The New Europe newspaper published an article by Amanda Paul, an analyst for the European Policy Centre in Brussels, on 'EU membership and religious freedoms in Turkey'.
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EU membership and religious freedoms in Turkey
by Amanda Paul
Freedom of religion is considered to be a fundamental human right. It is also something that the EU places great importance on and therefore those countries that are looking to join the Club need to meet EU standards on this.
The EU should recognise that while much remains to be done in Turkey, the country is taking the necessary steps to tackle past deficits. Clearly, Turkey is not the country is was ten years ago; it recognizes the need to change and its process with the EU is acting as a vehicle to nudge the process along. Therefore the EU needs to keep pressure on Turkey.
Turkey has been negotiating membership with the EU since October 2005. Freedom of religion has been quite a problematic area with Turkey having something of a patchy record - principally the result of the rather restrictive and oppressive policy carried out for decades following the birth of the Republic in 1923. Indeed under the Ottoman Empire (particularly during late 19th century), freedom of religion was far less restrictive for many of the Empire’s minorities than under the Kemalist regime that followed. For decades demands for greater religious freedoms fell on deaf ears. Only as Turkey began negotiations with the EU did change start to occur.
The anchoring of Turkey to the EU has facilitated changes in the country with Ankara coming under pressure to improve the situation and urgently boost religious tolerance and expand rights, particularly for non-Muslims (Syriac, Catholic, Greek, Jewish and Armenian communities in particular) but for others too including the Alevi’s (a Muslim sect numbering some 20 million).
Each year the situation is assessed by the European Commission. The Commission’s 2009 Progress Report contained quite a lot of criticism including continuing difficulties in relation to places of worship – non Muslim communities frequently reported discrimination with applications for allocation of places of worship with Protestant churches and Jehovah’s witnesses prayer halls often facing court cases; the Alevi’s places of worship (Cem houses) also had pending court cases even though many municipalities had recognized Cem houses as places of worship; personal documents such as ID cards, still included information on religion, leaving potential for harassment; judicial proceedings continued against conscientious objectors on religious grounds; the continued closure of the Greek Orthodox seminary on Heybeliada; non-Muslim communities – as organized structures of religious groups – still facing problems due to lack of legal personality; restrictions on the training of clergy; the Ecumenical Patriarch was not free to use the ecclesiastical title ‘Ecumenical’ on all occasions.
Furthermore many members of minority religious groups claimed that their worship activities were monitored and recorded by security forces, the Armenian Patriarchate’s proposal to open a university department for the Armenian language and clergy continues to be pending and the Syriacs can provide only informal training, outside any officially established schools. Turkey also fails to recognize and protect the Syriac people as a minority, which is indigenous to south-east Turkey, in conformity with the Lausanne Treaty including developing their education and carrying out religious services in their Aramaic native language. The list could go on.
It would be naïve to believe that change would happen overnight and the process of granting further religious freedoms has been slow with many of the above issues remaining unresolved. Nevertheless progress is being made although the ruling Justice and Development party (AKP) faces stiff opposition from many circles including from the nationalist opposition which believe it is against "Turkishness and the Turkish-Muslim nature of Turkey".
They believe that by opening up in this way, particularly to non-Muslim minorities, it will quickly snowball into demands for Turkish territory. These day non-Muslim minorities represent only 1% of the population so this could hardly constitute a major threat.
2010 has seen some groundbreaking developments. Firstly the historic service at the Sümela Monastery in the Black Sea province of Trabzon. Three-thousand Orthodox Christians gathered for the mass. Although allowed only one day in the year, the service was the first in Turkey’s republican history.
A second big moment took place at Lake Van when the first Armenian Orthodox ceremony in nearly a century was held. The church, which has been closed for services since the 1915 Armenian genocide becoming a symbol of Turkey’s troubled past with Armenia. And after years of opposition the government has recently agreed to return a Greek orphanage to the Orthodox Patriarch. It took courage to take these steps which should be viewed as part of the progress of the opening up of the country.
Efforts are also underway to improve relations with the Alevi’s and AKP initiatives, such holding meetings to discuss the Alevi problem and Prime Minister Erdogan attending an Alevi Iftar dinner – the first ever Turkish Prime Minister to so – should be viewed very positively. However there is still some way to go with many Alevis believing their demands are not being met. In October there was a sit-in organized by the Alevi community protesting against the “constitutional mandated religious culture and moral knowledge classes” which they view as a state sponsored assimilation process.
Turkey is slowly shredding its old skin and breaking the taboos of the past. The fact that people can debate the issues openly is already a huge step forward. Turkey needs to ensure that everybody has all of their religious freedoms and is able to exercise their religions properly. There should be no need to fear different cultures and religions, rather they should be seen as enriching and therefore be embraced. What is important is that these steps are followed by more and that the EU plays a strong role in continuing to support and push Turkey on this issue.