Turkey’s long-standing freedom of religion or belief issues remain unresolved: report

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Despite Turkey’s human rights obligations as a party to core human rights treaties, the long-standing obstacles to the enjoyment of the right to freedom of religion or belief continue to persist in the country, according to a report by the Norwegian Helsinki Committee published on Tuesday.

Titled Monitoring Report on the Right to Freedom of Religion or Belief in Turkey, 2022, the report covers key legislative, judicial and administrative developments on the right to freedom of religion or belief between April 2019 and December 2021 in Turkey and identifies discrepancies with international human rights standards, making recommendations for public authorities to seek corrective action.

“Resolving these issues will require a multi-thronged effort on the part of the executive, legislature and judiciary. Were the judiciary to consistently apply constitutional and international human rights standards pertaining to the protection of the right to freedom of religion or belief, individuals and religious or belief communities could access justice. Critical individual applications concerning freedom of religion or belief claims, such as conscientious objection to military service and the compulsory Religious Culture and Ethics lessons, have been pending for a prolonged period. The delay has weakened the Turkish Constitutional Court’s capacity as an effective domestic remedy. The reexamination of legislation pertaining to freedom of religion or belief, with the aim to bring it into compliance with international human rights, is an objective of the Ministry of Justice’s 2021 Human Rights Action Plan. While the objective holds vast potential to pave the way for corrective action, it remains yet to be fulfilled,” the report said.

According to its executive summary, the report examines legislative, judicial and administrative acts regarding the main components of right to freedom of religion or belief; covers intersecting issues between the right to freedom of religion or belief and the right to education and freedom of association; provides an overview of key challenges to women’s rights to freedom of religion or belief; examines compliance and identifies gaps between the standards established by international human rights law and Turkish law and practice; and makes recommendations on necessary measures to improve. 

“Adherence to the decisions of international human rights compliance control mechanisms remains critical. Actual enforcement of these judgments and decisions, however, lags far behind. When implemented, these will have a far-reaching impact on the protection of the right to freedom of religion or belief for all in Turkey,” the report said.

“The implementation of the general measures set out in key European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) judgments would provide a significant improvement in the protection of freedom of religion or belief in Turkey. These judgments concern, among others, Turkey’s compulsory Religious Culture and Ethics lessons, conscientious objection to military service, and the status of places of worship. The ECtHR also held that the denial of provision of resources from the Presidency of Religious Affairs to the Alevi community for public religious services was incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). In addition, relevant United Nations (UN) mechanisms have issued their views on communications regarding conscientious objection and the use of the headscarf. It is imperative that measures are taken for effective enforcement,” it added.

The report pointed to the limits to the legal status of places of worship and associative rights, including the acquisition of legal entity status. 

“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,” the report said, underlining that restrictions continue to hamper the associative capacity of the non-Muslim community foundations. 

The report also highlighted the challenges faced by several religious communities that could not acquire official status for their places of worship.

“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 to relevant ECtHR judgments. Establishing a non-discriminatory process through legislative and administrative amendments for the acquisition of place of worship status, and ensuing benefits, are long overdue measures,” the report said.

According to the report, there are “glaring inequalities” in the regulations on training religious personnel other than Sunni Muslim religious personnel and in public resources allocated to the training of Sunni Muslim religious personnel versus the training of other religious personnel.

“Alevi community, Greek Orthodox Patriarchate, Armenian Patriarchate and Protestant community, have been unable to train religious staff within Turkey. Measures, to ensure the right to manifest religion or belief in teaching, to protect the right to train religious officials for all religious communities and to enable all religious or belief groups to open educational institutions to train their own religious officials, are long overdue,” the report said.

The report also cited the conversion of the Hagia Sophia and Chora museums back into mosques.

“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. Addressing past actions, which have impacted multiple religious communities, in a manner that is both compatible with relevant human rights law and that meets the obligation of the state to observe neutrality, remains a challenge,” the report said.

The US Department of State said in a report released in May 2021 that Ankara continued to limit the rights of non-Muslim religious minorities, especially those not recognized under the government’s interpretation of the 1923 Lausanne Treaty, which includes only Armenian Apostolic Orthodox Christians, Jews and Greek Orthodox Christians.

Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) was criticized in the report for many rights violations, including restricting efforts of minority religious groups to train their clergy and making it difficult for them to open or operate houses of worship and obtain exemptions from mandatory religion classes in schools.

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