F18News: Turkey – Hopes for 2009 disappointed


The right to believe, to worship and witness
The right to change one’s belief or religion
The right to join together and express one’s belief

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Thursday 22 October 2009

Hopes for improvements in the rights of religious communities in Turkey in
2009 have once more come to nothing, notes Otmar Oehring of the German
Catholic charity Missio
< lturen/themen/menschenrechte> in a
commentary for Forum 18 News Service <;. Alevi
Muslims broke off formal talks with the government over denial of their
rights. A high-profile lunch with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in
August 2009, attended by five religious minority leaders, including
Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, was followed by a visit to two Greek
Orthodox sites. But no concrete improvements ensued. Intolerance promoted
by Turkey’s mainstream media has markedly reduced, but local and
ultranationalist newspapers and websites still promote such intolerance. No
verdict was reached in 2009 in the long-running trial over the 2007 murder
of three Protestants in Malatya, or over the long-running attempts to
prosecute two Protestants accused of "defaming Islam". Dr Oehring argues
for a fundamental change in the attitudes of both society and the


By Otmar Oehring, Head of the Human Rights Office of Missio

Perhaps the biggest step forward in Turkey in 2009 came over the treatment
of the country’s large Kurdish minority. By contrast, religious minorities
have seen no similar progress. In many ways this has been a year of wasted
opportunities, of hopes for greater religious freedom dashed. One of the
main signs of this has been the lack of progress in resolving long-standing
problems, including the ability of communities to acquire genuine legal
status and have their leaders fully recognised, and continuing
ultra-nationalist attacks on the full equality of citizens who are not
either ethnically Turkish, or secular or Sunni Muslim.

Equally unresolved are property problems faced by religious communities as
diverse as Alevi Muslims, Catholics, the Ecumenical Patriarchate, the Greek
Orthodox, Protestants, and the Syrian Orthodox Church (see forthcoming
F18News article).

Other systemic restrictions on freedom of religion or belief remained
untouched in 2009, including: the need for fair teaching about religions
and beliefs in schools; the need for the right to train clergy; and the
non-recognition of conscientious objection to military service.

Dialogue without action

Despite high-profile meetings of some religious communities with the
Justice and Development Party (AKP) government, no concrete actions have
yet resulted from this. This has caused frustration among those religious
communities involved. Alevi Muslims – perhaps the biggest single religious
minority, with some 20 to 30 per cent of the population – even broke off
formal talks with the government at the beginning of 2009 because of this
frustration – for example the lack of progress on the right to train their
own clergy. However, workshops continue involving the state, civil society,
academics and Alevi groups. Other Muslim movements have seen no such
recognition, and it remains doubtful whether the "deep state" – military,
security and elite representatives who remain wedded to Mustafa Kemal
Ataturk’s rigorous secular ideal – would allow such movements greater
freedom (see F18News 21 October 2008
< e_id=1206>).

Progress on freedom of religion or belief may depend on a change of
attitude by the military, as was seen in the case of the Kurds when both
the current and former Chiefs of Staff signalled a change in attitudes.
However, such a change seems unlikely in the case of freedom of religion or
belief – not least as changes are needed in many spheres, in legislation,
and in the approach of public administrators and the public in general.

Some have seen as a positive development the inclusion at a lunch hosted
by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on 15 August of five religious
minority leaders – four Christian and one Jewish. However, a lunch for more
than 150 guests was hardly a venue where serious discussions of the issues
that concerned them could take place. One of the five who were there,
Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, was sitting close to the Prime Minister
and was able to declare afterwards that it was good to meet and talk. It is
important to note also that some leaders were not invited, including the
Chief Rabbi, while several of those who were received their invitations
only a day or two before.

Accompanied not only by his own entourage but by Patriarch Bartholomew,
Prime Minister Erdogan afterwards visited the Buyukada orphanage, which a
European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) judgment had ruled should be returned
to the Orthodox Patriarchate (see F18News 21 October 2008
< e_id=1206>). They also visited
the Aiya Yorgi pilgrimage site on the island. But there have been no moves
from the state side to initiate a dialogue leading to results, for example
on the reopening of the Halki Seminary, despite repeated invitations from
the Patriarchate (see forthcoming F18News article).

