ISTANBUL: US report says Turkey still restricts religious freedom

Today’s Zaman, Turkey
May 21 2013

US report says Turkey still restricts religious freedom

21 May 2013 /TODAYSZAMAN.COM, Ä°STANBUL

A US State Department report has said Turkey generally protects
religious freedom but that there are some laws, policies and
constitutional provisions that restrict religious freedom.
The International Religious Freedom Report released by the US State
Department on Monday said there were reports of abuses of religious
freedom, including the imprisonment of at least one conscientious
objector for his religious beliefs. It said the trend in the
government’s respect for religious freedom did not change
significantly during 2012.

The report said the Turkish constitution, written by the military
junta in the early 1980s, defines the country as a secular state and
provides for freedom of belief, worship and the private expression of
religious ideas. The constitution prohibits discrimination on
religious grounds.

Despite these provisions, the report noted, the government provides
favorable and prejudicial treatment to Sunni Islamic groups. The
report stated that the Turkish government donates land for the
construction of mosques and in many cases funds their construction
through the Religious Affairs Directorate or municipalities.
Municipalities pay the utility bills for mosques located within their
boundaries. These benefits are uniquely available to Sunni Muslims.
The Turkish Religious Affairs Foundation (TDV), a quasi-governmental
entity, owns many of the mosques around the country.

The government considers Alevism a heterodox Muslim sect and does not
financially support religious worship for Alevi Muslims.

The state provides training for Sunni Muslim clerics. Religious groups
other than Sunni Muslims do not have schools to train clerics inside
the country. The Greek Orthodox Halki Seminary on the island of
Heybeli closed in 1971 in response to a law that required all private
colleges to be affiliated with a state-run university and meet
government requirements that did not permit the operation of a
seminary within a monastic community. The Greek Orthodox community
thereby lost the only educational institution in the country for
training its religious leadership. Co-religionists from outside the
country assume informal leadership positions in some cases, but
according to a mandate from the Ä°stanbul Governor’s Office, leaders of
the Greek Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic and Jewish communities must be
citizens. Religious groups generally face administrative challenges
when seeking to employ foreign religious personnel because there is no
visa category for religious workers.

In general, the report said, members of religious groups that had
formal recognition during the Ottoman period, including the Greek
Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox, Armenian Protestant and
Jewish communities, reported they had freedom to practice their
faiths.

The report noted that the Turkish government continued to return or
provide compensation for property confiscated from religious community
foundations in previous decades. The government did not clarify the
legal authority under which the Greek Orthodox Halki Seminary could
reopen after being closed for more than 40 years.

The report also criticized the ban on headscarves in government
offices and public primary schools, but welcomed as the government did
not enforce the ban in universities and in some workplaces.

The report said the Higher Education Board (YÃ-K) continued to refrain
from enforcing the ban on headscarves in universities. This policy did
not extend to primary and secondary schools, and the ban remained in
force for civil servants in public buildings, although some government
offices unofficially allowed employees to wear headscarves. On Nov.
27, the Ministry of Education announced new regulations, to take
effect in 2013, abolishing school uniforms and permitting the wearing
of headscarves by female students in elective Quran classes and at
`imam-hatip’ schools.

The report said some religious groups faced restrictions registering
with the government, owning property and training their members and
clergy. Although religious speech and conversions are legal, some
Muslims, Christians and Bahais faced government restrictions,
surveillance and occasional harassment for alleged proselytizing or
providing religious instruction to children.

It included reports of societal abuse and discrimination based on
religious affiliation, belief or practice. Christians, Baha’is, many
non-Sunni Muslims, including the sizeable Alevi population, and
members of other religious minority groups faced threats and societal
suspicion. Jewish leaders reported some elements of society continued
to express anti-Semitic sentiments.

The report added that the government continued to impose significant
restrictions on religious expression, including Muslim expression, in
government offices and state-run institutions for the stated reason of
preserving the `secular state.’ However, many state buildings,
including universities, maintained mesjids (small mosques) in which
Muslims could pray. The government denied a request from an Alevi
member of Parliament to establish a small Alevi place of worship in
the Parliament building, which had a mesjid.

It said mystical Sufi and other religious-social orders (tarikats) and
lodges (cemaats), banned officially since 1925, remained active and
widespread. The government did not enforce this ban.

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