NEW EUROPE NEWSPAPER REPORTS ON ‘EU MEMBERSHIP AND RELIGIOUS FREEDOMS IN TURKEY’
Order of St. Andrew, Archons of the Ecumenical Patriarchate
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
Read this article on New Europe’s website
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
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 Sumela 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
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.
From: A. Papazian