The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) announced its 2012 recommendations to Congress, the White House, and the State Department. These recommendations included naming Turkey as one of the most serious offenders of freedom of religion towards non-Muslim communities and listed it as a “country of particular concern” for the first time ever. For years, Turkey had been listed on the commission’s “watch list, ” a lower-level designation. However, due to the Turkish government’s systematic and egregious limitations on the freedom of religion that threaten the country’s non-Muslim religious minorities, USCIRF recommended Turkey be designated a―country of particular concern. The report criticizes Turkey for regulating non-Muslim groups by restricting how they can train clergy, offer education and own their places of worship.
“It’s no coincidence that many of the nations we recommend to be designated as CPCs are among the most dangerous and destabilizing places on earth,” said USCIRF Chair Leonard Leo. “Nations that trample upon basic rights, including freedom of religion, provide fertile ground for poverty and insecurity, war and terror, and violent, radical movements and activities.”
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 twenty-eight page section is devoted to the current situation in Turkey in which the Commission begins with its findings, stating:
“The state’s strict control of religion in the public sphere significantly restricts religious freedom, especially for non-Muslim religious minority communities – including the Greek, Armenian, and Syriac Orthodox Churches, the Roman Catholic and Protestant Churches, and the Jewish community – as well as for the majority Sunni Muslim community and the country‘s largest minority, the Alevis. Other concerns include the Turkish government’s intervention into minority religious communities’ religious affairs; societal discrimination and occasional violence against religious minorities; limitations on religious dress; and anti-Semitism in Turkish society and media.
“In February 2012, the Greek Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew I, addressed the Turkish Parliamentary Constitution Commission, a first in the history of the modern Republic, and submitted an 18-page proposal on new constitutional protections for religious minority communities and religious freedom. Religious minority communities, including the Ecumenical and Syriac Patriarchs, the Chief Rabbi, and Alevi representatives, have welcomed these changes, and reportedly are ―hopeful that these reforms will be part of a redrafted constitution. For example, the Ecumenical Patriarch is said: ―Unfortunately there have been injustices toward minorities until now, these are slowly being corrected and changed. A new Turkey is being born.
“Since the founding of the Turkish Republic, the government has imposed burdensome restrictions on the ability of all religious minorities to own, maintain, and transfer both communal and individual property, to control internal governance, and to train clergy. These restrictions have contributed to a critical shrinkage of these communities, and in many cases, make it impossible for them to chart a sustainable and vibrant future.
“The Turkish government officially does not accord the ecclesiastical title ―ecumenical‖ to the Greek Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch. In March 2010, the Venice Commission, a Council of Europe advisory body, urged the Turkish government to recognize the status and role of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, although the Commission also stated that Turkey is not obligated to legally recognize the ecumenical title. The Commission noted, however, that Turkey must comply with Article 9 of the European Convention of Human Rights, which guarantees religious freedom, and ―cannot force anyone to deny a historical title that is defined and universally accepted. During an official visit to Athens in May 2010, Prime Minister Erdoğan said that the Turkish government has ―no issue with the title of ecumenical.
“In late February 2012, Turkey‘s Deputy Prime Minister stated publicly that no law prohibited the re-opening of Halki and that the government would support such a move. However, the government and the Greek Orthodox community disagree over the seminary‘s status. The government wants Halki to open as a school under the broader umbrella of a national university via the Turkish Higher Education Board (YÖK) and operate and train its clergy in a similar way to how imams are trained in the country. The Ecumenical Patriarch wants it to be under the purview of the Ministry of Education and be given legal vocational school status, which is the status it had prior to its closing in 1971. The YÖK, a separate body from the Ministry of Education, sets the regulations for high schools and higher education.
The Turkish state also has closed other minority communities‘ seminaries, denying these communities the right to train clergy and thereby the ability to build church communities for succeeding generations in Turkey. The Armenian Orthodox community, which is Turkey‘s largest non-Muslim religious minority, lacks a seminary in the country to educate its clerics and today has only 26 priests to minister to an estimated population of 65,000.
“Those alleged to be part of the purported Ergenekon plot also allegedly planned to assassinate the Ecumenical and Armenian Orthodox Patriarchs, an Alevi leader, and a prominent Jewish business leader. The May 2011 case pending against Ismet Rençber, the man accused in the assassination attempt of Greek Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, was merged with the larger Ergenekon trials.
“The USCIRF delegation found three main issues in northern Cyprus: 1) the inability of Orthodox Christians, other religious communities, and clergy to access and hold services at their places of worship and cemeteries in the north, particularly those in Turkish military bases and zones; 2) the disrepair of churches and cemeteries and issues relating to the preservation of religious heritage, such as iconography, mosaics, and other religious symbols; and 3) the lack of schools and opportunities for young people in the north, which has led to an exodus of Greek Cypriots and other religious minorities. These combine to hamper the freedoms of the remaining members of these communities, including religious freedom and any meaningful perpetuation of these minority faiths in the north.
“In May 2011, the 200-year-old Greek Orthodox Chapel of Saint Thekla in the village of Vokolida was demolished, reportedly by accident. The Turkish Cypriot authorities publicly condemned the demolition. In addition, two individuals were arrested for demolishing the church and the ―department of antiquities and museums promised to rebuild it. However, according to the U.S. embassy, the rebuilding has been stalled because the Greek Orthodox Archbishop wants the Greek Orthodox Church to have a say in the church‘s rebuilding but opposes any interaction between the church and the northern Cypriot authorities.”
The commission presses for immediate improvements to end religious freedom violations, stating that Turkey should:
“Permit religious communities to select and appoint their leadership in accordance with their internal guidelines and beliefs, end Turkish citizenship requirements for the Ecumenical Patriarchate and Holy Synod of the Greek Orthodox Church, and grant official recognition to the Ecumenical status of the Greek Orthodox Patriarch;
“Organize a technical committee comprised of representatives from the Ecumenical Patriarchate and Turkish government representatives, to review all technical details relevant to expeditious opening of the Halki seminary.”