EU pressures Turkey to boost rights for non-Muslims

November 7, 2007

Turkey has signalled it may soon amend a free speech law that has been a stumbling block in its drive to join the European Union. Justice Minister Mehmet Ali Sahin said this on Tuesday soon after the European Commission issued its annual progress report on Ankara’s membership bid. The interesting angle here for this blog is that the EU criticism singled out not only the much-criticised law on “insulting Turkishness” but also current restrictions on freedom of religion.

Demonstrator wrapped in the Turkish flag at a Brussels protest against the Kurdish PKK, Nov. 3, 2007Releasing the report, Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn noted democracy had prevailed over military meddling in Turkish politics this year. “The new momentum should now be used to relaunch the reforms to improve fundamental freedoms, particularly the freedom of expression and religious freedom, so that they prevail in all corners of the country and in all walks of life,” he said (my emphasis).

The report gave Turkey a mixed review concerning religion. “As concerns freedom of religion, freedom of worship continues to be generally guaranteed,” it wrote. But it added: “Overall, the environment as regards freedom of religion has not been conducive to the full respect of this right in practice. A legal framework has yet to be established in line with the European Convention on Human Rights so that all religious communities can function without undue constraints. No real progress can be reported on the major difficulties encountered by the Alevis and non-Muslim religious communities.”

The ex-Islamist AK Party governing Turkey has argued for more religious freedom in general, seeing this as a way for Muslims to have more rights in the country’s rigidly secularist system. AK leaders have said these freedoms should also apply to the non-Muslim minorities there. But it takes time to translate that into practice. Several European governments are paying particular attention to progress on the religious freedom front, so the pressure is on Ankara to introduce reforms.

Other points in the report include:

— “The Association for Support of Jehovah’s Witnesses has received a final decision from the Turkish authorities confirming that the association is legally registered.”

— “On 19 June, the Ministry of Interior issued a Circular on freedom of religion of non-Muslim Turkish citizens. The Circular acknowledges that there has been an increase in individual crimes against non-Muslim citizens and their places of worship. It requests the governors of all provinces to take the necessary measures to prevent such incidents from happening again and to enhance tolerance towards individuals with different religion and beliefs.”

— “Attacks against clergy and places of worship of non-Muslim communities have
been reported. Missionaries have been portrayed in the media or by the authorities as a threat to the integrity of the country and non-Muslim minorities as not being an integral part of Turkish society. To date, use of language that might incite hatred against non-Muslim minorities has been left unpunished.”

— “Non-Muslim religious communities – as organised structures of religious groups – continue to face problems such as lack of legal personality and restricted property rights. These communities have also encountered problems with the management of their foundations and ith recovering property by judicial means.”

— “Several churches ave not been able to register their places of worship. Alevis face difficulties with opening their places of worship (Cem houses or “Cemevi”). Cem houses are not recognised as places of worship and receive no funding from the authorities.

Empty classroom at the Orthodox Halki seminary, Sept. 2006— The Halki (Heybeliada) Greek Orthodox seminary remains closed.”

— “The Ecumenical Patriarch is not free to use the ecclesiastical title Ecumenical on all
occasions. In June 2007, the Court of Cassation ruled on a case against the Holy Synod of the Ecumenical Patriarchate … This decision potentially creates further difficulties to the Patriarchate and to other non-Muslim religious communities in the exercise of their rights guaranteed under the European Convention of Human Rights.”

— “In December 2006, 122 foreign clergy were working in Turkey under the Bylaw on the Law on Work Permits for Foreigners. However, there are still cases reported of foreign clergy who wish to work in Turkey facing difficulties and whose right to equal treatment with Turkish nationals is not ensured.”

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