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Turkish gov’t continued to limit religious minorities’ rights in 2021: US report

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The US Department of State has underlined in a recent report 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) and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan were criticized in the report released on Thursday for many rights violations, including restricting efforts of minority religious groups to train their clergy, continued entry bans and deportations of non-Turkish citizen leaders of Protestant congregations and government officials’ use of antisemitic rhetoric in speeches.

“Government officials continued to use antisemitic rhetoric in speeches,” the report, titled “2021 Report on International Religious Freedom: Turkey,” said.

The report alluded to a speech by Erdoğan in May 2021 in which he said Israelis were “murderers, to the point that they kill children who are five or six years old. They are only satisfied with sucking their blood.”  

Following Erdoğan’s remarks, the Department of State spokesperson issued a statement condemning his antisemitic rhetoric, the report said.

Isolated acts of vandalism of places of worship and cemeteries continued in Turkey in 2021, according to the report, which mentioned the vandalizing of the gate of the Jewish cemetery in İzmir by unidentified individuals and a fire set at the gate of the historic Kasturya Synagogue, located in İstanbul. 

The report also cited local media reports of unidentified individuals vandalizing Kurdish Alevi homes with graffiti that read, “Kurdish Alevi get out,” in the province of Mersin. 

According to the report, antisemitic discourse and hate speech continued in social media and the print press, pointing out that in August 2021 some social media personalities and journalists linked the devastating wildfires spreading through the country to a foreign rabbi living in the country. 

Continued calls by senior US officials, including the secretary of state, on the Turkish government to allow the reopening of the Greek Orthodox Halki Seminary and to permit the training of clergy members from all communities in the country were also mentioned in the report.

The report also highlighted fears that some members of the Uyghur Muslim community have about the pressure exerted by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) on the Turkish government to change its policy of not deporting members of the Uyghur diaspora to the PRC. 

The arrest of nine Kurdish Sunni imams in July 2021 who were charged with terrorism-related offenses and for preaching in Kurdish and then released was cited in the report, quoting the imams’ lawyer, who said he believed “freedom of religion and belief has been openly violated” because they could not preach in their chosen language. 

The report also pointed to deterioration with regard to freedom of speech in Turkey and mentioned that government media regulator the Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTÜK) fined independent television broadcasters for “insulting society’s religious values,”  and that the Constitutional Court upheld a regional court decision sentencing a journalist to seven months in prison for tweets “insulting religious values.” 

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