Monday, June 27, 2011

Can a new Constitution solve religious freedom problems?

Following the AKP's general election victory, political attention in Turkey has turned to the long-awaited new Constitution, Forum 18 News Service notes. It appears that a consensus may exist among Turkey's liberals, leading civil society organisations, religious minorities, legal academics, and the main opposition party, the CHP, that the new Constitution should uphold the right to freedom of religion or belief. Many would not object to this as an ideal, but attention to the detail of the proposals is essential. The AKP's past record would suggest that any predictions of its response should be cautious. Indeed, it is unclear what the AKP itself would propose. It is vital that the new Constitution enshrines full guarantees of freedom of religion or belief for all, fully in line with Turkey's international human rights obligations. But on its own - without good laws, regulations and state actions - a Constitution can only have a limited impact in generating practical change in the daily lives of people belonging to minority religious and belief communities.


Answered Prayers

Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan is redrawing the Constitution. Why the devout Muslim is good for the Christians.

As a teenager growing up in a tough Istanbul neighborhood, Recep Tayyip Erdogan studied to be an Islamic cleric. His dream, though, was to become a professional player on the local Kasimpasa football team. In the end, neither ambition worked out: he became Turkey’s prime minister instead. Now, after nine years in power, Erdogan has just pulled off his third—and biggest—general-election win on an ambitious program that includes a radical redrawing of Turkey’s Constitution. The theology student from Kasimpasa now wants to remake the hard-wiring of the Turkish state by scrapping restrictions on religious freedom; creating a powerful French-style presidency (presumably with himself as the first incumbent); and by making the country’s judges, universities, and Army more accountable to Parliament: a to-do list that rings loud alarm bells for many Turks—and friends of Turkey. The country’s old secular elite fears that allowing Erdogan’s Islamist-rooted AK Party a say in the appointment of judges, school principals, and university rectors will make the country more Muslim and more conservative. Pundits and politicians in America and Israel aren’t thrilled with the idea of giving Erdogan more power—especially after he railed about a Jewish press conspiracy against him during the campaign. And Turkey’s chattering classes are increasingly concerned about Erdogan’s intolerance of criticism. One hostile newspaper magnate has been landed with crippling tax bills, while more than 60 Turkish journalists languish in jail—more than in China.
Unexpectedly, though, Turkey’s tiny but ancient Christian community has welcomed the AK Party’s most recent landslide. Erdogan may be a deeply devout Muslim, and his party dominated by nondrinking, headscarf-wearing Sunni Muslims. But despite his Islamic grassroots, Erdogan advocates a historic softening of Turkey’s 80-year-old anti-Christian rules. Most significantly, he has helped save the 1,700-year old patriarchate of Constantinople. The current Patriarch Bartholomew, as senior bishop of the Orthodox Church, is spiritual leader of 300 million Orthodox faithful around the world. But a 1923 Turkish law insists that the patriarch and all members of the Synod—the Orthodox equivalent of the Catholic College of Cardinals—be Turkish citizens drawn from Turkey’s tiny ethnic-Greek community, now just 2,500 strong. With Bartholomew already 71, and most of the Synod not much younger, it looked as though the end of the institution was nigh. But by granting Turkish citizenship to a new crop of younger Orthodox bishops from around the world, Erdogan likely saved the institution by ensuring Bartholomew’s succession.


Saturday, June 25, 2011

Former general testifies at court on missionaries’ murder

Retired Gen. Hurşit Tolon was released after testifying Friday morning at Beşiktaş Courthouse in Istanbul regarding an ongoing investigation into the Zirve Publishing House massacres during which three Christians were killed.

Tolon gave his testimony to prosecutor Cihan Kansız, who is in charge of the investigation of the alleged Ergenekon coup-plot case, according to Doğan news agency, or DHA.

Tolon is one of the suspects being tried without arrest in the Ergenekon trials.


Saturday, June 18, 2011

Syriac Christian elected in Turkey after 50 years

A Syriac Christian has been elected to Turkey's new parliament, not seen in the overwhelmingly Muslim country for 50 years, it was reported Monday.

Erol Dora, 47, is a member of the orthodox Syriac Church and part of a small community also known as Assyrians based in Mardin in southern Turkey.

Elected as an independent, Dora was nevertheless backed by the main pro-Kurd group the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) in Sunday's vote.

The sole Christian member of parliament, dominated once again by the Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP), has committed himself to being a voice for the country's Christians.

Read more:

Monday, June 13, 2011

Christian woman’s burial story full of irony, questions

Zeynep Tufan was 75 years old when she died of cancer this month. Even though her identification card from the Republic of Turkey had a box which indicated that she was an adherent of the religion of Islam, she wasn’t.

Although she was born to Muslim parents, she had changed her religion later in life, but did not change her identification card because of the hurdles attached to the process of doing so.

Since officials in Turkey determine a person’s burial rituals according to the indication of religion on her or his identification card, she was buried in a Muslim cemetery. Her son Soner Tufan told Sunday’s Zaman that her burial ceremony on June 2 was full of irony. “First the Muslim prayer leader wanted to carry on a ceremony. We told him about our being Christian, but he said he has to do his job. The imam read prayers and naturally expected to be followed, but there was a patient silence. We wanted him to finish up so we could continue with our own little ceremony,” Tufan said, emphasizing that burial ceremonies are important in Christianity.

