The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom issues 2014 Annual Report; Returns Turkey to “Tier 2” (Watch List) Citing Serious Religious Freedom Violations
Washington, D.C. – The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), an independent federal advisory body of the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) created to monitor religious freedom abuses abroad, released its 2014 Annual Report which targets countries where particularly severe violations of religious freedom are tolerated or perpetrated. USCIRF announced the placement of 10 countries on its 2014 “Tier 2” list, a USCIRF designation for governments that engage in or tolerate violations that are serious, but which are not CPC-level violators. USCIRF urged increased U.S. government attention to these countries, which include Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Cuba, India, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Laos, Malaysia, Russia, and Turkey.
Key findings of this report, pertaining to the religious freedom issues surrounding the plight of the Ecumenical Patriarchate and other Christian and religious minorities, include:
The government limits all religious groups’ rights to own and maintain places of worship, train clergy, and offer religious education. This has been particularly detrimental to the smallest minority communities and their ability to transmit their faith to future generations.
Some communities were extremely disheartened by persistent rumors that the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul would be reopened as a mosque; the former church, which has been a museum since 1935, is a symbol of Christian history, legacy and acceptance to Turkey’s small Christian communities.
Despite the significant constitutional impediments to full religious freedom protections, the Turkish government has shown that some improvements, such as relating to property rights and religious dress, are possible without a new constitution as long as there is sufficient political will. Recognition of this dynamic in Turkey makes the government’s continued failure to follow through on the long promised reopening of the Halki Seminary, a disturbing indication of a lack of genuine will to resolve this longstanding religious freedom violation.
The Turkish government continues to require that only Turkish citizens can be members of the Greek Orthodox Church’s Holy Synod. Although the Prime Minister in 2010 approved dual citizenship for 25 Metropolitans, others were denied. The government’s role in deciding which individuals may be part of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate represents interference into their internal affairs. The government also has interfered in the selection process of the Armenian Patriarchate’s leadership, and denies religious minority communities the ability to train clergy in Turkey. The Greek Orthodox Theological School of Halki remains closed, as it has been since 1971, despite promises and public statements of support for its reopening by Prime Minister Erdogan and President Gül. The Armenian Orthodox community also lacks a seminary.
The Turkish government throughout its history has expropriated religious minority properties. Beginning in 2003 and especially since the issuance of a 2011 decree, the government established a process to return some properties or pay compensation when return is not possible. Since 2008, there has been an ongoing dispute over the Turkish government’s attempted seizure of some territory of the 1,600-year-old Mor Gabriel Monastery, the Syriac Patriarch’s residence from 1160 to 1932. In September 2013, the government announced that it would return Mor Gabriel to the appropriate Syriac Foundation and it has handed over the deed for 244,000 square meters (over 60 acres) of land. A case concerning an additional 320,000 square meters (nearly 80 acres) claimed by the community is pending before the European Court of Human Rights.
Pursuant to Turkish secularism, the government has long banned religious dress, including the wearing of headscarves, in state buildings, including public and private universities, the parliament, courts, and schools. In addition, under Turkish law, only the titular head of any religious group may wear religious garb in public facilities, although there were no reports that the government or local police uphold this law in practice.
Turkey has occupied nearly 1/3 of northern Cyprus since 1974. In the last year minority communities were denied access to their religious places of worship and cemeteries that are within the boundaries of Turkish military zones or bases.
As it engages Turkey as an important strategic partner, USCIRF recommends that the U.S. government, at the highest levels, should continue to raise religious freedom issues with Turkish government counterparts. Specifically, USCIRF recommends that the U.S. government should urge the Turkish government to:
Fulfill private and publicly stated promises that the Greek Orthodox Halki Seminary would be reopened, and permit other religious communities to open and operate their seminaries as well;
Permit religious communities to select and appoint their leadership in accordance with their internal guidelines and beliefs;
Ensure that, with respect to the northern part of the Republic of Cyprus, Turkish military authorities and Turkish-controlled local authorities end all restrictions on the access, use, and restoration of places of worship and cemeteries for religious minorities.