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Turkey remains on religious freedom "Watch List"

Washington, D.C.

The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) announced its 2010 recommendations to Congress, the White House, and the State Department, which included keeping Turkey on its "Watch List" as one of the most serious offenders of freedom of religion towards non-Muslim communities.

"Over the past few months USCIRF has visited a number of human rights 'hot spots' where freedom of religion is obstructed and related human rights are trampled," said Leonard Leo, USCIRF chair. "This year's report offers new and important policy solutions to improve conditions where foreign policy, national security, and international standards for the protection of freedom of religion can and should intersect. The report's conclusion is clear-the Administration must do more!"

Congress created the Commission in 1998 through the International Religious Freedom Act. It serves to monitor the status of freedom of thought, conscience, and religion or belief abroad, as defined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and related international instruments. It provides independent policy recommendations to the President, Secretary of State, and Congress.

A fifteen-page section is devoted to the current situation in Turkey in which the Commission begins:

"Serious limitations on the freedom of religion or belief continue to occur in Turkey. Turkey's active civil society, media, and political parties influence the climate for religious freedom and help define the debate about the appropriate role of religion in society. Turkey has a democratic government, and the country's constitution calls for the protection of the freedom of belief and worship and the private dissemination of religious ideas. Nonetheless, the Turkish government's attempt to control religion and its effort to exclude religion from the public sphere based on its interpretation of secularism result in serious religious freedom violations for many of the country's citizens, including members of majority and, especially, minority religious communities. The European Union (EU) continues to find that, despite some improvements since its 2001 bid to join the EU, "Turkey needs to make additional efforts to create an environment conducive to full respect for freedom of religion in practice." An additional factor influencing the climate during the past year includes the alleged involvement of state and military officials in the Ergenekon plot, which included alleged plans to assassinate the Greek Orthodox and Armenian Orthodox patriarchs and to bomb mosques."

The report continues saying,

"U.S. policy should place greater emphasis on Turkey's compliance with its international commitments regarding freedom of religion or belief. For instance, the United States should encourage the Turkish government to address the long-standing lack of full legal recognition for religious minorities, including Alevis; Greek, Armenian, and Georgian Orthodox; Roman and Syriac Catholics; Protestants; and Jews. As President Obama noted in his April 2009 address to the Turkish parliament, the United States should continue to urge Turkey to permit all religious minorities to train religious clergy in Turkey, including by reopening the Greek Orthodox Theological Seminary of Halki."

Regarding the restrictions on legal status of non-Muslim minorities, the report states:

"The 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, a peace treaty signed between Turkish military forces and several European powers that formally established the Republic of Turkey, contained specific guarantees and protections for all non-Muslim religious minorities in Turkey. Since that time, however, the Turkish government has interpreted those treaty obligations as limited to the Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, and Jewish communities. Nevertheless, despite this unique status, legal recognition of these three religious minority communities, and guarantees cited, have not been implemented in Turkish law or practice, and the Turkish government continues to use the denial of legal personality to these groups as a mechanism to restrict their rights of religious freedom.

"Furthermore, religious groups that fall outside the Turkish government's view of the Lausanne Treaty's definition of religious minorities are severely limited in their right to freedom of religion or belief. Over the decades, the absence of legal personality has resulted in serious problems with regard to minority communities' right to own, maintain, and transfer both communal and individual property. They also face major obstacles in deciding internal arrangements and training religious clergy. In some cases, these obstacles have led to a critical decline in these communities on their historic lands. The problems for the Christian minorities--including on property rights, education, and in some instances, physical security-- partly arise from the fact that most are both religious and ethnic minorities, and therefore are viewed with suspicion by some ethnic Turks.

"In Turkey today, there are about 65,000 Armenian Orthodox Christians, 23,000 Jews, and approximately 1,700 Greek Orthodox Christians. When Turkey was founded in 1923, there were 200,000 Greek Orthodox Christians in the country. By 1955, the number had fallen to 100,000; that year, pogroms against the Greek Orthodox resulted in the destruction of private and commercial properties, desecration of religious sites, and killings. Due to ongoing threats, the Greek Orthodox community's numbers continued to decline to their present level.

