Monday, May 28, 2012

Muslims praying that historic museum in Turkey be turned into mosque

Thousands of devout Muslims prayed outside Turkey's historic Hagia Sophia museum on Saturday to protest a 1934 law that bars religious services at the former church and mosque.

Worshippers shouted, "Break the chains, let Hagia Sophia Mosque open," and "God is great" before kneeling in prayer as tourists looked on.

Turkey's secular laws prevent Muslims and Christians from formal worship within the 6th-century monument, the world's greatest cathedral for almost a millennium before invading Ottomans converted it into a mosque in the 15th century.

"Keeping Hagia Sophia Mosque closed is an insult to our mostly Muslim population of 75 million. It symbolises our ill-treatment by the West," Salih Turhan, head of the Anatolian Youth Association, which organised the event, told the crowd, whose male and female worshippers prayed separately according to Islamic custom.

The government has rejected requests from both Christians and Muslims to hold formal prayers at the site, historically and spiritually significant to adherents of both religions.

The rally's size and location signals more tolerance for religious expression under Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, whose party traces its roots to a banned Islamist movement.

His government has also allowed Christian worship at sites that were off-limits for decades, as it seeks to bring human rights in line with the European Union, which it aims to join.

Turhan told Reuters his group staged the prayers ahead of celebrations next week marking the 559th anniversary of the Ottoman Sultan Mehmet's conquest of Byzantine Constantinople.

"As the grandchildren of Mehmet the Conqueror, seeking the re-opening Hagia Sophia as a mosque is our legitimate right," Turhan said in an interview.

Worshippers refrained from entering the museum, one of Turkey's most-visited tourist destinations and whose famous dome is considered a triumph of Byzantine architecture.

Most Turks appear satisfied with it remaining a museum as a kind of compromise between its conflicting historic roles.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Turkish government hasn’t reopened Greek Orthodox seminary

The Turkish prime minister has promised to reopen the seminary. But it has not yet been reopened.

“Let me start by saying that we respect everyone’s faith and belief and we also believe that everyone should be free to exercise and practice their beliefs,” Gul said through an interpreter. “This is something we believe in, frankly and truly, the government believes in this. But there are some issues, problems, that need to be resolved and we’re taking some steps to resolve them.

“The issue of the seminary has to do with the constitution and the principle of secularism,” he said. “We have to treat all religions equally. And to find a solution to the seminary it was suggested to attach it to the department of theology under the Istanbul University, but this was not a suggestion that was accepted. This is something that we’re looking into.

“People of all faiths should be free to learn their faith and teach it, and I’m sure that with this work that is ongoing with the drawing up of the constitution, this is something that can be resolved,” Gul said.

I mentioned to him that there were once thousands and thousands of Greeks in Istanbul, that Greeks and Muslims had lived there together for centuries, but that in the last 100 years or so, under the secular Turkish state, that number has dwindled.

Does Gul see the number increasing or decreasing with the new promises of tolerance and acceptance of minority rights?

“We are aware of it,” Gul said. “We are in constant contact with our Orthodox citizens, with the patriarch and the leaders of the religious communities, and they are very pleased with the steps we’re taking.”

“When we were in the opposition, there were some who would describe us as radical and say that if we ever came into government we would take Turkey away from the West,” Gul said. “But I think these emerging countries get responsibility, they will act rationally.”

So far, with chaos on all her borders, Turkey has been acting rationally and well.

“Opening Halki would be seen so positively,” said Bishop Demetrios. “To talk of religious freedom, and then to demonstrate it to the world. That would tell the world that Turkey has truly changed.”

Friday, May 25, 2012

40 % of Turkish population does not want to live with the Christian neighbor

Today head of the Armenian science department of “Noravanq” educational foundation, expert on Turkey Alistakes Simavoryan and expert of the same foundation Vahram Hovyan met journalists and referred to the topic of religious intolerance against Christians in Turkey.
“The social inquiries in Turkey show that 40 % of the population does not want to live with the Christian neighbor. And 58 % of them does not want to live with Jew neighbor”, Simavoryan noted.  Expert of the “Noravanq” foundation Vahram Hovyan announced in his turn that the attacks and pressure against Christians are held both by the government and by the Turk extremists.