The problem he pointed out is in regards to respecting one’s beliefs and will. “My mother would have wanted to be buried in a Christian cemetery with a Christian burial ceremony, but nobody cared about her will or our declaration because of her identification card,” he said. When asked why she did not change her identification card after becoming a Christian, Tufan said she did not want to get into trouble for doing it. “The bureaucracy that you have to go through for that kind of a change is terrible,” he said. “Plus officials question why you did it.”

Tufan is referring to the questioning by public registration officials when somebody wants to change his or her religion. “They ask you why you changed your religion. They even try to convince you that Islam is the best religion. Actually, their questions and remarks reach the level of harassment,” he said. After becoming a Christian, Tufan changed his identity card in 1996. “I completed all the hard work for the necessary paper work. But the hardest part was the remarks that I had to endure at the public registration office,” he added.

Just like his mother, Tufan’s father also avoided changing his identification card and was buried in a Muslim cemetery. He is now joined by his wife in his grave in an Ankara cemetery. They were allowed to have a gravestone in accordance with their Christian traditions, but were not allowed to display a cross. “We have a verse from the Bible there,” Tufan said.

According to Tufan, the core of the matter is that a person’s declaration should be given utmost importance when it comes to the practice of freedom of religion. He says: “If a person or his or her family wants a certain type of burial ceremony, this should be respected and officials should ease the process for people, not make it harder.”

Human rights lawyer Orhan Kemal Cengiz told Sunday’s Zaman that there are other problems, too. “This practice is against freedom of conscience and religion. It is also not correct from a humanitarian perspective,” he said, indicating that a person should not be in a position to declare his or her religion every time he or she shows an identity card. In that regard, he said, the religion box on identification cards should be removed, or at least be optional.

“It’s quite possible that you can be discriminated against because of your religion,” he said.

Pointing out additional problems, he said the Turkish practice is discriminatory in itself because the state does not allow one to indicate belief systems on identification cards other than major religions, like Islam, Christianity and Buddhism, recognized by the Republic of Turkey. Therefore, for example, Alevis of Turkey do not even have the choice of indicating their belief on their identification cards.

Last year in February, the European Court of Human Rights issued a landmark ruling which said whether obligatory or optional, displaying one’s religion on identity cards is a violation of human rights. The ruling was in response to a case filed by a Turkish citizen who is a member of the Alevi community. A complaint filed with the court in June 2005 by Sinan Işık, who in 2004 applied to a Turkish court requesting that his identity card feature the word “Alevi” rather than the word “Islam.”

Until 2006 it was obligatory in Turkey for the card holder’s religion to be indicated on an identity card, yet since 2006 he or she has been entitled to request that the entry be left blank. But both Cengiz and Tufan said it is a widespread practice that public registration officials automatically write Islam on a person’s identity card.


Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Charter Schools Tied to Turkey Grow in Texas

TDM Contracting was only a month old when it won its first job, an $8.2 million contract to build the Harmony School of Innovation, a publicly financed charter school that opened last fall in San Antonio.

It was one of six big charter school contracts TDM and another upstart company have shared since January 2009, a total of $50 million in construction business. Other companies scrambling for work in a poor economy wondered: How had they qualified for such big jobs so fast?

The secret lay in the meteoric rise and financial clout of the Cosmos Foundation, a charter school operator founded a decade ago by a group of professors and businessmen from Turkey. Operating under the name Harmony Schools, Cosmos has moved quickly to become the largest charter school operator in Texas, with 33 schools receiving more than $100 million a year in taxpayer funds.

Some of the schools’ operators and founders, and many of their suppliers, are followers of Fethullah Gulen, a charismatic Turkish preacher of a moderate brand of Islam whose devotees have built a worldwide religious, social and nationalistic movement in his name. Gulen followers have been involved in starting similar schools around the country — there are about 120 in all, mostly in urban centers in 25 states, one of the largest collections of charter schools in America.

The growth of these “Turkish schools,” as they are often called, has come with a measure of backlash, not all of it untainted by xenophobia. Nationwide, the primary focus of complaints has been on hundreds of teachers and administrators imported from Turkey: in Ohio and Illinois, the federal Department of Labor is investigating union accusations that the schools have abused a special visa program in bringing in their expatriate employees.

But an examination by The New York Times of the Harmony Schools in Texas casts light on a different area: the way they spend public money. And it raises questions about whether, ultimately, the schools are using taxpayer dollars to benefit the Gulen movement — by giving business to Gulen followers, or through financial arrangements with local foundations that promote Gulen teachings and Turkish culture.

“It’s basically a mission of our organization,” said Soner Tarim, the superintendent of the 33 Texas schools.


Selective religious freedom is not freedom: The Turkish Case

What some observers see as “Turkey’s bloodless civil war” was perhaps best captured in the words of Bülent Arınç, then parliamentary speaker and today deputy prime minister, in the run-up to the presidential election in 2007, “They [secular Turks] don’t want a Muslim president!” Yet Turkey’s former presidents or potential rivals to Mr. Arınç’s favorite candidate were neither Christians nor Jews, or anything but adherents to Islam. For Mr. Arınç, “Muslim” meant a “Muslim like me.”

Turkey’s bloodless civil war is between pious Muslims who want the public space to be dominated by their interpretation of religion and less dogmatic and secular Muslims who believe in strict separation of state and mosque. Mr. Arınç’s Justice and Development Party, or AKP, has advocated greater religious freedoms since it came to power in 2002, but its favoritism toward a chosen practice of piety has deeply polarized Turkey. Turkey's “war of religion” is not between two religions, nor is it between the faithful and atheists; it is a contest between believers of the same faith with divergent interpretations of its strictures and/or different levels of observance.