Turkey has long been heralded by the international media as a “secular” and “modern” country. But in reality, it is the absolute opposite. Non-Muslim communities – Christians, Jews, Alevis, Yazidis, agnostics, deists, atheists, and all others – are systematically victimized by discriminatory acts, including violations of their human rights, their convictions, their faith, and their freedom of speech.
A 2022 report by the Norwegian Helsinki Committee’s Freedom of Belief Initiative, entitled “An Appeal to Move Forward from Aspirations to Actions: Monitoring Report on the Right to Freedom of Religion or Belief in Turkey,” reveals Turkey’s decades-long abuses against non-Muslim communities across the country.
The Committee lists some of the violations of the rights of non-Muslims:
- Atheists, deists, and agnostics encounter daily infringement on their right to freedom of thought and belief in the workplace, family, and the education system. Atheist, deist and agnostic parents and students do not have the right to exemption from the compulsory religious instruction in the Religious Culture and Ethics lessons.
- Those who express criticism of religion or belief in general, or of specific interpretations, especially those of Islam, face complaints and risk being prosecuted under the Turkish Penal Code.
- No religious or belief community in Turkey has a legal personality as such. Religious or belief groups and their representative institutions, such as Patriarchates or the Chief Rabbinate, lack legal entity status and as such, cannot access the court system, open bank accounts, buy property or officially employ their own religious officials and provide social security for them. Individuals belonging to religious, or belief groups organize themselves as associations or establish foundations with religious intent, though these are also subject to limitations.
- Important restrictions continue to hamper the associative capacity of the non-Muslim community foundations. The foundations’ board elections have been obstructed since 2013. As a result, the functioning of the community foundations and the beneficiary communities continue to be paralyzed and weak.
- Acquiring place of worship status remains an ongoing challenge for several religious communities. This is particularly true for the Alevi, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Protestant communities. The kingdom halls of Jehovah’s Witnesses, the churches of the Protestant community and the cemevis of the Alevi community are in particularly precarious positions due to this lack of the official place of worship status. The public authorities have systematically denied place of worship status to these sites, in disregard of relevant ECtHR [European Court of Human Rights] judgments.
- Many religious buildings are on the verge of ruin and at risk of being lost even though they are officially registered as cultural heritage sites by the Cultural Heritage Preservation Regional Boards under the umbrella of the Ministry of Culture and Tourism.
- Furthermore, the impact of past loss of properties and associated foundations belonging to a wide range of religious or belief groups continues to be a scar in need of attention. For non-Muslim communities, the process of returning community foundation property that was unjustly taken has not been completed; the damage has yet to be fully remedied.
The report gives as examples the Hagia Sophia former Church and the Chora former Church in Constantinople that were converted into mosques in 2020.
“Both Hagia Sophia and Chora were originally built as churches, converted into mosques during the Ottoman period, and then converted into museums during the Republican Period,” the report adds.
In 2005, the Association of Permanent Foundations and Service to Historical Artifacts and Environment filed a lawsuit to challenge the status of the Chora Church as a museum. In November 2019, the Council of State, Turkey’s highest administrative court, ordered that it was to be reconverted to a mosque. A Presidential Decree opening the Chora (Kariye) Mosque to worship was published in the Official Gazette on 21 August 2020. In October 2020 the images of Jesus Christ, frescoes and icons in the museum were covered by white curtains.
In July 2020, the Turkish Council of State Tenth Chamber annulled the 1934 Cabinet Decree making it a museum. The Council of State ruled unanimously to nullify the 1934 Cabinet Decree as contrary to the law. Almost immediately after the ruling, President [Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan signed a presidential decree on 10 July 2020 turning the site back into a mosque. The decree transferred the administration of the Hagia Sophia (Ayasofya-i Kebir) Mosque to the Presidency of Religious Affairs (Diyanet İşleri Başkanlığı, DİB or Diyanet), a public body under the Presidency responsible for the administration of all mosques in Turkey.”
- No measures have been taken to eliminate interference [of the government] in the internal affairs of the Armenian Orthodox, Jewish, and Greek Orthodox communities in the appointment of religious leaders. This is despite the finding of the Turkish Constitutional Court that the interference in the latest election of the Armenian Patriarch was not prescribed by law.
- Glaring inequalities in the legal restrictions facing training religious personnel other than Sunni Muslim religious personnel and in public resources allocated to the training of Sunni Muslim religious personnel versus the denial of resources to the training of other religious personnel, have not been remedied.