Protestant Church Lodges Complaint Against Journalist

In an incidence of slander reminiscent of the type of media articles that appeared before the 2007 Malatya killings, journalist Banu Avar spoke aggressively against the Protestant Community in Turkey at a book fair on May 20th in Kocaeli, Turkey.  In an interview at the fair, Avar stated, "There are more than 54,000 Protestant house churches in Turkey, of which you can find the greatest number in Izmit, Izmit was chosen as pilot project for this. . . .  They are working to make us all Protestant."

In response to this, the local Protestant community has lodged a complaint against Avar.  The actually number of Protestant Christians in all of Turkey is around 4 or 5 thousand, with the number of churches around 120.  Avar also made attempts to establish links between the Protestant community and a political conspiracy.  The leaders of the local Protestant Christian community are hoping to discourage this kind of discourse with the complaint.  In the past, these types of articles and media coverage have only served to encourage fear and hate crimes against minority Christians in Turkey.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Turkey To Make Religious Building Donation Tax-Deductible

Turkey is planning to make donations for the construction of religious buildings tax-deductible as part of a package of investment incentives. The measure, included in a draft law submitted to parliament in Ankara today, covers all places of worship built with official permission as well as religious education facilities such as Koran schools. Donors will be able to deduct contributions of as much as 10 percent of taxable income.

Turkey, with a population of about 75 million, has 82,000 mosques and another 35,000 at the planning stage, according to the Presidency of Religious Affairs.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Internet helps to spread Gospel in Turkey

Operation Mobilisation’s Bible Correspondence Course (BCC) in Turkey has seen its 50-year ministry transformed through the internet.
For 30 years, the BCC advertised its course through mail and door-to-door distribution. Then, in the early 1990s, the BCC began advertising in newspapers, which more than quadrupled the number of contacts. After launching the BCC’s first websites in the late 1990s, the number of applicants skyrocketed, especially after using GoogleAds to promote the websites. This past year, more than a quarter of a million unique visitors found BCC websites.
In addition to using the Internet to advertise the course specifically, OM in Turkey has used Facebook to reach people with the Good News. More than 32 million Turks have Facebook profiles, making Turkey the fifth largest user of Facebook internationally. The BCC’s Facebook page, titled, launched in 2010 with just eight fans. But in just a few months, the page had over 6,000 fans, and now the site is approaching 24,000 “likes” in a country where less than 5,000 people profess faith in Christ.

The case for privatizing religion in Turkey

The recent decision by the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government to privatize state theaters has caused a wide stir.

While I do believe the state should provide funds for the arts, the state employment of actors and management of theaters were not about the arts but state control of the public and cultural space. In fact, communist countries have always had a keen commitment to “supporting” the arts and to using them as an important vehicle to influence and control public imagination. Therefore, as painful it is for many in the industry who will lose their jobs, in the long run, the privatization of theaters will provide freedom and market competition necessary for better productions and performance by actors. There is, however, an elephant in the room -- a much larger, powerful state control mechanism: state regulation of religion. It is really no surprise that the newly founded Turkish Republic saw it vital to establish the Directorate of Religious Affairs and, through it, to regulate and manage the type of Islam it sought to enforce.

The directorate still consumes a giant slice of the state budget, employs all imams in the country and by and large still dictates particular readings of Islam. In the last few years, the official enforcement of a particular creed has been widely challenged and various groups who do not fit into that creed have argued for representation and funds from the directorate. However, these acts are not enough. The directorate must be decommissioned, just like state theaters.

There are two common worries regarding the decommissioning of the directorate. The first one comes from concerned secularist circles, which fear that an end to state regulation would open the floodgates of Islamism and all sorts of problems with religious groups. The second one comes from concerned conservative circles, which fear decommissioning the directorate would mean that clergymen and mosques would not receive funding to perform their duties and thus the practice of Islam would be harmed. As convincing as these concerns sound to their respective adherers, they are both wrong.

