The “Monitoring Report on the Right to Freedom of Religion or Belief in Turkey (July 2014 – June 2015)” was published by the Norwegian Helsinki Committee (NHC) Freedom of Belief Initiative (İÖG) on 22 October 2015.
Old and New Problems
There are numerous old and new problems related to the exercise of freedom of religion or belief in Turkey that still await solutions. For years, including during recent attempts to draft a new constitution, different religious or belief groups have expressed demands that political actors find permanent solutions to their problems in a participatory and inclusive way. International human rights protection mechanisms as well as Turkish court judgments have pointed to the need for Turkish legislation and practice to be brought into harmony with human rights standards on freedom of religion or belief. The post-election government will face the task of ensuring a true change for the better in this regard.
The myriad of problems that exist range from those expressed by religious or belief groups themselves to those pointed out by Turkish and international courts. Mandatory courses in “Religious Culture and Ethics” (RCE) for schoolchildren, conscientious objection to military service, the slot for religion on national identification cards, the failure to recognize cemevis as official places of worship, and the state’s general lack of impartiality when it comes to religious beliefs are just a few examples of such problems. The decisions passed by the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) with regard to freedom of religion or belief are not being enforced. These issues, and many like them, continue to be the subject of individual appeals to the Turkish Constitutional Court. The government should take measures to solve such problems without delay.
There are a number of positive steps that have been taken in recent years, including the amendment of the Law on Foundations and other efforts to protect the rights of non-Muslim communities or to remedy past injustices, and this should continue. Further necessary measures include, first, the passage of a new law to replace Provisional Article 11 of the Law on Foundations, the narrow scope of which prevented certain properties from being returned to their owners, and second, the immediate adoption of a new Regulation of the Election of Board Members of Community Foundations.
Freedom of Expression and Freedom of Religion or Belief
At the point where freedom of expression meets freedom of religion or belief, there has been cause for concern, including the criminal prosecutions directed at the Association for Atheism and its members as well as hate speech directed at Christians and Jews. Incidents of hate speech are not isolated events, but have shown continuity over a long span of time. In cases brought before the court, officials should not treat preservation of the majority belief system or its followers as an absolute priority, but should instead make decisions in accordance with Article 216(3) of the Turkish Penal Code and the jurisprudence set by the ECtHR. Additionally, officials should consider these issues as multifaceted and not resort immediately to restrictions on freedom of speech unless such measures are absolutely necessary.
Freedom of Religion or Belief in Education
The changes, which have been made to the education system over the last several years, require a more comprehensive analysis and amendment process when it comes to protecting freedom of religion or belief in schools. In addition to mandatory RCE classes – the issue which has been most widely discussed since it was brought before the ECtHR – the problems of freedom of religion or belief and state impartiality come up with equal frequency in optional religious education classes. The facts that children exempted from RCE classes are at a disadvantage when it comes to the standardized high-school entrance exam (TEOG), that students can be automatically placed in “imam-hatip” religious training schools against their wishes, and that schools do not create a sufficient atmosphere for pluralism of religions or beliefs all show that there is a long way to go in protecting the right to freedom of religion or belief for children, parents, and teachers in the education system.
There is a need for reform, too, in the distribution of public financial resources among religious or belief groups within a framework of equality and impartiality. This has been a problem since the foundation of the Republic. Currently, religious services are treated as a public service, and they are financed from the general budget, particularly through the funds appropriated to the Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet İşleri Bakanlığı). Thus, those faith-based groups which do not fall under the rubric of the Directorate of Religious Affairs are unable to benefit from such financing, outside of some symbolic contributions like the payment of electric bills for certain places of worship. If a budget is to be set aside for religious services using public resources, a new model must be developed using a process of comprehensive consultation that will be able to share resources in a way that will benefit the religious or belief services of all belief communities.
“New Government Must Resume Reform”
To conclude, the need for sweeping reforms to solve Turkey’s old and new problems of freedom of religion or belief is clear. The new AK party government, taking power after the 1 November 2015 Parliamentary elections, should be aware of the need for reform and make changes to both the letter and practice of the law in a way that is inclusive, transparent, and places human rights norms at the center. Otherwise, it is not difficult to predict that various religious or belief communities, so negatively affected by the extant restrictions and discrimination, will become ever more vulnerable as they continue to face their struggle to survive.
The monitoring report was written by Dr. Mine Yıldırım, Head of the Freedom of Belief Initiative in Turkey. You can reach her at email@example.com or 0533 338 29 61.