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NHC Freedom of Belief Initiative’s submission to the CoM on the Zengin group of cases on compulsory religion courses in Turkey

The Norwegian Helsinki Committee Freedom of Belief Initiative made a submission to the Council of Europe Committee of Ministers on December 21 2018 under Rule 9.2 of the Rules of the Committee of Ministers for the supervision of the execution of judgments. The Turkish Government has not responded to the submission in the time allowed before the submission is made public. The Director of the Freedom of Belief Initiative, Dr. Mine Yıldırım said, “We sent the submission to the Ministry of Justice at the same time we sent it to the Committee of Ministers. Open communication and cooperation is an integral part of our project. We hope that we will have a chance to work together with the authorities to bring Turkish legislation and practice in line with international human rights law. So far we have not received any response”.

This submission, which has been published on the Committee of Ministers website , aims to provide information on the status of the general measures that the Turkish Government has taken for the effective enforcement of the Zengin group of cases and their compatibility with the European Convention on Human Rights.

Zengin Group of Cases and Findings of the ECtHR

The Zengin Group of cases comprises of two ECtHR judgments:  Hasan and Eylem Zengin v. Turkey and Mansur Yalçın and Others v. Turkey (hereafter, Zengin group of cases).[2]  In both cases the applicants who say that they are of the Alevi faith claimed that the compulsory Religious Culture and Ethics (RCE, hereafter) courses that are taught in Turkey’s middle and high schools are in violation of their rights under the second part of Article 2 of Protocol I of the European Convention of Human Rights. The ECtHR had found that Turkey has violated the right to education that is protected under Article 2 of Protocol I of the ECHR in both cases.

General Measures

In its judgments the ECtHR, has provided a number of general measures that the Turkish Government would need to take in order to prevent similar violations from happening:

  • bringing the Turkish educational system and domestic legislation into conformity with the Convention  (Hasan and Eylem Zengin v. Turkey, para. 84)
  • make the necessary means available without delay, effective exemption mechanism and without pupils’ parents being obliged to disclose their religious or philosophical convictions in order to make use of them  (Mansur Yalçın and Others v. Turkey para. 76 and 77 and 84) 

Government Response

On 21 December 2015 the Turkish Government has informed the Committee of Ministers  that:

As implementation of the ECtHR judgment in question requires an assessment with broad participation, a Working Group will be established with broad participation, which will issue an advisory decision in this respect. […]  The members of the Working Group will have been determined until the end of2015, and the studies will have been started until the end of March 2016. It is planned that the Working Group will complete its studies, by examining implementation of other countries, until the end of 2016 at the latest. The report of the Working Group will be submitted to the Ministry of National Education in order to take the necessary decisions in terms of execution of the judgment finding a violation.

Action Plan Implementation

While, in the Action Plan it was expressed that “an assessment with broad participation” will be made this has not been the case. The establishment and the work of the Working Group has been a process that has been carried out with a lack of transparency. To date, the composition of the working group, their meetings, findings and report (if there is one) has not been made public.

New Curricula & Books

On 21 July 2017, the Ministry of National Education communicated the draft of its new middle (grades 4-8) and high-school (grades 9-12) program for the Religious Culture and Ethics lessons. The window for providing input on the draft program has been extremely short (from 21 July – 31 July 2017).

The RCE course’ new program included a number of positive changes:

  • There is more extensive content on the Alevi faith compared to the previous program. Other religions, such as Judaism, Christianity, Eastern religions are explored in separate chapters.  
  • The new program avoids the usage of the terms “our religion”, “our prophet”, “our holy book the Quran” which is reflective of teaching religion from within is an important accomplishment of the new program. 

Why the Measures Fail to Comply with ECHR standards

Significant shortcomings, however, continue to exist:

  • The Sunni Islamic perspective of the program continues to dominate the program, still amounting to religious instruction as opposed to teaching about religions.
  • The teaching on atheism, agnosticism and deism is presented under “Other” Approaches” and addressed with Islamic apologetics, i.e. students are presented with Islamic responses to these views.
  • One of the aims of the program is that students embrace “national values” and these are not drawn in a way representing the religious and other diversity in Turkey.
  • The Turkish education system still does not contain a non-discriminatory exemption mechanism. Only Christian and Jewish students are the only students who can be exempted as long as they prove their religious affiliation.
  • Additionally, students who are exempted from the RCE course are subject to unequal conditions in the general test that all students take to enter high-school.

In our submission we recommend that:

– The Zengin group of cases be brought under enhanced supervision. There are two reasons for this. First, the issues that gave rise to the judgments are rooted in a structural problem affecting potentially thousands of students and parents. Second, though it has been 14 years since the Hasan and Eylem v Turkey judgment, the Government has not taken the necessary effective steps;

– The Government to be asked the following:

a) to make the Working Group on the implementation of these judgments open and transparent and widely inclusive;

b) to bring the Turkish educational system and domestic legislation into conformity with The Convention – in particular, by remedying the shortcomings in the current arrangements that are in the numbered list above.

c) to take steps to implement non-discriminatory exemption.


[1] For more on the project see www.inancozgurlugugirisimi.org .

[2] ECtHR, Hasan and Eylem Zengin v. Turkey, Application no. 1448/04, 9 October 2007 and ECtHR, Mansur Yalçın and Others v. Turkey, Application no. 21163/11, 16 September 2014.