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Today's Zaman reports on Non-muslim groups expect government to act after coding scandal

Today's Zaman newspaper recently reported on 'Non-muslim groups expect government to act after coding scandal'.

Today's Zaman is one of two English-language dailies based in Turkey and reports on domestic and international coverage. The published article can be read in its entirety below.


Non-muslim groups expect government to act after coding scandal
8/2/2013 By E. BARIŞ ALTINTAŞ, İSTANBUL

Read this article on the website of Today's Zaman »

An official response to a query accidentally revealed that the Turkish state has been numbering its non-Muslim citizens, but not a single government official has made a statement concerning the issue.

Earlier this week, it became evident from an official response from the Education Ministry to a query that non-Muslim minorities in Turkey were monitored and filed based on their ethnicity. They were also assigned numbers, in a practice that dates back to the establishment of the republic.

According to a report by the Agos daily, since 1923 Armenians, Greeks and Jews have been assigned code numbers in official correspondence between government institutions. A letter sent by the İstanbul Directorate of National Education to its Şişli branch indicates that Armenian citizens are given the code number two.

This confidential categorization by the state is normally kept by census bureaus and revealed only when there is an official request from another government institution. According to this racial code system, Greeks are given the number one and Jews the number three.

The Interior Ministry on Friday issued a response to Agos' report, admitting that the “ancestral codes” have been kept since the Ottoman times and said they were periodically relayed to the Education Ministry, indicating that these records are being actively used today. The ministry defended that the codes were only used for “educational purposes,” as Turkey's three minority communities -- Jews, Greeks and Armenians -- have the right to run their own schools as per the Lausanne Treaty of 1923, a right denied to other minority groups such as the Syriacs.

The response to the scandal has been immense, with community leaders and intellectuals condemning the number. Despite the outrage, however, not a single government member made a statement condemning the oppressive numbering system. There were also reports on Friday that there were other groups that were filed under numbers. Radikal reported on Friday on its website that the Syriacs were numbered four, while there was a fifth category for “Other.”

Years of discrimination

Rober Koptaş, an Agos journalist and a member of Turkey's Armenian community, said nobody could rule out the possibility that the “codes” were used for other purposes than just assigning to the right minority schools. He noted: “There is not a single non-Muslim public servant in Turkey, or students in military or police academies, which means that these codes can be used for other purposes.” He said the codes are an appalling violation of equality. He also said he wondered if there were other codes for individuals who are of different ethnic backgrounds such as Kurds, Arabs and the Laz, or for other religious communities such as the Alevis? “As people who demand equal citizenship but have systematically been discriminated against, we always felt that some kind of mechanism was in use, and now, for the first time, we have seen it.”

Koptaş told Today's Zaman he hoped the painful discovery will also spell the end to this atrocious tradition of secretly labeling ethnic groups. “We should capture this moment and as journalists investigate and find out completely what is behind it and how it worked. It is a good thing this document came out, and there are now things to be done both on the part of the government and the opposition, and hopefully it will serve a cause.”

The journalist said the government's silence is “unacceptable.” “We expect an end to this, not only on paper but also in practice.” He also said it now had to be completely revealed how the codes work.

Laki Vingas, a representative of the Greek Orthodox community and head of the Minorities Foundation in İstanbul, like Koptaş, said he was not surprised: “This is not really surprising. These are things we are used to.” However, he noted that they certainly did not know that they were being number-coded. “Years ago some people would be forced to drop out of Greek schools, and that would usually be because they would have some Albanian blood, or some Yugoslavian blood or something else, despite being members of the Orthodox faith. This is not really a surprise for us.” In fact, Vingas' revelation about people having to leave the minority school system because of ancestral backgrounds indicates that other groups than is previously believed are being coded.

Government should act

But what will be done, will human rights groups, citizens or minority group lawyers have to file lawsuits? “I am of the opinion that there is nothing left for us as citizens to do, as the state has to guarantee equal citizenship. The outrage, the backlash, has been very fast here; the public is reacting, and this is an opportunity for us to discuss these. I am of the opinion that a rapid result will ensue,” Vingas told Today's Zaman.

Professor Baskın Oran, an academic well known in the area of minority research, was quoted in the Radikal daily on Friday as saying: “This is the first time I have heard of this practice. This coding was created to finish off Turkey's non-Muslim communities.”

The secret categorization of minorities was revealed when a parent asked an Armenian kindergarten for a document proving there was no legal obstacle to the enrollment there of her child. When the Şişli branch of the directorate made enquiries with the census bureau into the background of the family, it was seen that religious minorities are given specific code numbers.

The family is currently waiting for a response from the Education Ministry stating that they are of Armenian descent. The confusion in the system stems from the fact that the mother is an Armenian who converted to her family's religion after being registered as a Muslim at birth.
 


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