While high level engagement with certain minority religious communities
may be encouraging, one should note that the format of the dialogues
perpetuates the long held position of Turkey that only the ethnic/religious
minority groups which it considers were recognised by the 1923 Treaty of
Lausanne – notably the Greek Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic and Jews – are
recognised. The Treaty spoke vaguely of religious minority rights without
naming the minorities, but the Turkish authorities interpret this to
exclude communities such as the Roman Catholics, Syriac Orthodox and
Lutherans, even though these communities have found ways to function.
Because they did not exist or were not recognised in Turkey in 1923, other
groups – such as the Baha’is, many (but not all) Protestants, Jehovah’s
Witnesses, and other even smaller groups such as atheists – still languish
with no recognition at all. A more holistic and all-embracing approach, to
develop and implement policies that safeguard freedom of religion or belief
for all, is essential if the state wishes to overcome the precarious legal
position of the various religions or beliefs that exist in today’s Turkey.

Social intolerance continues

The trial of key alleged participants in the secretive underground
ultra-nationalist organisation Ergenekon, which began in October 2008, has
dragged on, with more and more revelations becoming public (see F18News 21
October 2008 < 1206>). The
case has revealed the deep cultural war between nationalists and
non-nationalists in society. The people can see that a "deep state" really
exists and is not merely an invention of the AKP government. The
revelations during the trial about how the "deep state" targeted not only
political opponents but religious minorities too have made liberals in
society more sympathetic to religious and other minorities.

However, the liberal sector of the population remains small, while
nationalists remain dominant and influential. This great mass of the
population has little sympathy for religious minority communities and the
Ergenekon trial has not changed that (see F18News 15 April 2008
< e_id=1115>).

The Syrian Orthodox Mor Gabriel Monastery is struggling to legally defend
its property (see forthcoming F18News article). It also faces – as Forum 18
has observed in person – constant threats from local people. But despite
appeals from the abbot, the police have so far refused any special
protection. Even the Turkish Parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee has
joined such appeals for protection – in vain.

In an alarming new sign of intolerance, signs were placed in August 2009
on homes in the Kurtulus district of Istanbul, where many non-Muslim Turks
live. The signs were red on the homes of the few surviving Armenians, and
green for the Greeks. Some of them received letters warning them to leave,
causing widespread fear and reminding them of the pogroms against
Christians in the city in 1955. Even in a big city like Istanbul, everyone
knows where members of religious minorities live. The latest threats mirror
similar threats several years ago in Istanbul’s Bakirkoy district.

The trial in the south-eastern city of Malatya of the five men accused of
murdering three Protestant Christians in 2007 has drifted on since its
start in November 2007 (see F18News 29 November 2007
< e_id=1053>). In 2009, police have
avoided bringing witnesses to court on various occasions, and no verdict
appears imminent. Local Protestants had hoped that impunity for those who
attack Christians would be over, but they remain disappointed.

Another trial that is drifting on with no sign of a verdict is of two
Turkish Protestants, Hakan Tastan and Turan Topal. They are being tried on
charges of "insulting Turkishness" and defamation of Islam, following their
involvement in a Bible correspondence course in October 2006. The lawyer
who filed the original complaint against the two was arrested as part of
the Ergenekon case (see F18News 21 October 2008
< e_id=1206>).

The Turkish media has extensively discussed links between the perpetrators
and the "deep state", including the Jandarma (Gendarmerie). Documents
produced in the course of the Ergenekon trials showed that the Jandarma
actively followed missionary activities in Malatya region through
informers, both before and after the murders. It also seems that the
Jandarma knew of the intention to murder the Protestants, but did not
prevent it. The MIT secret police – which also keeps minority religious
communities under observation – is known to have been watching the church
in Trabzon where Catholic priest Fr Andrea Santoro was murdered in February
2006 (see F18News 10 July 2007
< e_id=990>).

Intolerance lessens in mainstream media but continues in other media

Defamatory coverage of religious minorities by the mainstream media has
dramatically reduced since the 2007 Malatya murders. For example, one
widely viewed national TV channel, ATV, has stopped broadcasting news about
"illegal" churches, or the conversion of Turks to Christianity.

However, intolerant and stigmatising reporting and commentary continue in
local and ultra-nationalist newspapers, as well as on websites and blogs.
For example, on 22 October 2009 the news website habername.com began a
series of articles entitled, "New Trap for Young People: House Churches".
According to the writer, "thousands of young people" have started losing
their faith under the influence of "missionaries". A local news website,
Ilgazetesi featured an article on 17 June 2009, entitled "Local
Missionaries", stating that "The primary goal of missionary activity is to
break the resistance of the people to imperialism and abuse! Making them
Jewish or Christian is the second goal."

