Freedom of religion or belief for followers of all beliefs and none – both minorities and the Islamic majority – remains key to the success of Turkey’s democratisation process. While selective reforms provide occasional improvements, they lag far behind providing a holistic approach to protecting the right to freedom of religion or belief. The recent Reform Package also failed to address fundamental problems in this field, disappointing followers of beliefs and human rights defenders. The Norwegian Helsinki Committee: Freedom of Belief Initiative’s (NHC IOG) monitoring project aims the review legislative and practical developments related to the protection of freedom of religion or belief systematically. This provides objective information and enables the identification of patterns and gaps to seek corrective action. The NHC IOG Report, written by Mine Yıldırım, finds that despite Turkey’s international human rights obligations, “drastic steps need to be taken and they should be implemented decisively for everybody’s freedom of thought, religion or belief to be protected in a way compatible with at least the minimum standards of international human rights law”. Dilek Kurban, who evaluates the findings of the Report in the Preface, emphasises that “since the foundation of the Republic, the state has decided who worships where and under what conditions; which religions and strands within Islam are legal and legitimate; what the religious officials and pious individuals are allowed to wear and where; where, by whom and the ways in which religious education is provided. The state continues to make these decisions.” The NHC IOG Report identifies five challenges where major reform is needed:
- Turkey needs to protect the right to freedom of religion or belief with all of its components as prescribed by international law. Currently, the right to conscientious objection and the right to manifest religion or belief in teaching by way of establishing educational institutions is not protected. Other rights, although protected in legislation, are not effectively ensured in practice.
- Turkey struggles to comply with the principle of neutrality in its dealings with various religions, often relying on the opinion of the Presidency of Religious Affairs – an Islamic religious body.
- Developments in the reporting period indicate that a limited and selective understanding of pluralism by the state is dominant rather than a comprehensive one.
- As a result decisions of international human rights compliance mechanisms – in particular the European Court of Human Rights – that relate to the right to freedom of religion or belief are not fully enforced. Measures to prevent similar violations from happening are also not put into effect.
- Finally, the NHC IOG Report draws attention to the increasing role of the state in facilitating and funding certain religious beliefs. The state also continues to claim responsibility for providing religious services for all. Due to the existing problems in the implementation of the principle of neutrality and the obligation to ensure pluralism, the Report finds that this is likely to deepen discrimination.
The NHC IOG Report’s findings echo those of other reports. For example, the European Commission 2013 Progress Report on Turkey found that, in practice, citizens professing a faith other than that of the majority or having no faith continued to experience discrimination. The Progress Report also found that a legal framework that is compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights’ protection of freedom of religion or belief and other human rights has yet to be established. The NHC IOG Right to Freedom of Religion or Belief in Turkey – Monitoring Report January-June 2013 includes specific concrete recommendations to advance the protection of the right to freedom of religion or belief for all in Turkey.