- Religious communities, such as the Alevi community, Greek Orthodox Patriarchate, Armenian Patriarchate and Protestant community, have been unable to train religious staff within Turkey.
- Turkish authorities have continued to issue travel restrictions targeting Christian foreigners. These restrictions interfere with several human rights including freedom of religion or belief, the right to fair trial, freedom of movement, and protection of aliens against unlawful expulsion. This practice also impacts the Protestant community since, not being permitted to train their own teachers, they rely on foreign religious workers.
- Public funding of religious services is provided solely for the Sunni Islamic community. This is in contradiction with the prohibition of discrimination and with the state’s obligation to observe the principle of equality.
- As a result of the denial of public religious services, requested by the Alevi applicants, and the non-recognition of the Alevi faith by the state, Alevis are unable to fully exercise their right to freedom of religion or belief.
- The child’s right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, their right to participation, as well as parents’ rights to raise their children in line with their own philosophical or religious views, are subject to systematic interference in Turkey’s public education system. The mandatory Religious Culture and Ethics (RCE) lessons, including the exemption mechanism, the optional religion courses, Islamic religious practices in schools and high school placement exam constitute substantial interference in the protection of, among others, the child’s right to freedom of religion or belief.
- Women across different religious or belief communities face significant obstructions to free will in the exercise of their human rights, including freedom of religion or belief. Some of the central findings of this report demonstrate that women continue to be especially vulnerable in their homes, women are prone to pressures from secular and religious segments of society and women often feel compelled to live double lives. Furthermore, men continue to exercise a monopoly over the interpretation of religious dogma and religious offices. Decision-making processes in religious or belief communities also remain dominated by men.
All these rights violations are rooted in or inspired by Islamic teachings.
Islam does not allow freedom of religion and threatens the death penalty for apostasy. As the website “The Religion of Peace” (ROP) puts it, “The only freedom of belief in Islam is the freedom to become Muslim.” The ROP website also notes:
Muslims are told to fight unbelievers until they are either dead, converted to Islam, or in a permanent state of subjugation under Muslim domination. Allowing people of other faiths to live and worship independently of Islamic rule is not an option.
And in the Islamic teachings and traditions, there is no room for a secular political system in which all people are treated as equals.
While the believers of all other religions and non-religious citizens are oppressed and deprived of their human rights, one of the most important institutions of the country is the Presidency of Religious Affairs, a Sunni Islamic institution, referred to in Turkish simply as the Diyanet. It was established in 1924. The President of Turkey appoints the President of the Diyanet. Provincial muftis, and imams working in Sunni mosques are appointed by the Diyanet. With an enormous budget, a plentiful staff, broad activities and a great sphere of influence, the Diyanet is a bigger institution than many ministries of Turkey.
The institutions and associations belonging to non-Muslims, however, are subject to organized discrimination. The demographic collapse of Christians and Jews has made the problem even worse. Today only 0.1% of Turkey’s whole population is Christian or Jewish, because of decades of persecution culminating in the genocide at the beginning of the twentieth century.
Massacres swept across the Christian population of Anatolia from 1894 to 1924. During the three decades, around 2.5 million Armenians, Assyrians, and Greeks were murdered by Turks. The historians Benny Morris and Dror Ze’evi detail the crimes committed during this period in their book The Thirty-Year Genocide.
Also, in 1934, Jews in eastern Thrace were exposed to a pogrom. From 1941 to 1942, Turkey enlisted all Christian and Jewish males in the military, including the elderly and mentally ill. They were forced to work under horrendous conditions in labor battalions. In 1942, a wealth tax was imposed to eliminate Christians and Jews from the economy. In 1955, Greeks, Armenians, and Jews were targeted by a pogrom in Istanbul. And in 1964, the remaining Greeks were forcefully expelled from Turkey. All of the above contributed to the ethnic cleansing of Christians and Jews in Turkey.
Even after those crimes, Turkey arbitrarily continues to violate the rights of the non-Muslims who are still living in the country, as the most recent report by the Norwegian Helsinki Committee’s Freedom of Belief Initiative has once more revealed.
It is the Islamic government of Turkey and much of its Islamic society that are responsible for this continual prejudice and abuse of human rights. Dissidents living under such Islamic dictatorships, however, are not allowed to have public debates about these issues, because of the ideological refusal to recognize their freedom of speech if they are “kafirs” or “infidels” and ever dared to question historic facts, and above all, Islam.
Uzay Bulut is a Turkish journalist and political analyst formerly based in Ankara.