Thursday, September 29, 2011

Turkey's Elephant in the Room: Religious Freedom

With his triumphant tour of the countries of the Arab Spring this month, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has managed to set up Turkey on the international stage as a role model for a secular democracy in a Muslim country — as, in his words, “a secular state where all religions are equal.”

The only trouble is that he has yet to make that happen for Turkey.

The relationship between religion and the state, ever the sore spot of Turkish identity, is one of the most explosive issues of the debate on the new constitution that Mr. Erdogan has pledged to give the country in the new legislative term that opens Saturday.

That debate will have to deal with the elephant in the room: the total control that the state exerts over Islam through its Religious Affairs Department, and the lack of a legal status for all other religions in a predominantly Sunni Muslim society.

“Turkey may look like a secular state on paper, but in terms of international law it is actually a Sunni Islamic state,” Izzettin Dogan, a leader of the country’s Alevi minority, charged at a joint press conference with leaders of several other minority faiths last week in Istanbul.

Mr. Dogan is honorary president of the Federation of Alevi Foundations, which represents many of what it claims are up to 30 million adherents of the Alevi faith, an Anatolian religion close to Sufi Islam but separate and distinct in its beliefs and practices.

“The state collects taxes from all of us and spends billions on Sunni Islam alone, while millions of Alevis as well as Christians, Jews and other faiths don’t receive a penny,” Mr. Dogan said, referring to the $1.5 billion budget of the Religious Affairs Department. “What kind of secularism is that?”

A bureaucratic juggernaut with its own news service and a dedicated trade union, the Religious Affairs Department employs more than 106,000 civil servants, according to its latest annual report, including 60,000 imams and 10,000 muezzins, all of them trained, hired and fired by the state.

At the institution’s ministry-size headquarters in Ankara, state-employed astronomers calculate prayer times around the world, while state-educated theologians pore over the hadiths of the Prophet Muhammad in the library and issue the religious rulings known as fatwas.

The department writes the sermons for Friday Prayer in mosques across the country as well as the textbooks for the religious instruction that is mandatory in schools. It publishes books and periodicals in languages including Tatar, Mongol and Uygur, and issues an iPhone app featuring Koranic verses and a prayertime alarm. The department has a monopoly on Koran courses in the country, and it organizes the Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca, right down to the vaccination of pilgrims.

So centralized is the department’s control that its new president, Mehmet Gormez, is considered innovative for announcing his intention to train preachers to deliver sermons in person, instead of having them piped into the mosque from the department over a public-address system.

“In Turkey, Islam does not determine politics, but politics determine Islam,” Gunter Seufert, a sociologist, concluded in a 2004 study of the department entitled “State and Islam in Turkey.”

“Run by a state agency, religion serves the nation state for the purpose of unifying the nation and Westernizing its Muslims,” he added.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Archbishop:Turkey destroys religious heritage in occupied Cyprus

Archbishop of Cyprus Chrysostomos II has indicted Turkey for the destruction of holy sites in the northern Turkish occupied areas of the island, calling on the Patriarch of the Orthodox Church of Georgia, Elias, to assist in any way possible and to exert pressure on the matter in the international arena.

The Archbishop, who paid an official visit to the Orthodox Church of Georgia, at the invitation of Patriarch Elias, was speaking at a concelebrating ceremony on Sunday in Georgia’s capital, Tbilisi.

He said that more than 500 Orthodox churches and monasteries in the occupied areas are in a miserable condition.

“Some of these churches and monasteries have been destroyed, others have been transformed into mosques, night clubs, army camps even stables. Our holy icons and other religious items have been sold to Europe and America”, he noted.

He said that the Church of Cyprus has been long demanding a permit from the illegal Turkish Cypriot regime in order to repair these churches and monasteries, however there has been no response so far.

The Archbishop also referred to the Cyprus problem, noting that Turkey illegally invaded Cyprus in 1974, occupying 37% of the country, adding that it wants to take over the occupied areas and the rest of Cyprus.

Turkey, he pointed out, is implementing “ethnic cleansing” tactics in Cyprus, by driving away all Christian Orthodox from their homeland and bringing Muslim settlers from Anatolia, changing the demographics of the whole of Cyprus.

He spoke of the very good relations between the Church of Cyprus and the Orthodox Church of Georgia, noting that a great number of Georgians today reside and work in Cyprus.

Since the 1974 Turkish invasion of Cyprus, hundreds of valuable artifacts have been stolen from the northern Turkish occupied areas of the island and found their way into the black market overseas. More than 500 churches have been pillaged, destroyed or turned into museum, inns or silos. Many archaeological sites and other places belonging to the country’s 9,000 year old cultural heritage have been abandoned to the elements.

