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23 February 2012

Religious liberty - Turkey

Religious liberty - Turkey

This week another step was taken in the process of rewriting Turkey's constitution. For the first time in the history of the Republic, parliament had officially invited minority groups to voice their demands and input into the constitution writing process. The spiritual leader of the world's Orthodox Christians, Patriarch Bartholomew I, said that Turkey's new constitution should grant equal rights to minorities in the country and safeguard religious freedoms.

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I met with the parliamentary subcommittee on Monday. He said: "A new Turkey is being born, and we don't want to be second class citizens anymore." He added: "We asked for freedom of religion and conscious, for freedom of worship." The report he presented to the subcommittee also demands funds for minority schools and places of worship.

In Turkey there are around 100,000 Christians out of a population on 73.6 million. It is a secular state, but restrictions from the government, social hostilities and nationalism are key sources of persecution towards Christians. It is currently ranked 31 on the 2012 World Watch List. Christians often have problems securing places to hold worship and train clergy and some churches have police officers present at services to protect churchgoers.

The annual Report on Human Rights Violations by the Association of Protestant Churches in Turkey last week showed some promising developments. Some school administrators are allowing non-Muslim students to opt out of state mandated Islamic education; and after a court order Turkish citizens are allowed to leave their religious affiliation off their state-issued ID cards. Despite this progress, the report also showed "the increase in the slanderous and misinformation-filled and subjective reporting with regard to Christians in 2011".

Christians in Turkey suffer attacks from other citizens, but also government officials. They can also be vilified in textbooks and the media. Compass Direct News reported that "being a Christian is often characterized in the news media as a negative thing". The report stated there is a "root of intolerance" in Turkish society towards non-Islamic faiths, the removal of this intolerance is essential for improvements to religious minorities. Reasoning behind Christian persecution ranges from those who question the 'Turkishness' of Christian nationals, to some who see Christians as spies out to destroy the country from within.

Alliance member Christian Solidarity Worldwide has been supporting the Association of Protestant Churches as they engage in the rewriting process. They suggest that to safeguard religious freedom, the new constitution should recognise Turkey's essential diversity and give legal recognition to all religious communities. While Turkey's national identity is constitutionally connected with Islam, religious minorities will be in danger of not being recognised as full citizens. A member of the legal committee for the Association said "change can happen in Turkey, it just needs to be a priority".