Other minorities in Turkey have the same
Between Discrimination and Hope: Christians in Turkey
International Society for Human Rights Germany Jan. 2005
Although sneering remarks directed at Christians in their daily lives are decreasing, Christians continue to be disadvantaged. A decreasing number of Christians have truly Christian fist names such as Hannah, Amsih or Mesih. They would rather not attract attention, especially not as conscripts in the army.
This is how Dr Rainer Hermann, correspondent on Turkey of the German daily newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung describes the situation of Christians in Turkey. Christian communities are still waiting for permissions to build churches. Despite official promises, the Greek-Orthodox seminary on the island of Heybeliada (Greek: Chalki), which has been closed since 1971, was not able to re-open in 2004. The training of new priests remains thus impossible. Christian communities are still not legally recognised and are therefore, for example, unable to acquire property or open bank accounts. They cannot register their land which is consequently considered state property which can be claimed by the state at any time.
Land property, in particular the land of Armenian foundations, is confiscated without compensation or is threatened by confiscation. The communities thus lose their income from renting out flats and houses or offices. The fact that training priest and other theological personnel is suppressed, hits the Christian community in Turkey at its core. Evangelical-Protestant communities like for example in Diyarbakir still fear official dissolution and closure, as happened for example in summer 2003 in Mersin. Talking openly about the Armenian and Assyrian genocide during World War I is a punishable offence. In October 2003, employees of the "Directorate of Religious Affairs" (Diyanet) closely observed the conference of the "Council of European Bishop's Conferences". Established communities are suspicious and worried, when a Turkish citizen whom they do not know comes to them to request to be baptised. It has been officially prohibited since 1997 to teach in Aramaic in monasteries and churches, the language of the Syrian-Orthodox church. The Lausanne Treaty of 1923 is interpreted in a way that does not allow the Syrian-Orthodox church to establish its own schools and educational centres. The schools of the Armenians and Greeks are under the control of Muslim deputy headmasters, despite provisions of autonomy in the Lausanne Treaty. Christian priests are not allowed to teach in schools. Christians do not have access to higher positions in the military or administration. There are no Christians in parliament.
Occasionally, the media publishes anti-Christian propaganda. Thus, for example, in autumn 2001, evangelical pastors were accused in TV talk shows of "undermining Turkey", and at the end of 2003 there was a smear campaign in the newspapers against the Armenian Dean of a medical faculty in Istanbul. Even nowadays, Christians have the number 31 stamped in their passports to signify that they are Christian. During passport controls cases of discrimination have occurred. Traders rather keep quiet their Christian names, for example at the bazaar. These few examples show that Christians suffers from discrimination and difficulties even today. At the same time, there have also been reforms, promises of reforms and real improvements in Turkey as a candidate to EU membership.
Improvements for Christians
The Turkish constitution guarantees religious freedom (Art.24), and Christians are allowed to practice their religion. Indeed, there are about 150 churches in Istanbul and a plethora of services both on Sundays and during the week.
Due to the fact that Turkey was admitted as a EU membership candidate in December 1999 several reform laws have been passed which also include provisions for non-Muslim minorities. For example, in summer 2003 a series of reform plans were passed with measures to combat still widely applied torture, and measures concerning freedom of opinion and freedom of assembly as well as cultural rights. However, contentious issues such property rights and building churches have still not been dealt with satisfactorily. Nevertheless, improvements are such that the EU progress report of November 2003, for example, acknowledges that the authorities have concluded reformulating the sections on Christian denominations in Turkish religious education school books. However, the communities are still waiting for the new books with the actual reformulation in it.
A non-denominational religious community in Istanbul received its status as a foundation in 2001. In autumn 2003, the renovation of two Bulgarian-Orthodox churches, which had been in ruins since 1922, began in Edirne. The Roman-Catholic Church won 30 trials over parcels of land in Iskenderun (close to the border to Syria) and Christian communities are, like mosques, exempt from water, electricity and rubbish collection costs.
According to the Roman-Catholic Bishop Francheshini, a considerable number of so-called hidden Christians, e.g. Muslims who are decedents of Christians, are increasingly coming forward and approach Christian communities. The Turkish journal "Milliet" reported in January 2004 that in 2003 there were 35,000 conversion from Islam to Christianity. There are several Protestant convert communities, and the Roman-Catholic Bishop of Istanbul hold a public meeting every year in which he welcomes groups of converts into the Catholic Church. According to newspaper articles in January 2004, the official procedures to obtain the papers of religious conversion is to be made easier. In individual cases the baptising or conversion certificates of new Protestant groups was not recognised. According to the new plans, the legally recognised certificate by the religious community would become unnecessary and only the application of the convert is to become necessary. At the same time, it would in future not be compulsory to answer the questions on religious affiliation in official forms.
