The news service, Forum 18, recently reported on 'Turkey: Why state interference in the election of Chief Rabbi, Greek Orthodox and Armenian Patriarchs?'
The published article on Forum 18 can be read in its entirety below.
TURKEY: Why state interference in the election of Chief Rabbi, Greek Orthodox and Armenian Patriarchs?
By Mine Yildirim, Researcher at the Institute for Human Rights at Abo Akademi University, and Dr. Otmar Oehring, Head of the Human Rights Office of Missio
Turkey continues to interfere in the choices made by the Jewish, Greek Orthodox and Armenian Apostolic communities of who should lead them, Forum 18 News Service notes. The government makes no attempt to hide this interference, which raises serious questions in relation to its international human rights commitments to allow religious communities to select the leaders of their choice. It also interferes in the appointment of the leadership of the Diyanet (Presidency of Religious Affairs) and running of the Muslim community, the country's largest religious community. Any resolution in line with Turkey's international human rights obligations would also have to entail granting legal status to all existing religious communities. Communities of all Turkey's faiths should be free to structure themselves as they choose. But at present no religious community in Turkey has independent legal status in its own right -- which means for example that no religious community can own property. So the Jewish, Greek Orthodox and Armenian Apostolic leaders are chosen with government permission as leaders of religious communities which do not exist in law and whose personal positions are not recognised in law.
Sunni Muslims, the country's largest religious community, are funded and controlled through the Diyanet (Presidency of Religious Affairs), which reports to the Prime Minister. The head of the Diyanet is appointed by the state, and it is the only government religious agency. All Sunni religious activities are carried out through the Diyanet, and many Muslims are content with this situation. It is not possible to in this article address the human rights issues which affect the Diyanet, but it should be noted that Muslims outside the framework of the Diyanet maintain at best an unrecognised, insecure existence (see the F18News religious freedom survey http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=1379).
No legal requirement -- and no legal guarantees
No law states that state permission is necessary, or what processes to gain permission should be followed. However since the establishment of the Turkish Republic the Jewish, Greek Orthodox and Armenian Apostolic communities have applied for state permission when electing or appointing their religious leaders, continuing the practice established during the Ottoman period. The possible consequences of not applying for permission might include, to name only two possibilities:
- and withholding permission to wear religious clothing in places outside of places of worship.
One person who has a leading role in one of the three communities told Forum 18 that "the procedure is defined throughout the process, with changes in criteria as well as reciprocal negotiations". Commenting on the uncertainties within the process, they noted that "each election is different".
It is very important to note that the communities, in preparing election regulations to submit to the Turkish authorities, are strongly guided by what they think may be acceptable to the state, in the light of their previous experiences. This is particularly reflected in the criteria for who may be chosen as the leader.
- only it can determine whether an election is permissible, according to its interpretation of the existing regulations;
- only it determines when the election can take place;
Apart from insisting that all members of leadership bodies -- such as the Holy Synod for the Greek Orthodox, the Spiritual Council for the Armenian Patriarchate and the Beth Din for the Jewish community -- are Turkish citizens, the government does not generally interfere at present in appointments below the level of the head of the religious community.
While the government appoints the official Muslim leadership and keeps a strong grip on who can lead the Jewish, Greek Orthodox and Armenian communities, it makes no attempt to interfere in the selection of leaders for the country's other religious communities.
Nor has the government interfered in the choice of leaders for most other religious communities -- including Alevi Muslims, other non-Diyanet Muslims such as the Shia, the Syrian Orthodox Church, Protestant Churches, Jehovah's Witnesses, Yazidis and Baha'is -- but it also gives no recognition to these as religious communities, or to their leaders. The government also does not recognise these leaders as having any kind of representative role.
The Chief Rabbi and the two Patriarchs head the only ethnic/religious communities that are recognised in the Lausanne Treaty. The Turkish government does not recognise their religious communities as having independent legal status as religious communities. So the three leaders are chosen with government permission as leaders of religious communities which do not exist in law and whose personal positions are not recognised in law. Their authority over fellow-believers in Turkey or abroad may also not be recognised.
A Turkish court in June 2007 ruled that Bartholomew is not a church leader with jurisdiction outside Turkey, but only the head of the local Greek Orthodox ethnic/religious community. It also denied that he could be called Ecumenical Patriarch. This had no impact on his status outside Turkey, and has caused widespread protests. The Council of Europe's Venice Commission in March 2010 urged Turkey to recognise the right of the Patriarchate to use the title "ecumenical", as well as to allow all religious communities to have legal status (see http://www.venice.coe.int/docs/2010/CDL-AD%282010%29005-e.asp)
Delayed Jewish election, new title for leader
When Haleva's term expired in late 2009, the government refused to allow an election (by direct vote of members of the Jewish community throughout Turkey) to take place, unless the post title was changed from Chief Rabbi of Turkey to Chief Rabbi. The criteria for the 2002 and 2009 elections were determined by the Election Committee, and it included conditions for the leader such as:
- what religious training he should have;
The last condition was a condition required by the Turkish state in all previous elections. traditionally. However, in the 2009 elections the Istanbul Governorship informed the Election Committee that this provision must be changed to stipulate that the Chief Rabbi must "have a good reputation in the eyes of the state and society".