The Church of Cyprus has, at different times, managed to secure the return of stolen religious items, illegally stolen and sold on the black market abroad.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Religious groups call on gov’t to draft secular constitution

A number of religious groups' leaders who gathered on Monday to introduce a study on the demands of various religious groups in Turkey said that the new constitution of the country should be secular.

“This is a Sunni state because the Religious Affairs Directorate sponsors only the affairs of Sunni adherents of Islam. No Jewish, no Christian, no Alevi can get a cent from the huge budget of the directorate. There is no such secular state in the world,” said İzzettin Doğan, the head of the Cem Foundation, an Alevi organization.

Speaking at the release of the study, “Belief Groups in Turkey: A new framework aimed at issues and demands,” hosted by the İstanbul Policy Center at Sabancı University and its Education Reform Initiative, Doğan emphasized the importance of being neutral, non-discriminative and maintaining an equal distance to all belief groups in a secular state.

“The Religious Affairs Directorate should be restructured from A to Z to include all religious groups,” Doğan added and said that their work will help to push the government to not put its intentions to make a new constitution aside.

The report’s suggestions included that opening places of worship should be a right; the state should take initiatives regarding handing down religious beliefs from one generation to another, religious leaders’ selection and education; beliefs and members of religious groups should not be seen as threatening elements to societal and cultural security, and they should be treated as Turkey’s historical and cultural richness; and all religious groups should be treated equally without discriminating against them.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Christian TV Expands Its Middle East/North Africa Footprint

It may seem odd, but a Christian TV network for and by people of the Middle East/North Africa (MENA) region is expanding its footprint and making inroads despite regional turmoil and fears of rising Islamic fundamentalism.

"We don't attack Islam and present the Christian faith in a positive way, on women, disabilities, and other matters," said Terence Ascott, CEO of Sat-7. "We don't want to get into a debate, into a polemic, on the air."

In 15 years of existence Ascott and his associates have attracted over 15 million viewers in a region that's mostly Muslim -- not by converting Muslims, but by creating an environment that's less hostile towards Christians.
"It's a human right for everyone in the world to hear the Christian message and decide whether or not to embrace it. It's our right to propagate the truth of our faith," he added.

It may seem like a tall order for this transplanted Brit who has lived in the Middle East for decades and hops around from his Cyprus headquarters to run five satellite TV ministry channels, primarily in Arabic, but more recently in Farsi (Persian) and Turkish.

One way to avoid issues that divide Christians where so many denominations and sects exist, is not covering the sacraments, though some programs about how different churches define the sacraments may be aired.

Some religious groups face difficulties in Turkey

Despite the fact that Turkey’s constitution protects religious freedom, some constitutional provisions regarding the integrity and existence of the secular state restrict these rights.

The International Religious Freedom Report issued by State Department says some religious groups also faced difficulties regarding freedom of worship, registration with the government, property ownership, and the training of their followers and clergy.

“There were reports of societal abuses and discrimination based on religious affiliation, belief, or practice. Threats against non-Muslims created an atmosphere of pressure and diminished freedom for some non-Muslim communities. Many Christians, Bahais, Jews, and Alevis faced societal suspicion and mistrust, and some elements of society continued to express anti-Semitic sentiments.

Additionally persons wishing to convert from Islam sometimes experienced social harassment and violence from relatives and neighbors,” the report reads.

It mentions that the religious groups lost numerous properties to the state in the past and continued to fight efforts by the state to expropriate properties.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Armenians hold second religious ceremony at Akdamar church

A second religious ceremony has been held since the historic Sept. 19, 2010 service at the Armenian Church of the Holy Cross on the island of Akdamar in the eastern province of Van on Sunday.

Hymns and prayers resonated on Akdamar Island in 2010, 95 years after religious services ended in the Armenian Church of the Holy Cross, which occupies a special place in medieval Armenian art and architecture and is a jewel for Turkey, as indicated by Turkish and foreign observers.

Known in English as the Cathedral Church of the Holy Cross, the church was in ruins and on the verge of collapse. However, by order of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the Ministry of Culture and Tourism started a restoration project in 2005 to preserve the historical identity of the church. The church has since become a hotspot for domestic and international tourists since being opened as a museum by the ministry after its restoration work was completed in 2007.

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Turkey’s Sacred Ruins

For souls in torment, your helpful guidebook might say, there’s no better destination than the holy sites of Turkey’s Hatay province. I rediscovered the area’s sacred legacy on a recent visit to the frontier between Turkey and Syria, some 35 years after I had lived briefly in Hatay as a boy mesmerized by the dreamy sensation of ancient time. My physician father roamed the hospitals of the province, a tendril of Turkish territory that juts into Syria along the Mediterranean. During his work trips, he often took me to see mysterious ruins.