Another news website, haberler.com, reported on 21 October 2009 a warning
to local Muslim clergy by the Mufti in Mugla that "missionaries are in

Such coverage reflects the mentality that equates legitimate acts of
freedom of religion or belief – such as the right to assembly for worship,
printing and distribution of religious books and materials, newspaper
advertisements that advocate for a religion or belief, and charitable
activities by religious/belief communities – with "missionary activity" and
thus something to be rejected (see F18News 29 November 2007
< e_id=1053>). Such a general
negative perception is actively nurtured by the some parts of the education
system (see F18News 10 July 2007
< e_id=990>).

Violent attacks continue

The intolerant mentality nurtured by the education system and some mass
media is reflected in numerous attacks. In July 2009 a man followed a
German out of a prominently-located Catholic church in central Istanbul and
stabbed him to death on the street. "I wanted to kill a Christian that day
and was visiting churches for this reason," he told prosecutors, according
to the Hurriyet Daily News.

Exactly two weeks later, a young Turk visited a former army comrade (who
had become a Christian) at a Protestant church in Istanbul, then dragged
him out on the street and threatened to kill him, holding a knife to his
throat. "Do you see this missionary dog?" he was quoted by Christian news
service Compass Direct as yelling at the crowd. "He is handing out gospels
and he is breaking up the country!" Police managed to persuade the man to
put down the knife.

On 7 and 12 February 2009, the Word Bookshop (Soz Kitapevi) in Adana,
which sells publications related to Christianity, had its windows broken.
The attacker was identified by security cameras and apprehended by the
police. In 2006 the same person was involved in a stoning attack on this
bookshop, after which he left a drawing showing Jesus and his mother Mary
in an incestuous relationship. The attacker received a 15 month prison
sentence in the resulting court judgment. However, since no prior
convictions were found, his prison sentence was postponed and he was
released from custody.

Restrictions become tighter for foreign pilgrims

Perhaps seen as less important, but nevertheless annoying for those
involved, foreign Christian clergy visiting Turkey are again being required
to remove their church vestments before entering the country, in line with
the strict ban on religious garb in public places (only patriarchs and
other religious leaders are exempt). Repeated demands have been made to
Georgian, Greek and Russian Orthodox clergy at various borders in 2009,
though in earlier years such requirements were sometimes not enforced (see
F18News 10 July 2007 < 990>).

To the anger of many of the participants, this happened at Trabzon airport
to four Russian Orthodox priests leading a Russian pilgrimage group in
August 2009 to the Sumela Monastery in Trabzon Province, long a centre of
Orthodox pilgrimage as well as a noted tourist site. The priests refused to
comply with demands that they also take off their crosses. Also unlike in
previous years, the celebration at the monastery site was hedged with

Wasted opportunities

Despite intermittent optimism during 2009 of concrete steps to improve
freedom of religion or belief in Turkey – such as to see those who attacked
and murdered members of religious minorities be convicted in a fair trial –
such hopes have again been disappointed.

Turkey’s Constitution acknowledges that all citizens are equal, but in
practice this remains far from true. But for this to be effective, it would
require a fundamental change in the attitudes not only of society but also
of government. Politicians would have to demonstrate the will to change
laws and practices which institutionalise discrimination and support
intolerance. (END)

– Dr Otmar Oehring, head of the human rights office of Missio
< lturen/themen/menschenrechte>, a
Catholic charity based in Germany, contributed this comment to Forum 18
News Service. Commentaries are personal views and do not necessarily
represent the views of F18News or Forum 18.

PDF and printer-friendly views of this article can be accessed from
< e_id=1365>. It may freely be
reproduced, redistributed or quoted from, with due acknowledgement to Forum
18 <;.

More analyses and commentaries on freedom of thought, conscience and
belief in Turkey can be found at
< mp;religion=all&country=68>.

A compilation of Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe
(OSCE) freedom of religion or belief commitments can be found at
< id=1351>.

A printer-friendly map of Turkey is available at
< s/atlas/index.html?Parent=mideast&Rootmap=turk ey>.

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From: Emil Lazarian | Ararat NewsPress


Emil Lazarian

“I should like to see any power of the world destroy this race, this small tribe of unimportant people, whose wars have all been fought and lost, whose structures have crumbled, literature is unread, music is unheard, and prayers are no more answered. Go ahead, destroy Armenia . See if you can do it. Send them into the desert without bread or water. Burn their homes and churches. Then see if they will not laugh, sing and pray again. For when two of them meet anywhere in the world, see if they will not create a New Armenia.” - WS