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Turkey: Freedom of religion or belief and freedom of expression – Christian Solidarity Worldwide

May 2, 2016

CSWThis report analyses the situation of freedom of religion or belief in Turkey and outlines the key challenges faced by non-Sunni communities and individuals. It also discusses the implications of the continued government crackdown on the media and freedom of expression.

2015 was a turbulent year for Turkey, during which it experienced two sets of parliamentary elections, the collapse of the ceasefire with the Kurdish Workers Party (Partiya Karkerên Kurdistanê, or PKK) and an influx of 950,710 Syrian registered refugees. The refugee crisis, the country’s geostrategic position in relation to the Syrian conflict, and the movement of Daesh (Islamic State) fighters to and from Europe, continue to dominate Turkey’s foreign relations, especially with the European Union (EU). The EU recently pledged €3 billion (at the time of writing) in funding to support the development of a facility to accommodate Syrian refugees.

Banners have been put up outside synagogues stating that they will be demolished, men have entered churches with baseball bats or burned them down.

Zaman newspaper, one of the few remaining publications prepared to question the ruling party openly, was handed over to trustees through a court ruling and the English language version of the paper, Today’s Zaman, was confiscated by the government.

Turkish people from all walks of life spoke to CSW about police inaction in the face of security concerns. Representatives of the Alevi community were reportedly told by police that they would need to protect themselves after they reported receiving death threats. Academics have been threatened openly by a known criminal, with no repercussions, while TV stations have received threatening phone calls from government officials.

Over the Easter period, the Turkish Ministry of the Interior reported that it had received intelligence that Daesh (Islamic State) planned to target churches. Although no such attack has occurred to date, the State has used the threat as a pretext to pressure churches to install CCTV and to accept a security presence during services.

The increasing power of the Presidency of Religious Affairs (Diyanet) is also highlighted in the report, along with the negative effects on children and young people of religious minorities of changes made by Diyanet to the education system. These young people often have no religion reflected on their identity cards and are thus not entitled to exemption from Religion, Culture and Ethics (RCE) classes, lessons that focus on the teachings of Islam.

Turkey faces instability as a result of its position as a gateway for foreign fighters to and from Syria and for refugees hoping to reach Europe. In addition, there is a resurgence of conflict with Kurdish forces.

CSW’s Chief Executive Mervyn Thomas said, “Our new Turkey report shows that in order to fulfil its promise of democracy and stability, made to the Turkish people after the 2015 elections, the ruling party must take concrete steps to preserve pluralism in the country, to prevent the erosion of secularism and halt its crackdown on the media.”

CSW 2Quotations:

Minorities have spent considerable time and resources bringing cases to the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR); and, following a number of adverse judgements, in 2012 the Turkish government introduced an ombudsman’s office. As this report will show, while the ombudsman’s office has been celebrated as a significant achievement, its presence alone is insufficient without government support, and it is currently viewed as an obstacle to minorities accessing justice.

Turks applying for ID cards are required to provide different categories of information, including their religion. CSW has spoken with members of several religious minorities, as well as people professing no faith, who decided not to reveal their real beliefs on their ID card for fear of facing discrimination. While some opt not to change the default category of ‘Muslim’, others leave the space blank. One academic had deliberately changed the religion on their ID card from ‘Muslim’ to blank, as a form of protest. This too can result in discrimination, as children who do not have a religion stated on their ID cards are not eligible for exemption from religious and cultural education.

The office pays salaries to over 100,000 Sunni clerics and also takes responsibility for the construction and upkeep of Sunni mosques. Conversely, requests for financial support from non-Muslim religious bodies, including the Chief Rabbinate of Turkey, the Armenian Patriarchate, and the Cem Foundation (an umbrella organisation for Turkish Alevis), have been denied. In a decision from the Ombudsman Institution dated 30 December 2015, it was decided that assistance to minority religious communities would require prior legislation, and the original request for the salary of priests from the Diyanet was dismissed.

The registration of land and buildings is also problematic for religious minorities. The Meryem Ana Assyrian Church Foundation, for example, has experienced significant challenges in obtaining land and building a church. The land the community had originally purchased was confiscated by the government and sold to a developer to build a shopping mall. When the Foundation won a case claiming that the sale had been illegal, the government offered as redress land that had been confiscated from the Catholic Church. Not wanting to accept land seized from the Catholic community, the Assyrian community has launched a campaign for the government to build a church using state funds on land which has been fairly obtained, in the same way that it would construct a mosque.

The Turkish government has done little to combat hate speech against minorities, facilitating the emergence of impunity for perpetrators, while seeming to use this legislation only to prosecute criticism of Sunni Islam. While those who criticise this branch of Islam are prosecuted, those denigrating other religions can do so without fear of legal consequences.

the Jewish community is the largest target of hate speech and faces hostile rhetoric from both prejudiced journalists and politicians. One opinion column by journalist Ilhan Yardimci, that was published seven times over the duration of the reporting period, carried the title ‘Calamity of the world: Zionism (Judaism)’.

the current Mayor of Ankara, Ibrahim Melih Gökçek, consistently perpetuate inflammatory narratives against minorities including against the Jewish community. For example, in 2014 Mr Gökçek wrote “I applaud you” in response to an anti-Semitic tweet by a Turkish singer, Yildiz Tilbe, that said ‘God bless Hitler. The end of the Jews is near.’ Even though this incident was widely reported in the media, neither Mr Gökçek nor Ms Tilbe faced investigation or prosecution for their remarks.

Turkey currently hosts over two million refugees as a result of the crisis in Iraq and Syria. According to local embassy staff and representatives of international organisations, these people live in some of the best refugee accommodation they have seen.

However, infiltration into the camps by Islamist extremists endangers the lives of those professing other faiths. Some Christians and Yazidis are too intimidated to stay in camps. Others are reported to have been dissuaded from registering as refugees, allegedly by UNCHR officials with ulterior agendas.15 Consequently, many Christians in particular seek alternative accommodation, renting rooms or houses outside of the camps; this in turn places them under financial pressure, as they receive next to no funding from the UNHCR.

The refugee crisis also affects Turkey’s demographics. With an ever-increasing number of Yazidis and Christians, among others, being driven from Syria and Iraq by Daesh, more members of these communities are arriving in Turkey.

Unfortunately, the media does not always report sensitively on the refugee issue. The Hrant Dink Foundation’s research shows that insulting and denigrating text has appeared in several national newspapers, sensationalising the refugee situation in Turkey and the effect of the refugees’ presence in the country. In a number of articles examined by the report, Syrians were stereotyped as criminals and the cause of social tensions.

The report can be downloaded from here

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