Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Who Owns Turkey’s Mosques?

Good article discussing the complex situation religious institutions face with regards to property ownership:

The Turkish Court of Cassation, a high court before which ordinary court decisions can be appealed, has recently engaged in an interesting discussion in connection with cases of thefts from mosques. The discussion was on the question whether the mosques are public property or just places of worship. The qualification of the crime would be changed according to the legal qualification of the mosques. The high court finally concluded that mosques are just places of worship.

This discussion is proof that there is confusion in even the minds of minds about the status of mosques in Turkey. This is because the state’s control of religion in Turkey is so strict that the status of mosques may appear controversial. All imams in Turkey are civil servants, and they are appointed to these mosques by the Religious Affairs Directorate, which is operating under the authority of the prime minister's office.

The high court finally decided that mosques are places of worship, not public property. But it did not provide an answer to who are the owners of Turkey’s 80,000 mosques. These mosques are governed by civil servants appointed by the Religious Affairs Directorate, with some of the mosques belonging to foundations and associations, while others belong to the treasury.
Turkey does not recognize religious communities, neither grants legal personality to their religious institutions. In other words, mosques and churches are not recognized as such. Namely, mosques are the mosques of the Religious Affairs Directorate or they belong to an association or foundation. Mosques, churches and their congregations are not recognized as legal entities. Instead, the Religious Affairs Directorate, foundations and associations represent them legally.

There is a tremendous gap in the field of religious affairs. Turkey, to be a democratic country, must recognize religious communities and their institutions in its constitutions and laws. Then, it must pass a law concerning religious institutions that will govern the relations and needs of religious groups. This law should further regulate such matters like establishing places of worship, recruiting staff, training clerics, collecting donations, holding meetings and ceremonies, running training courses, acquiring property and building care facilities for the elderly. The criteria for recognizing places of worship should be objective, like the number of attendants; it should not be up to the state to decide whether a cemevi or Buddhist temple is a place of worship or not. Likewise, Turkey should stop meddling with the internal affairs of the patriarchates of non-Muslims, and constitutional and legal guarantees should be provided to these institutions.

In short, when it comes to freedom of religion, Turkey has a very long way to go.
Read more: http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2013/05/turkey-mosque-ownership.html#ixzz2Tv0Agq5H

Sunday, May 05, 2013

Religious freedom in ‘Islamist’ Turkey

The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), a body created by the American Congress, has just launched its annual report.

“For the last several years Turkey has implemented a number of reforms to begin to rectify many of the longstanding restrictions on the country’s diverse religious communities. These new policies and initiatives, which relate to returning expropriated minority properties, loosening the ban on headscarves, and issues related to textbook reforms and increased educational opportunities, among others, indicate that Turkey is moving in a positive direction with regard to religious freedom.”

It is notable that the report also contrasts this “positive direction” of Turkey with the older attitude:

“In the name of Turkish secularism, the government has long restricted religious minority communities’ ability to own, maintain, and transfer both communal and individual property, to control internal governance, and to train clergy. However, the AK [Justice and Development] Party recently has begun to reverse many of these restrictive policies, actions which the minorities generally view as positive.”

The report goes into detail and notes how the ancient regime (under Atatürk in the ‘30s, and “Atatürkist” generals in the ‘70s) had oppressed minorities:

“For many years, successive Turkish governments expropriated properties from religious minority and Muslim communities, including schools, businesses, hospitals, orphanages, and cemeteries. Most of the confiscations occurred during three distinct periods of time: first, in 1936, with the passage of the Foundations Law; second, in 1971, when the Private University Law required that all private colleges (including theological schools) be affiliated with state-run-universities; and third, in 1974, when non-Muslim communities were forbidden from owning properties other than those registered in 1936.”

“However,” the report adds, “in recent years other religious groups, including Protestants and Roman Catholics, have been permitted to register foundations.”

The report is right to note that there still are problems in Turkey, issues such as rightful demands of the Alevis, the much-delayed re-opening of the Halki Seminary of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, or societal intolerance to diversity. The struggle for freedom should go on, in other words. It just should not be misunderstood.