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USCIRF Identifies World’s Worst Religious Freedom Violators: Turkey remains on ‘Watch List’

The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) announced its 2011 recommendations to Congress, the White House, and the State Department, which included keeping Turkey on its "Watch List" as one of the most serious offenders of freedom of religion towards non-Muslim communities.

“The Obama administration continues to rely on the prior administration’s designations but hopefully will make new designations and apply meaningful actions very soon in order to underscore America’s resolve in bolstering the freedom of religion or belief around the world,” said USCIRF Chair Leonard Leo.  “We also urge the newly confirmed Ambassador-at-Large for Religious Freedom to encourage relevant follow-up actions to protect religious freedom where it is most threatened.”

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-one page section is devoted to the current situation in Turkey in which the Commission begins with its findings, stating: 

“The Turkish government continues to impose serious limitations on freedom of religion or belief, thereby threatening the continued vitality and survival of minority religious communities in Turkey. Turkey has a democratic government, with an energetic civil society and media, and the country’s constitution protects the freedom of belief and worship and the private dissemination of religious ideas. However, the Turkish government’s formal, longstanding efforts to control religion by imposing suffocating regulations and by denying full legal status to religious institutions results in serious religious freedom violations. The government has failed to take decisive action to correct the climate of impunity against religious minorities and to make the necessary institutional reforms to reverse these conditions. Instead, Turkey continues to intervene in the internal governance and education of religious communities and to confiscate places of worship. The alleged involvement of state and military officials in the Ergenekon conspiracy, which included alleged plans to assassinate minority religious leaders and to bomb mosques, is also of serious concern, as is the alleged use of preventive arrests to repress critics of the AK Party. Also concerning is the rise in anti-Semitism in Turkish society and media.

“Due to these concerns, and others set forth in this chapter, USCIRF continues to place Turkey on its Watch List in 2011. Turkey was first placed on the USCIRF Watch List in 2009, and the Commission notes with concern that conditions have deteriorated further since then, underscoring the need for continued vigilance in monitoring.

“State secularism in Turkey has significantly restricted religious freedom, especially for religious minority communities, including the Greek, Armenian, and Syriac Orthodox Churches; Roman Catholic and Protestant Churches; and the Jewish community, but also for the majority Sunni Muslim community and the minority Alevis, which some view as a unique sect of Islam. The government officially permits the Hanafi school of Sunni Islam, but controls all official mosques and the training of Sunni Muslim clergy. “However since 2007, imams reportedly may choose the content of sermons, indicating greater official openness. Despite Turkey’s obligations under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, the government has not recognized minority religious communities, such as the Ecumenical Patriarchate of the Greek Orthodox Church, as independent entities with full legal status. These restrictions, including policies that deny non-Muslim communities the rights to train religious clergy, offer religious education, and own and maintain places of worship, have led to the decline, and in some cases the virtual disappearance, of these communities in Turkey. Additionally, Turkey’s military control over northern Cyprus supports a web of arbitrary regulations implemented by the local Turkish Cypriot authorities, which results in serious limitations on religious freedom. These regulations limit the religious activities of all non-Muslims living in northern Cyprus and deny these religious communities the right to restore, maintain and utilize their religious properties. Such regulations are threatening the long-term survival of all non-Muslim religious communities in the area. As part of its EU accession process, Turkey has adopted some reforms relevant to religious freedom, and although the Turkish government has arrested those suspected of violent hate crimes linked to religion and has instituted legal reforms to decrease military involvement in civilian politics, protracted trials underscore judicial weakness in correcting impunity on religious freedom violations."

The report continues with its “Priority Recommendations,” stating:

"The United States regards Turkey as an important strategic partner and continues to support Turkey’s EU accession process. U.S. policy should place greater emphasis on Turkey’s compliance with its international commitments regarding freedom of religion or belief. Specifically, the United States should encourage the Turkish government to end the longstanding denial of full legal recognition for religious communities and to permit religious minorities to train religious clergy in Turkey, including by reopening the Greek Orthodox Theological Seminary of Halki and returning the entire territory of the Mor Gabriel Syrian Orthodox monastery to its rightful owners. The United States should also encourage the Turkish government to allow women the freedom to express their religious or non-religious views through dress. The United States should also urge Turkey to end the prohibition on religious minorities wearing religious dress in public. With respect to northern Cyprus, the United States should urge the Republic of Turkey and the Turkish Cypriot authorities to abandon all restrictions on Christians and Jews regarding the access, use, and restoration of places of worship and cemeteries, to cease the ongoing desecration of these religious sites and items, and to end limitations on freedom of worship."

Among the several recommendations regarding Turkey, the Commission proposes that the U.S. government should:

  • permit religious communities to select and appoint their leadership in accordance with their internal guidelines and beliefs, according to Turkey’s international obligations, 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, in line with the 2010 opinion by the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission;
  • permit all religious minorities, including those not covered by the Lausanne Treaty, to train religious clergy, including by:
    • permitting the reopening of the Halki Theological Seminary, according to Turkey’s international obligations, and allowing for religious training to occur;
    • organizing 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;
    • returning the Greek Orthodox school on the island of Imvros to the Ecumenical Patriarchate and approving the Patriarchate’s application for the operation of the school; and --encouraging the Ministry of Education to respond favorably to the official request of the Armenian Patriarch to permit his community to establish a theological faculty on Christian theology that incorporates instruction from the Patriarch, as required under Turkey’s international obligations;

Read the entire Commission's Annual Report on their website, www.uscirf.gov (Pages 317-338 will refer to the Commission's findings on Turkey)