"For more than fifty years, the Turkish government has used convoluted regulations and undemocratic laws to confiscate hundreds of religious minority properties, primarily those belonging to the Greek and Armenian Orthodox communities, as well as those of the Catholic and Jewish communities."

Further reporting about the restrictions faced by the Ecumenical Patriarchate and Armenian Patriarchate, state:

"The Turkish state also has closed minority communities' seminaries, denying these communities the right to train clergy, and has interfered with their internal arrangements and leadership decisions. For example, the Turkish government still does not recognize the Greek Ecumenical Patriarchate as a legal entity.

"Moreover, it only acknowledges the Patriarch as head of the Greek Orthodox community in Turkey, not as Ecumenical Patriarch, despite Prime Minister Erdogan's January 2008 statement in parliament that Patriarch Bartholomew's "Ecumenical" title was an internal church issue. In March 2010, the Venice Commission, a Council of Europe advisory body, stated that there is no factual or legal reason, including the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, for the Turkish government not to acknowledge the status of the Patriarch as "ecumenical," based on the historically recognized title and prerogatives. The Turkish government also maintains that only Turkish citizens can be candidates to be Patriarch or hierarchs in the Church's Holy Synod. The Turkish embassy in Washington, DC informed USCIRF in February 2010 that the government had discussed the possible application for Turkish citizenship of the relevant Greek Orthodox Metropolitans in August 2009 in a meeting with the Patriarchate, but no action has been taken.

"In 1971, the government's nationalization of higher education institutions included the Greek Orthodox Theological School of Halki on the island of Heybeli, thereby depriving the Greek Orthodox community of its only educational institution for its religious leadership in Turkey. Furthermore, in November 1998, the school's Board of Trustees was dismissed by the General Authority for Public Institutions. The Halki seminary remains closed; according to the Turkish embassy in Washington, DC, as of early 2010, the Turkish authorities continued to explore with the Patriarchate possible venues for its reopening.

"In 2008, the ECtHR ruled in a case brought by the Greek Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarchate that Turkey was in violation of Article 1 of Protocol No. 1 (protection of property) of the European Convention on Human Rights. The case concerned the Turkish government's expropriation of the Greek Orthodox orphanage on the Turkish island of Buyukada. The court unanimously ruled against the Turkish state for improperly taking the orphanage owned by the Ecumenical Patriarchate. The Turkish government has yet to implement the court's ruling.

"The Armenian Orthodox community, which is Turkey's largest non-Muslim religious minority, also lacks a seminary in Turkey to educate its clerics and today only has 26 priests. In 2006, the Armenian Patriarch submitted a proposal to the Minister of Education to enable the Armenian Orthodox community to establish at a state university a faculty on Christian theology with instruction by the Patriarch. To date, the Turkish government has not responded to this request. Additionally, like the Greek Orthodox Patriarch, the Armenian Patriarch lacks legal personality. The Armenian Patriarch reportedly receives about 300 email threats daily, and has two secret police bodyguards who accompany him at all times.

"Due to the Turkish law banning the public wearing of clerical garb, foreign Christian clergy, including Georgian, Greek and Russian Orthodox, were required in 2009 to remove their church vestments before they were allowed to enter Turkey. Christian clerics in Turkey who are Turkish citizens cannot wear their clerical dress anywhere in public."

Among the several recommendations regarding Turkey, the Commission proposes that the U.S. government should:

  • instruct officials to drop their legal case to seize some of the land which is the property of the Mor Gabriel Syrian Orthodox monastery;
  • instruct officials to uphold the decision of the European Court of Human Rights and return the orphanage on the Turkish island of Buyukada to the Greek Orthodox Church;
  • carry out Prime Minister Erdogan's 2008 statement that the Ecumenical status of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate should be an internal church issue by granting official recognition to the Ecumenical status of the Patriarch, in line with the 2010 opinion by the Council of Europe Venice Commission;
  • permit all religious minorities, including those not covered by the Lausanne Treaty, to train religious clergy, including by as repeatedly and formally requested by every U.S. President since 1971, permitting the reopening of the Halki Seminary, according to Turkey's international obligations, and allowing for religious training to occur;

Read the entire Commission's Annual Report on their website, www.uscirf.gov (Pages 303-317 will refer to the Commission's findings on Turkey)

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