling by the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) in Strasbourg? The ECtHR did not accept the Turkish state's argumentation over the seizure of non-Muslim minorities' property, and even the Turkish judge at the Court had no objections to the ruling. In this personal commentary for Forum 18, Dr Oehring suggests that, as Turkish accession negotiations with the European Union have gone quiet, the ECtHR may now be the best route for Turkey's religious minorities to assert their rights.

TURKEY: Pope Benedict XVI's visit and religious freedom

Pope Benedict XVI's visit to Turkey spotlights religious freedom, notes Otmar Oehring of the German Catholic charity Missio . Some are optimistic that the new Foundations Law will resolve property problems for the organisations allowed to non-Muslim communities, but this has yet to be seen. Astonishingly, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Abdullah Gul may not meet Pope Benedict. Officials fear that the Pope may discuss the problems facing Catholics and other religious minorities, including Muslim minorities. In this personal commentary for Forum 18, Dr Oehring maintains that – despite hopeful signs such as several Protestant churches gaining association status – there has been little overall progress this year in religious freedom. For example, minorities such as the Syriac Orthodox do not have the legal right to undertake activities essential for a functioning peaceful religious community.