The Tur Abdin with its ancient monasteries and churches has gathered momentum since 2001 and there are both individual and state initiatives to create a Christian-Islamic dialogue which would also include the Jewish community.
Fundamental Problems in the Turkish State System
In spring 2003 the provisional appraisal of the Dutch MEP Arie Oostlander concerning the Turkish accession to the European Union caused a storm of indignation in Turkey. In his report to the foreign policy committee of the European Parliament, Oostlander questions Kemalism, i.e. the political and social system the founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal, gave to the young republic in 1923. Kemalism, according to Oostlander's judgment, implies "an exaggerated fear of the undermining of the integrity of the Turkish state and an emphasis on the homogeneity of Turkish culture (nationalism), together with statism, an important role for the army, and a very rigid attitude to religion, which means that this underlying philosophy is itself a barrier to EU membership". Oostlander states that the current constitution of 1982 was clearly written by the army. Any reform of the state should therefore include the drawing of a new constitution which unconditionally bases itself on European political values. The equilibrium between individual and minority rights on the one hand and collective rights on the other hand tilted to much towards collective rights, collective interests and collective security in Turkish state philosophy. This constituted an important reason for the violation of human rights and minority rights.
Kemalism is a legacy of the Treaty of Sèvres of 1920 on the division of Turkey after World War One. An example that the aftermath of Sèvres still lives on is the fact that in January 2002 Hasan Ekinci, deputy chairman of the True Path Party, announced that Christian minorities [e.g. Greek Orthodox or Armenian, own remark] are a threat to the national security. They should therefore not be granted the same rights as Muslim Turks. The Turkish constitution of 1982 does not acknowledge the term of minority. According to Article 2 of the constitution, Turkey is a democratic and secular state which means the separation of religion and state as well as religious neutrality. But already in the constitutional reality their is a close proximity to Sunni Islam which is understood as the principle of unity.
In practice, Sunni Islam is under the administration and protection of the state. Thus the State Directorate of Religious Affairs employs approximately 90,000 people, according to other sources even as many as 123,000 people. In 2000, it had a budget of 471 million Euros. The budget is used to build and maintain mosques, employ muftis, the pilgrimage to Mecca and Sunni religious instruction in schools. In his study "Laicism = Religious Freedom?", which was published in 2002, the human rights representative off Missio (one of the Catholic Pontifical Mission Societies), Dr Oehring speaks of a rudimentary "Islamic" or "Sunni" Republic. The State takes position in favour of Islam, discriminating non-Muslims.
Demands and Hopes
Is questionable, whether a necessary change of mentality towards Christians and minorities is possible at all in the near future. Is it possible to implement constitutional legality according to western standards? There is "the authoritarian tradition of a "deep state", a non-transparent complex of secret services, bureaucracy and the military, which expanded the strict regime of Kemal Ataturk to a delusional idea." (Professor Claus Leggewie). This is about the drawing of a new constitution (Oostlander) and the consistent building of a democratic constitutional state.
Are the laws implemented without harassment from the administration? This is not the place to decide whether there is an insurmountable cultural gap between Turkey, by the majority Muslim, and the occidental Christian values. During his visits to Berlin on 3 September 2003 and 9 January 2004,Prime Minister Erdogan had promised that Christians will have the same rights to practice their faith unhampered. He even argued that this was already the case. Reality in 2004, despite considerable improvements, is different.
Apart from general demands of fundamental changes in attitude, realpolitik and to the constitution, there are concrete demands as well, such as those presented to the human rights committee of the Turkish parliament and the government on 23 September 2003 by representatives of different churches: Acknowledgement of all patriarchs and churches as legal persons; granting residents permit for foreign priests; opening of theological seminaries and the possibility to acquire property; return of confiscated land and buildings and the authorisation to operate at least one church in places with a Christian population.
More demands are to grant access to all professions for Christians, stop the dispossession of community property, and erect schools and training centres in all Christian communities. Possible Christian repatriates to the Tur Abdin must be guaranteed protection and legal security. The unconditional application of the Treaty of Lausanne of 1923 and all the rights for non-Muslims prescribed by the Treaty as well as the unconditional implementation of the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights, which Turkey ratified in 2002, must be guaranteed.
The majority of Christians in Turkey support Turkey's accession to the EU, because they assume that their legal and social position will improve once Turkey is a member of the EU. However, this is questionable. Turkey would have to become almost another country.
A "privileged membership" has so far not been further developed. Ensuring human rights, it would closely bind Turkey to Europe short of a full membership but more than the current customs union. This type of membership could be introduced as one possible type of membership to the EU. However, such a possibility is rejected by the current government under Prime Minister Erdogan.