The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) calls on the Turkish government to reopen the Greek Orthodox Theological School of Halki, which was closed 44 years ago this month when the government nationalized all private institutions of higher learning.
“Without the seminary, the Greek Orthodox community cannot educate in Turkey the next generation of clergy to lead their congregants in worship, observance, and practice,” said USCIRF Chairman Robert P. George. “The failure to reopen the Halki seminary is a stark example of the Turkish government’s failure to uphold its international obligations to protect and promote the freedom of religion or belief.”
The Turkish constitution, adopted in 1982, is based on the French model of laïcité (secularism). The constitution states that “there shall be no interference whatsoever by sacred religious feelings in state affairs and politics.” Consequently, religious communities – neither the Sunni Muslim majority nor minority communities – have full legal status, and all communities are subject to state control. Furthermore, under Turkish secularism, religious communities have limited rights to own and maintain places of worship or other properties, train and appoint religious clergy, and offer religious education.
In recent years, the Turkish government has taken some steps that have improved religious freedom conditions for religious communities. These reforms include: returning minority properties that were expropriated over decades, lifting the ban on Islamic headscarves in public and educational institutions, and revising public school religious textbooks. Turkey also is providing safe haven to more than two million Syrian refugees, many of whom are fleeing religious persecution and sectarian violence. However, the government over the past two years also has dramatically curtailed other human rights, including the freedoms of the press, expression, and assembly, with troubling implications for the freedom of religion or belief in the country.
“Turkey has demonstrated by its response to the Syrian refugee crisis that it can be a world leader in protecting the victims of religious oppression and sectarian violence. President Erdoğan, Prime Minister Davutoğlu, and the newly elected Parliament should demonstrate that same leadership at home by prioritizing freedom of religion or belief and all other internationally protected human rights,” said Chairman George. “Unconditionally reopening Halki seminary without delay would be one step in the right direction.”
In its 2015 Annual Report, USCIRF placed Turkey in its Tier 2 category because of its restrictions on freedom of religion or belief. For additional information and recommendations, click here to read USCIRF’s 2015 Annual Report chapter on Turkey.