Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Turkish Public Education System to Offer Class in Christianity for First Time

The Turkish education system's mandatory religion classes are not fair to students who do not follow the country's majority Sunni Islam and it must amend its policies, according to a recent verdict of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), reports World Watch Monitor.

As Turkey is a signatory of the European Convention on Human Rights, the ECHR decision is binding.

Religion classes, starting in elementary schools, are according to the Turkish Constitution to be neutral lessons on religion, but critics say they impose Sunni Muslim rituals in class that many Turks - including non-Sunni Muslims, Christians, Jews and atheists - don't espouse.

Turkey is a secular Muslim state, with almost 97% of the population nominally Muslim.

While Sunni Muslims represent about 70-80%, about 15-25% of the 75 million population are Alevi, a mystical school of Shia Islamic theology. This makes them the country's largest religious minority, though they are not recognized as such.

Turkey insists that their differences are cultural, and thus does not grant them exemption from religion classes.

However, in September the ECHR ordered Turkey to allow students to be exempt from classes when their parents request it, without them having to disclose their religious beliefs.

Then on Oct. 9 the Education Minister Nabi Avci announced that Turkish schools will soon offer an elective in Christianity. However, currently Christians and Jews are in fact exempt from the compulsory courses offered from fourth grade, age 9, and throughout high school. By conservative estimates there are under 100,000 Christians in Turkey.

Religious freedoms expert, Mine Yildirim, of the Norwegian Helsinki Committee (NHC) for Human Rights says that this announcement, though a welcome move towards diversity and inclusion, seems to entirely miss the point of the European Court's verdict.

"Adding Christianity as an optional course does not address any of the outstanding and important freedom of religion or belief problems in the education system," Yildirim told World Watch Monitor. Yildirim is the project head of the NHC Freedom of Belief Initiative for Turkey.

Though the decision of the ECHR is binding on Turkey, its top leaders brushed off the court ruling, provoking criticism and protests. Prime Minister Davutoglu defended the Islamic religion curriculum saying "it is a requirement for an atheist to know about religious culture, just like I should know about Marxism even though I'm not a Marxist," Turkish newspaper Today's Zaman reported.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan criticized the ECHR ruling calling it wrong and saying drug use, violence and racism will spread if the classes on religion are put to an end. "If compulsory courses on religion are challenged, why do they complain about drugs or terrorism?" he said, according to Today's Zaman.