This past June, I returned to Hatay to report on the border-crossing stories of refugees fleeing war-torn Syria. I stayed with other colleagues at a hotel in the little town of Harbiye, about six kilometers from Antioch en route to the mountainous border. Antioch is the provincial capital, famous for its spicy approach to Turkish food, for founding the earliest Christian churches, for the river Orontes threading like a ganglion of history along its length. Modern Antiochenes surprise visitors with their relaxed and mild secularism—no women in black veils here; lots of flesh and shapely clothing and fraternizing between the sexes.

A "satisfied" Bartholomew I hopes for the reopening of the Halki School

Bartholomew I, ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople, has expressed great satisfaction with the decision of Prime Minister Erdogan Tayep to return properties confiscated after 1936 to all non-Islamic minorities. At the same time, meeting the Turkish prime minister, he expressed the hope that there will be "further steps". Erdogan replied, "This is just the beginning."

The patriarch also strongly hopes in the return and the theological school of Halki to the Orthodox Church, and that the academy, which the Turkish government closed in 1971, will be re-opened.

Thursday, September 01, 2011

Tax-funded charter schools founded by Turkish Muslims are trying to practice but not preach

A sign outside the Albuquerque School of Excellence in New Mexico proclaims, "College ready, Career ready, Life ready." The ASE building is a former Safeway, freshly painted neon orange and yellow. Inside, Chinese dragons, colorful butterflies, and self-portraits adorn the bright blue, yellow, and red halls, remnants of a recent art show.

Many of the charter school's 214 K-8 students are members of minorities from the neighborhood, drawn by its academic rigor and focus on science and math. One of its eighth-graders won first place in the 2011 New Mexico Science and Engineering Fair. Last school year, ASE's first, included celebrations for Black History Month and Cinco de Mayo. It plans to add a high school and uses a science-oriented curriculum popular in Texas public schools.

ASE parents seem pleased. Lewanna Ramsey, the mom of an eighth-grader and a special-needs sixth-grader at ASE, says she appreciates principal Ahmet Cetinkaya's open-door policy. "At a public school," she says, "you hardly ever see the principal or other staff. Here, I'm always in Mr. Cetinkaya's office."

But there's a bit more to the story. ASE is tied to sympathizers of Fethullah Gulen, a charismatic Turkish Muslim cleric now living in rural Pennsylvania. "Gulen," according to Daniel Pipes of the Middle East Forum, "is probably the most subtle and capable Islamist now active." His millions of followers around the world promote his moderate brand of Islam partly through their businesses, cultural foundations, and media but primarily through schools and colleges—several hundred on five continents. Ask Cetinkaya about ASE's relationship to Gulen and he shifts in his chair and looks away. He and three of his teachers are from Turkey.

The schools have generated critical examination. A New York Times article in June detailed how the Harmony charters seem to favor local Turkish businessmen in awarding building contracts. While a large majority of Gulen charter staff and teachers are usually American, the administrators are usually Turkish. Every year the schools import several hundred male teachers from Turkey on H1-B temporary worker visas (684 in 2009, according to a Philadelphia Inquirer report), making them one of the largest users of such visas in the country.

Gulen administrators claim that quality science and math teachers are hard to find, but teachers unions and some parent groups find that hard to believe. The Oklahoman quoted Jenni White, president of Restore Oklahoma Public Education, asking in May, "If Oklahoma teachers are being laid off, why are we as Oklahoma taxpayers paying people from not even inside our country to come and teach our children?"

In the United States, Gulen-inspired charters are unlikely to promote Islam directly, according to an American businessman who lived in Turkey for 12 years. (WORLD agreed not to name him because he still owns a business and travels there.) Instead, he said, Gulenists try to make appreciative parents and students more accepting of Islam. The long-term approach, he said, is to "just practice Islam—we don't even have to preach—and people will realize the justice of our system and convert."

Many American evangelicals have become adept in criticizing and opposing militant Islam. The Gulen schools offer a new challenge: When Christians shirk from developing schools for low-income students, Gulen moves in.

Greeks in Istanbul Cry Tears of Joy for the Return of their Properties

Greeks in Istanbul welcomed Erdogan’s decision to return confiscated property to minorities, with tears of joy in their eyes.
As the representative of minority institutions under the General Directorate for Foundations and member of the Greek minority of Istanbul, Lakis Vingas, stated to Newsit; “yesterday was a historic day. Mr. Erdogan’s determination is one of a leader, as the issue was solved by a government decision and did not go through general assembly. This is evidence to Mr. Erdogan’s consistency in the progress of issues, faced by minorities here for many decades. We neither received a gift, nor compensation; we simply took back what belonged to us. This is justice and what we have been waiting for. We are now in the third phase of the return of minority properties and are very satisfied.
From now on, we should be mindful not only for the return of property, but also for the proper management and future course of the entire property. For us, for example, the return of the Galata School is very important. In addition, a large property we own in the Kantyli community, some Monasteries and other properties and of course cemeteries”.