Religious Minorities and the New Turkish Constitution

Erdoğan caused a stir the other day by giving two speeches in which he called for “one state, one flag, one religion,” which is of course a phrase that does not give comfort to Turkey’s different groups of religious minorities. Hüseyn Çelik and Erdoğan himself both chalked it up as a slip of the tongue, and Erdoğan even called the criticism of him following the remark justified and urged people not to read anything into it, but it is curious that he said it on two separate occasions before two separate audiences. The opposition is going to try to leverage Erdoğan’s comments to raise concerns about his intentions, and the optic of Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu meeting with the heads of Turkey’s non-Muslim religious communities yesterday is bound to keep the story alive for a little longer.
I think it likely that it was a mistake and that a big deal should not be made of it, but it does raise the question of how the new constitution is going to deal with religious minorities in Turkey. It is one of the thornier issues that faces the commission charged with drafting the document, although it is also ironically in some ways one of the least pressing given Turkey’s enormous Muslim majority. The original Turkish constitution made no mention of religious minorities at all in an effort to create a new Turkish identity that would subsume all else, and while the AKP has fought for Muslim majority rights when it comes to things like headscarves, it has a more mixed record on religious minority property rights. Erdoğan’s blatant attempt to diminish Kılıçdaroğlu during the last election campaign by constantly bringing up his status as an Alevi was also not an encouraging sign.
There are three basic possibilities. The new constitution might skirt the issue of religion entirely, it might specifically guarantee religious minority rights, or it might enshrine Islam as the sole official religion of Turkey. Certainly Erdoğan’s comments increase fears that this last option is being considered, but I think it to be highly unlikely. The second option has its pitfalls as well though since it touches upon the issue of enumerated rights vs. unenumerated rights; in other words, can we assume that if a specific right is left out that it was done so on purpose and therefore is not meant to exist, or do we assume that any list of rights provided for in the constitution is not an exhaustive list? If rights are specifically provided for, does that mean that only those rights exist and no others? U.S. constitutional law has run into this problem since ratification, and it might be even thornier in Turkey given that Turkish official recognition of only three minority religions – Greek Orthodoxy, Armenian Apostolic Christianity, and Judaism – has historically led to real problems for Alevis, Shia, and others. Whatever ends up happening, it bears close watching even though it does not have the potential to lead to a complete breakdown of the constitutional process like the issues of a presidential vs. parliamentary system or Turkish identity.

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Slip-of-tongue excuse for ‘1 religion’ remark

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s remarks on “one religion” for Turkey were a slip of the tongue in his apparent intention to emphasize the common Muslim faith of Turks and Kurds, a senior official of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has said. Erdoğan’s controversial comments had sparked concerns that he was targeting the secular system with his statements. 

“Democratic and secular countries cannot have one religion. Our attitude towards [non-Muslim] minorities is evident. As someone who has known the prime minister for years, I can say that this was a slip of the tongue,” AKP deputy chairman Hüseyin Çelik told daily Radikal, stressing that the party’s statute rejected “ethnic, religious and regional nationalism.”

Erdoğan made the controversial remarks in two separate speeches over the weekend as part of comments on the Kurdish conflict. Addressing Kurds, he said that he had never advocated one language for Turkey but “one nation, one state, one flag and one religion.” 

Çelik suggested that Erdoğan might have intended to emphasize the common religion of Islam that Turks and Kurds share, in the face of “attempts by Turkish and Kurdish chauvinists to trace their origins to Shamanism and Zoroastrianism.” The prime minister “may have meant to say that a common faith is one of the main reasons that no ethnic strife has erupted in this country despite all the efforts of Turkish and Kurdish chauvinists,” he said.

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

New survey points to a growing Turkish middle class and conservative religious values

Most members of Turkey’s middle class adhere to conservative religious values and are very fond of shopping in malls, according to a recent survey conducted by a polling company.

Some 85 percent of Turkey’s middle-classes find peace in their faith in God, while 67 percent of them indicate that their lives are guided by their religious beliefs, the survey conducted by IPSOS KMG found.

The poll’s definition of middle-class refers to individuals who are able to spend more than $10 a day in terms of purchasing power parity, as defined by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). 

Some 72 percent of those surveyed said they fulfilled the requirements of their religion, while 67 percent said they carefully watched their expenditure, despite the fact that they spend a lot of time at malls. Another 67 percent said they refrained from buying things they did not need.

According to the above definition, the middle-class constitutes about 43.5 million people in Turkey, corresponding to 59 percent of its nearly 75 million-strong population.