Thursday, October 13, 2005

Is there religious freedom in Turkey?

"Go to any mosque or church in Turkey and you will see people worshipping. So clearly some religious freedom exists. Yet serious problems persist. Religious communities are not allowed to organise themselves as they choose. Individual religious freedom exists up to a point. For example, you are entitled by law to change your religion and to have the change recorded on your identity documents, but people who have done so have faced hostility from fellow-citizens. As soon as a religious community wants to organise itself, problems arise. This holds just as much for Muslims as for communities of other faiths.

Religious meetings and services without authorisation remain illegal, though it remains unclear in law what constitutes legal and illegal worship. The Ottoman millet system recognised some religious minorities and the 1923 Lausanne Treaty spoke vaguely of religious minority rights without naming them, but the Turkish authorities interpret this to exclude communities such as the Roman Catholics, Syriac Orthodox and Lutherans, even though these communities have found ways to function. Protestant Christian churches functioning quietly in non-recognised buildings are generally tolerated, but Muslims gathering outside an approved mosque are viewed as a threat to the state and police will raid them.

It is not possible for most Protestant Christian churches to be recognised as churches under current Turkish law. But in one bizarre case, a German Christian church was recognised in Antalya, but only by calling itself a "chapel" not a "church." Most Evangelical Protestant churches in Turkey do not meet in private homes, but in rented facilities such as office buildings or other non-residential buildings. These can be fairly large."

The government indicated to Protestant churches that individuals cannot ask for buildings to be designated as a place of worship, but individual congregations should try to get recognition as a legal personality first (as a "Dernek" or society) and then try to get their meeting place designated as a place of worship. At least two Protestant churches are now trying this route.

There are currently two Protestant churches that are legally recognised by the Turkish state, one of which is in Istanbul. It was recognised as a "Vakf" (charitable foundation) several years ago, after a long court battle, making it a legal entity. Several weeks ago, they finally had their building officially designated as a place of worship. The second example is the Protestant church in Diyarbakir, which has legal recognition as a house of worship under the Ministry of Culture, as a heritage site."

"All religious communities are under state surveillance, with religious minorities facing the closest scrutiny. Christian leaders know they are listened in to and their telephones are tapped. Police visit individual Christian churches to ask who attends, which foreigners have visited, what they discussed. They are particularly interested in which Turkish citizens attend."

"You have to be very courageous to set up a Protestant church in remote areas, as pastor Ahmet Guvener found in Diyarbakir. Problems can come from neighbours and from the authorities. Even if not working hand in hand, neighbours and officials share the same hostility. They cannot understand why anyone would convert to Christianity. People are not upset seeing old Christian churches – Syriac Orthodox and other Christian churches have always existed in Anatolia – but seeing a new Protestant church, even when housed in a shop or private flat, arouses hostility."
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