The New Europe newspaper published an article by Dr. Otmar Oehring, Director of the Human Rights Office Pontifical Mission Society in Germany, on 'Issues and concerns of religious minorities in Turkey'. Dr. Oehring was a panelist and speaker at the Order of Saint Andrew's International Archon Religious Freedom Conference which was held at the European Parliament in Brussels, Belgium, November 16-17, 2010. The Conference theme was focused on "Religious Freedom: Turkey's Bridge to the European Union."
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Issues and concerns of religious minorities in Turkey
by Dr. Otmar Oehring
When we speak of religious minorities, we are referring to religious groups that distinguish themselves from the majority when it comes to the foundations of their religious belief and whose membership is smaller than that of the largest corresponding population group. However, when one speaks of ‘azınlık’, the Turkish word for minority, within Turkey itself, the term refers solely to the non-Muslim minorities as defined by the Treaty of Lausanne as interpreted by the Republic of Turkey, which is to say it refers to Armenians, Greeks, Jews and, based on the Bulgarian-Turkish Treaty of Friendship of 18 October 1925, the Bulgarians as well. In de facto terms, the non-Muslim minorities are no more closely defined than ‘minorités non-musulmanes’, ‘non-Moslem minorities’ or ‘Müslüman olmayan azınlıklar’ in the French, English and Turkish versions of the Treaty. Hence the Republic of Turkey’s restrictive application of the relevant regulations in the Treaty of Lausanne represents a clear breach of the wording of the Treaty. This policy discriminates not only against numerous non-Muslim minorities that existed in Turkey at the time the Treaty of Lausanne was concluded – e.g. Syrian Orthodox or Roman Catholic Christians – but against all minorities affiliated with Islam, particularly Turkey’s largest religious minority, the Alevi.
The discussion on the situation of religious minorities in Turkey, which has only begun in the recent past, i.e. since the Treaty of Lausanne – with these minorities including the Jehovah’s Witnesses, various evangelical free churches and the Baha’i – makes it clear that while the exclusive reference to the Treaty of Lausanne may well be significant from the point of view of the Armenians, Greeks and Jews, who are regarded as non-Muslim minorities as defined by the Treaty of Lausanne, it is evident that references to this treaty are in no way appropriate when it comes to resolving fundamental issues facing all religious communities in Turkey in regard to the realisation of individual and collective religious freedom.
Such a solution can only occur on the basis of the relevant binding international conventions, to which Turkey is a party, specifically the European Convention on Human Rights, which Turkey signed on 4 November 1950 – some sixty years ago – and ratified on 18 May 1954.
The political discussion among interested circles in the European Union remains strongly focused on this treaty when it comes to the problems of those non-Muslim minorities in Turkey that the Republic of Turkey regards as minorities as defined by the Treaty of Lausanne. This fact has contributed to a situation where relevant legislative developments in Turkey in recent years – those pertaining to foundation law, for example – are regarded as being highly positive, both in themselves and within the relevant context, and they have been treated in such a way as if these legislative measures had already brought about basic positive changes regarding the legal status of the corresponding Christian churches and/or Jewish communities.
In fact, nothing whatsoever has changed in regard to the fundamental problems affecting the legal situation of the non-Muslim Turkish minorities in question as a result of the changes in the relevant foundation law regulations as they impact the community foundations. The Greek Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarchate, the Armenian Patriarchate as well as the Grand Rabbinate, like all other non-Muslim minorities to whom certain community foundations have been allotted, still have no legal personality and are thus legally non-existent. As a result, there are still no legal relations between the community foundations in question and the Christian churches and/or Jewish communities.
The fundamental problem facing both the previously named churches and the Jewish communities, as all other Christian churches as well – whether they already existed in Turkey before 1923 or only established themselves here in the recent past – is the lack of legal recognition, of a legal personality.
However, in this context it must be emphasised that this problem is also shared by Islam in Turkey. It is true that a quasi state-sponsored Sunni Islam is supervised, organised and promoted by an office that is under the authority of the prime minister. In practice, however, the officially banned but still existing Islamic orders, the new Islamic movements, and also the vast minority of the Alevi, who are also affiliated with Islam, have been left just as much up in the air as the non-Muslim minorities.
However, one should not ignore the fact that, due to fundamental changes in the laws governing associations and foundation law in accordance with efforts to harmonise these laws with European Commission guidelines, religious communities now have the possibility of establishing themselves as associations or foundations. Individual evangelical free churches have taken advantage of this possibility, as have individual Alevi associations, although it remains unclear whether these are religious or cultural bodies.
Nevertheless, the underlying problems can only be fundamentally solved if Turkey continues to develop its understanding of what it means to be a secular state in accordance with Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights. For this to happen, it is first necessary to revise the constitution in accordance with Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights and to pass the necessary subordinate legal regulations that regulate the legal existence and the basis of the activities of religious communities.
Turkey must give up seeking Turkish solutions for Turkish problems. A Turkey that conceives of itself as a European Turkey must seek European solutions for Turkish problems. There is no doubt that this will remain difficult. Within this context, it is not only a matter of harmonising legal regulations with the relevant regulations of the European Convention on Human Rights. Instead, what is at stake is a new way of thinking that makes it possible for people to experience the individual and collective unfolding of their religious needs independent of their religious affiliation.