Thursday, October 17, 2013

Could Turkey’s Christians Wear Police Uniforms?

 Even though no such rule exists on the books, it so happens that not even one single non-Muslim army officer, policeman or judge exists in Turkey. Non-Muslims are absent not only from the security and judiciary establishment but from the public sector altogether. Why? Is it because of their small numbers?

Turkey’s non-Muslim population today is estimated at about 100,000. According to figures by the London-based Minority Rights Group International, it includes 23,000 Jews, 3,000 Greeks, 60,000 Armenians and 15,000 Syriacs. In addition, there are Turkish converts to Protestant Christianity, estimated to number between 3,000 and 5,000.

Could it be a coincidence that none of those 100,000-plus people are public servants? In an Aug. 8 article for Al-Monitor, I wrote about how non-Muslims are marked with secret codes in the birth registers. This practice became public knowledge by mere chance earlier this year when a woman, who applied to enroll her child in an Armenian school, received a reply from the Education Ministry which revealed that birth registration offices have been using ancestry codes to secretly mark citizens of Greek, Armenian, Jewish and Syriac origin.

In any other country, such revelation would have sparked a huge outcry and long occupied the public agenda, but in Turkey it merited only short-lived media coverage before being forgotten. The coding practice, in fact, provides an indirect explanation of why non-Muslims fail to become public servants in Turkey, since birth registration offices appear to keep records of ethnic and religious origins even after people change names or convert, almost like a permanent “criminal record.” The practice suggests that whenever a non-Muslim applies to become a police or army officer, the “secret” information in birth registries instantly flows to the related institutions.

The veto that non-Muslims face in the public sector came under the spotlight again this week through an intriguing incident. The spiritual leader of Turkey’s Syriacs, acting Patriarch Yusuf Cetin, gave an interview to the Milliyet daily, in which he questioned why “people of other faiths are not assigned posts in public administration, the military and the police.”

The directorate-general of police responded in a message on its official Twitter feed: “Mr. Yusuf Cetin, the Istanbul Metropolitan of the Syrian Orthodox Church, has made remarks asking why Syriac citizens are absent from the police department. All citizens of the Turkish Republic, regardless of religion, race and sect, are able to become police officers. We invite our Syriac citizens, too, to enter the exams of the police department and become police officers.”

The Hurriyet Daily News reported that representatives of Turkey’s non-Muslim communities greeted the message with skepticism. They stressed that the problem cannot be resolved with just an appeal and that the discrimination non-Muslims face in the public sector under unwritten rules cannot be eradicated overnight.

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