Eventually, the government permitted an election to the post of Chief Rabbi of Turkish Jews, which Haleva won in May 2010. The other candidate gained a much smaller number of votes.
The recent experience of the Armenian Apostolic community -- the largest of Turkey's Christian communities with some 60,000 people -- is the most vivid illustration that the government's desire to meddle has not diminished. Mesrop Mutafyan was elected Patriarch for life in 1998 against the express wishes of the Turkish authorities. But Patriarch Mesrop has been forced to retreat into health-related seclusion, brought on by years of pressure from the media, the public and the Armenian diaspora (see F18News 21 October 2008 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=1206). As his health has declined and he has been unable to exercise his functions in recent years, the question of a successor became acute.
In this instance, the selection of a new leader was complicated by the fact that the current Patriarch, Mesrop, is still living.
The Church presented three candidates -- all Turkish citizens. But only Archbishop Aram was living and working in Turkey. Archbishop Karekin Bekjian has served in Germany for the past two decades, while Sebuh Chuldjyan -- who left his native Turkey when he was ten -- serves as a bishop in Armenia. The Turkish government would have been highly nervous about a bishop who has strong links with Armenia, with which relations remain delicate.
Eventually, the Interior Ministry wrote to the community on 29 June via the Istanbul Governor's Office, rejecting both the proposals put to it from within the Armenian community, arguing that Church regulations did not envisage the possibility of electing a new Patriarch while the incumbent is still alive or a Co-Patriarch. It insisted that only a Patriarchal Vicar-General (Patrik Genel Vekili), a previously-unknown post, could be elected to lead the community until the time Mesrop dies. Some other churches have such a title, and it is thought that this gave the state the idea of using this title for the Armenian leader.
The letter from the Interior Ministry added that the Patriarchate could apply for permission for the new Vicar General to wear religious vestments outside places of worship "which is allowed for only one individual in each religion or confession", as the letter reminded the community. Patriarch Mesrop had been accorded such a right by a decision of Turkey's Council of Ministers one month after his 1998 election.
That Aram and the Spiritual Council -- led by Aram - co-operated in the appointment of Aram as leader with the new title Vicar-General, and that the community was denied the usual election procedure, has caused considerable questioning within the church and wider Turkish Armenian community of whether the appointment is valid. The dispute continues, and some suggest that Aram's history of co-operation with the Turkish Government as leader of the Spiritual Council unduly influenced the state's actions.
There have been previous instances of government interference in the Armenian Apostolic leadership, dating back several decades. In 1997 the government forced the Patriarchate to disband its council of lay advisers.
But although it did not want Mesrop, the Turkish government was ultimately forced to bow to strong foreign pressure to accept him as the new Patriarch.
The Ecumenical Patriarchate faced less government interference in its most recent leadership election, although it could only proceed with this when the government had given its permission. When Bartholomew became Patriarch in 1991, he was elected by the Holy Synod and the government agreed to the choice.
After years of urging on the part of the Patriarchate and apparently as a result of the August 2009 meeting between Bartholomew and Erdogan, the government finally agreed that foreign bishops of dioceses under the Ecumenical Patriarchate could apply for Turkish citizenship. Patriarch Bartholomew immediately wrote to the bishops urging them to do so, pointing out that when the election of his successor takes place, "they will have the right to elect and to be elected".
Why arbitrary interference instead of a legal framework?
Firstly, the requirement for state permission or regulation is incompatible with the right of religious communities to be free in their internal affairs, particularly one as critical as the right to appoint their own leader in accordance with their own doctrines and traditions.
Thirdly, and most importantly, even if state regulation or permission were justified, the fact that each and every election is arbitrarily treated differently puts the religious communities in a very vulnerable position. The main reason for this is that the government's arbitrary decisions are affected by factors which these religious communities cannot control. The lack of an adequate legal framework that is compatible with international human rights law may be an indication of mistrust of these minorities. In addition, foreign policy issues such as relations with Armenia, whether the USA describes the 1915 tragedy as genocide or not, the Cyprus issue and the situation of the Muslim community in Western Thrace and relations with Israel, all influence the decisions the Turkish government takes about the communities in question. In this way, the government holds what it thinks is a "trump card" in the highly complex question of the relationship between foreign and internal politics.
So it is highly unlikely that the Turkish government will either allow these communities to freely appoint their own leaders, or formulate a permanent, legally acceptable solution to these problems. Although the Turkish government does not put its international legal obligations into practice by refraining from interference in the internal matters of these communities, it presents its solutions as gracious signs of tolerance and respect for religious freedom in Turkey.
Turkey's interference in the choice of Muslim, Greek Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic and Jewish leaders clearly seems incompatible with the country's international human rights commitments to allow religious communities to choose their own structures and leadership.
The government would not face the problems this causes -- and would have gained positive reactions internationally - if it had resolved the problem by allowing each religious community to choose its leadership freely, under a transparent legal framework, in line with the "freedom of thought, conscience and religion" defined in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Article 9 of the European Convention of Human Rights. The key to a stable long-term solution lies in addressing the situation of religious communities within a human rights protection framework, rather than from changing political perspectives. A fundamental change in approach seems long overdue.