Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Endangered Species: Religious minorities in Turkey

In his recent visit to Turkey, German president Christian Wulff correctly stated that Christianity belongs to Turkey. In the Turkish city of Antakya, Jesus` devotees for the first time called themselves as Christians. Anatolia was the heartland of the Christian Byzantine Empire and millions of Christians and other religious minorities lived in the Ottoman Empire.

In light of this history, the situation of Christians and other religious minorities in Turkey today is alarming. Having suffered genocide, displacement and discrimination, the number of religious minorities from Christian and Jewish decent has diminished significantly. Today, only 1% of the Turkish population is Christian or Jewish constituting only 92.000 citizens of Armenian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox or Jewish belief. In addition, the Muslim minority of the 15 to 20 million Alevis in Turkey faces major impediments with regard to the exercise of their belief.

While Atatürk`s foundation of a modern Turkish nation is based on the principle of laicism, placing religion in the private sphere, the definition of the "Turkish" nation was always equated with a "Muslim" nation. Accordingly, devotees of an alien religion were considered as danger to national unity. Although the Treaty of Lausanne grants special legal minority status to "non-Muslim minorities" and even the Turkish Constitution enshrines freedom of belief, worship and prohibition of discrimination on religious grounds, these principles were invalidated by contradictory articles and the adoption of problematic laws, such as the law on foundations.

As a consequence, religious minorities in Turkey experience significant hurdles in exercising their religion: Up until today, churches do not have a legal status. They are considered as foundations, whose rights are strictly regulated by the General Directorate for Foundations. Despite of the amendments on the law of foundation, minority foundations still face problems in the acquisition of properties and the building of new churches. Many congregations, monastery Mor Gabriel being the most popular example, still struggle with unlawful expropriations. The religious affiliation is clearly stated in the I.D. card opening the floodgates to harassment by state officials and policemen. Furthermore, the prohibition of the training of priests by non-Turkish citizens accompanied with the closing of several seminaries makes it almost impossible to train young priests.


Friday, November 12, 2010

Turkey's top religious official dismissed

The head of Turkey's Religious Affairs Directorate has been abruptly dismissed, local media reported Thursday.
Ali Bardakoglu ran the body for seven years. He will be replaced by his deputy, Mehmet Gormez.
'Radical changes are about to happen in the directorate's structure. Bardakoglu was replaced in the scope of these changes,' State Minister for Religion Faruk Celik was quoted as saying by the daily Milliyet.
Although secular, Turkey is deeply involved in religious life, with the directorate - known as Diyanet - responsible for managing some 78,000 mosques and a bureaucracy that is exceeded only by the military and the education system in terms of size and budget.
The Diyanet plays perhaps the most important role in shaping Turkish religious life.
In recent years, it has introduced various innovations, such as female preachers and deputy imams and a project to update the Hadith - a collection of the words and deeds of the prophet Mohammed.