Turkey's Lack of Religious Liberty

It's Been a Difficult Year for Christians

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By Father John Flynn, LC



ROME, DEC. 20, 2009 (Zenit.org).- It’s been another difficult year for Christians in Turkey and it is finishing just as it began, with problems. Early in December, three Muslims entered the Meryem Ana Church, a Syriac Orthodox church in Diyarbakir, and confronted the Reverend Yusuf Akbulut, according to a Dec. 15 report by Compass Direct News, an agency specializing in reporting on religious persecution.

They told the priest that that unless the bell tower was destroyed in one week, they would kill him. The Muslims were apparently acting in reaction to the recent referendum in Switzerland, which banned the construction of new minarets for mosques.

According to the report Meryem Ana is more than 250 years old and is one of a handful of churches that serve the Syriac community in Turkey.

The Syriacs are an ethnic and religious minority in Turkey and were one of the first groups of people to accept Christianity, said the article by Compass News Direct.

The year had started badly, with a land dispute involving one of the world’s oldest Christian monasteries, reported Reuters, Jan. 21. The fifth-century Syriac monastery Mor Gabriel is located in Midyat, a village near the border with Syria.

"This is our land. We have been here for more than 1,600 years," said Kuryakos Ergun, head of the Mor Gabriel Foundation, according to the report.

Problems began when Turkish government officials redrew the boundaries around Mor Gabriel and the surrounding villages in 2008 as part of work to update a land registry.

According to the monks, the new boundaries take away from them large plots of land the monastery has owned for centuries. It also designates part of the monastery's land as public forest.

Fleeing

According to Reuters, there were 250,000 Syriacs when Ataturk founded Turkey after World War I. Today they number only 20,000, with many having left the country to escape persecution.

The Wall Street Journal published a lengthy article on the dispute over the monastery property on March 7. The article pointed out that the dispute comes at a critical moment in Turkey’s long-standing attempt to be accepted as a member of the European Union.

The monastery’s Bishop Timotheus Samuel Aktas presides over a dwindling community, made up of only 3 monks and 14 nuns. Locally, there are around 3,000 Syriacs.

The monastery, founded in 397, has a great symbolic importance, the article explained and is considered by Syriacs to be a sort of "second Jerusalem."

The battles are still continuing in the courts and, in another link with events in Switzerland, the Federal Council of Switzerland recently adopted a motion in support of the monastery in Turkey.

According to a Dec. 8 report by the Assyrian International News Agency the motion states:

"The Federal Council is to be asked to intervene with the Turkish government to ensure that the ownership of the Syriac Monasteries in southeast of Turkey continue to be guaranteed, and that the minority rights of Assyrians is respected according to the Copenhagen criteria."

The Copenhagen criteria refer to a series of principles that a country seeking to join the European Union, as Turkey is currently doing, must respect. One of them involves respect for human rights and the protection of minorities.

Accusations

Other instances of intolerance punctuated the life of Christians in Turkey during the past 12 months. On Oct. 16 Compass Direct News reported on the trial of two Christians, accused of having insulted Islam.

Defense Attorney Haydar Polat said the trial was a scandal, pointing to the fact that in proceedings three of the witnesses for the prosecution admitted they did not even know the two Christians on trial.

Hakan Tastan and Turan Topal were arrested in October 2006 following charges that they had slandered Turkishness and Islam while talking about their faith with three young men in Silivri, a town about an hour’s drive west of Istanbul. They could be jailed for up to 2 years if found guilty of the charges.

The matter is still not over, with proceedings adjourned until Jan. 28, 2010, due to the court having repeated its summons to three more prosecution witnesses who failed to appear at the hearing.

Then, on Dec. 4 Compass Direct News published a report on a survey that showed more than half of the population of Turkey opposes members of other religions holding meetings or publishing materials to explain their faith.

The survey also found that almost 40% of the population of Turkey said they had "very negative" or "negative" views of Christians.

The survey, carried out in 2008, was part of a study commissioned by the International Social Survey Program, a 45-nation academic group that conducts polls and research about social and political issues.

Overview

Forum 18, a Norwegian-based human rights group, published on Nov. 27 a survey of religious freedom in Turkey. The group takes its name from Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which declares that everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.

Overall, the study concluded: “that the country continues to see serious violations of international human rights standards on freedom of religion or belief.”

Turkey has not given recognition to religious communities in their own right as independent communities with full legal status -- such as the right to own places of worship and the legal protection religious communities normally have in states under the rule of law, according to Forum 18.

Moreover, the survey observed that Christians have been the object of a series of violent attacks and murders in recent years.

The government, the study explained, remains committed to Mustafa Kemal Atatürk's "secularism." This involves not only state control of Islam, but also restrictions on the ability of non-Muslims and Muslims outside state control to exercise freedom of religion or belief.

Communities as diverse as Alevi Muslims, Catholics, Greek Orthodox, Protestants, and the Syrian Orthodox Church have seen no significant progress in resolving property problems,
the study added.

In fact, even recognized religious communities cannot themselves own properties such as places of worship.

It is virtually impossible to find people from non-Muslim backgrounds in high-level civil servant positions and impossible in senior ranks in the military, the study continued.

Intolerance

Forum 18 listed a number of deadly attacks on Christians in recent years: The murder of Father Andrea Santoro, a Catholic priest in 2006; the killing of two ethnic Turkish Protestants, Necati Aydin and Ugur Yuksel, and a German, Tilmann Geske in Malatya in 2007. Then, in July 2009 a Catholic German businessman engaged to an ethnic Turk, Gregor Kerkeling, was murdered by a mentally disturbed young man for being a Christian.

Among the causes of this intolerance the study cited the habitual disinformation and defamation against Christians, both in public discourse as well as in the media. As well, intolerance is actively promoted within the school curriculum.

The report concluded by saying that the serious problems with the lack of religious freedom in Turkey casts serious doubts about whether the country is really committed to universal human rights for all.

Of course Turkey is not alone in limiting religious freedom. On Wednesday a report titled: “Global Restrictions on Religion,” was published by the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion and Public Life.

If found that 64 nations -- about one-third of the countries in the world -- have high or very high restrictions on religion. Moreover, because some of the most restrictive countries are very populous, nearly 70% of the world's 6.8 billion people live in countries with high restrictions on religion, the brunt of which often falls on religious minorities. A fact worth meditating on, and praying about, as we celebrate the birth of the child Jesus.