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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

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TURKEY: Constitutional Court judgment on Armenian Patriarchal election – a precedent?

Turkey's Constitutional Court ruled in May 2019 that state interference in the election to replace the ailing Armenian Patriarch was not prescribed by law and not necessary in a democratic society. The precedent is relevant for similar cases over interference in the internal affairs of other religious communities, particularly those the state considers Lausanne Treaty minorities. But any impact remains to be seen.

TURKEY: Minority foundations still cannot hold elections

Since 2013 Turkey's government has blocked community foundations relating to the non-Muslim communities protected under the Lausanne Treaty from holding board member elections. This causes foundations many problems, including that "new ideas or new dynamism are not allowed". Some fear that progress achieved since 2008 is being reversed.

TURKEY: Why can't Armenians elect a Patriarch?

The state has again blocked the long-delayed election of a new Armenian Apostolic Patriarch, arguing that such an election would be contrary to the community's traditions. Yet, freedom of religion or belief protects the right of religious communities to elect leaders in accordance with their traditions as they interpret them.

TURKEY: What do parents and pupils think?

A group of NGOs have surveyed what Turkish parents and secondary school pupils think about the government's education policies in relation to freedom of religion and belief. Some welcome state actions, but others feel coerced into religious instruction and practices they disagree with.

TURKEY: Freedom of belief and security threats

Turkey's failed coup attempt, ongoing and new security threats and government actions have long-term implications for the rule of law with the freedoms of religion and belief, assembly, association and expression. Immediate measures are necessary to protect religious or belief communities directly affected by conflict and terror.

TURKEY: Will schools respect parents' and pupils' freedom of religion or belief?

Turkey has twice, in 2007 and 2014, lost cases concerning its compulsory Religious Culture and Knowledge of Ethics (RCKE) classes at the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR), as they do not respect parents', guardians', and pupils' freedom of religion or belief, Forum 18 News Service notes. In September 2014 the ECtHR stated that "Turkey had to remedy the situation without delay", yet the only action so far has been the Education Ministry preparing an action plan involving wide consultation with civil society on the RCKE courses. This is awaiting government approval after the elections. Another systemic violation of freedom of religion or belief in the education system are optional lessons in Islam, which many have found are in reality "compulsory optional". Fear of discrimination and harassment from teachers and other pupils, as well as the slowness of the legal system, are the main reasons many people have not taken legal action to protect their rights. Unless effective protection of freedom of religion or belief in education is implemented, the state will continue to lose such cases before the ECtHR.

TURKEY: What will happen to state-confiscated places of worship?

The use and ownership of Turkey's many state-confiscated places of worship raises many questions, including how to address past injustices and the present needs of religious communities and historical preservation. Opinions are divided on who Christian churches converted into mosques centuries ago and then turned into museums should be returned to. Many Alevi tekke (dervish lodges) were turned into mosques under the control of the government's Diyanet or assigned to the use of municipalities. The many current uses of such buildings, and the legal status of their potential or past owners, also affects Turkey's implementation of its international obligations to protect freedom of religion or belief. With little or no consultation with religious or belief communities and other interested parties and no general guidelines, state decisions on this delicate subject are bound to be taken on an arbitrary basis, Forum 18 News Service notes.

TURKEY: Religious freedom survey, January 2014

Turkey continues long-standing interferences in the right to freedom of religion or belief, Forum 18 News Service notes in its religious freedom survey. Issues include: the ban on any religious or belief community having legal personality (stopping them owning places of worship); some aspects of the Diyanet's activities obstruct the exercise of freedom of religion or belief by some Muslim and non-Muslim individuals and groups; barriers to using and acquiring places of worship; serious restrictions on conscientious objection to military service; discrimination related to public service posts and activities; the right to teach a religion or belief including to train clergy being severely restricted; compulsory school instruction in Islam with limited exemption possibilities; being forced to declare a religion or belief on identity cards; atheists being prosecuted for exercising the linked rights of freedom of religion or belief and of expression; and interference in some religious communities' choice of leaders. Piecemeal and selective changes have proved inadequate to protect freedom of religion or belief effectively.

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.

RUSSIA: What's the matter with Said Nursi?

The reasons for Russia's ongoing nationwide campaign against readers of Islamic theologian Said Nursi have remained obscure, Forum 18 News Service notes. The state has offered weak or no explanations for banning as "extremist" 39 Nursi works and an alleged associate organisation, "Nurdzhular", which Nursi readers deny exists. Much of the state's argumentation is incoherent, with quite different reasons offered for banning Nursi writings and "Nurdzhular" in different contexts. Court materials seen by Forum 18 contain no evidence that either Nursi's writings or Muslims who read them advocate violence, despite claims to the contrary by officials. However, since the anti-Nursi campaign became apparent in 2005, clear patterns are emerging in the types of "evidence" offered. Considered together, these suggest that the campaign's primary cause is state opposition to "foreign" Turkish and American spiritual and cultural influence. Officials and others who support the bans have pointed to this in their public statements. But as this is not a criminal offence, weak allegations of "extremism" are instead offered in a legal context.

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.

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