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Forum 18 / TURKEY: Religious freedom survey, January 2014

Contrary to Turkey's international human rights obligations, the country does not fully protect freedom of religion or belief. This would require drastic changes to both domestic law and official actions. Piecemeal and selective changes have proved inadequate as a way of protecting freedom of religion or belief.

The Turkish government continues long-standing practices incompatible with its international obligations on freedom of religion or belief, despite opportunities for positive change, Forum 18 News Service notes in its religious freedom survey. For example, a long-standing crucial issue is that Turkey permits no religious or belief community to exist in its own right with full legal status – such as the right to own places of worship and the legal protection religious communities normally have in states under the rule of law. Turkish human rights defenders have expressed disappointment at the government’s failure to fully implement its international obligations to defend freedom of religion and belief, as well as related human rights such as freedom of expression.

Political background

Demands for an effective legislative and practical framework for the protection of freedom of religion or belief for all remain unmet. Missed opportunities to achieve this have included the new Constitution-making process and the government’s various democratisation initiatives. Turkish civil society initiatives on human rights issues, as well as statements and judgments by international human rights monitoring bodies such as the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) in Strasbourg, have all provided further opportunities for positive change. But the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has not used these opportunities.

The AKP may have reached its limits in implementing effective protection of the right to freedom of religion or belief. This has been demonstrated in its failure to observe “the State’s duty of neutrality and impartiality”, as the ECtHR phrases it in judgments under the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (ECHR) in a number of cases. The AKP’s approach has also prevented the state from protecting the pluralism that exists in Turkish society. The unrest following the government’s dismissal of 2013’s Gezi Park protests in Istanbul (which demanded among other things greater protection of human rights), as well as claims of corruption in the state administration, have led to instability. This offers little hope that further democratisation reforms will follow in the near future, including in the field of freedom of religion or belief.

Constitution drafting

The Constitution drafting process, which started in 2011, failed to produce a text that could be submitted to the Grand National Assembly for the adoption of a new and democratic constitution. This process was supposed to see the various political parties seek consensus. But the Constitutional Reconciliation Commission (AUK), which was tasked with the drafting, stopped functioning following the statements of AUK head Cemil Cicek in November 2013 that he had no hopes that the AUK would be able to draft the new Constitution.

Under the proposed new Constitution’s section entitled Fundamental Rights and Freedoms, key issues the various political parties have strongly disagreed about have included: the definition of citizenship, the right to freedom of religion or belief, equality, and education in a person’s mother tongue.

All parties have agreed on the protection of the right to have, not to have, and to change one’s religion or belief. Some proposals from various parties would have taken the new Constitution closer to Article 9 (“Freedom of thought, conscience and religion”) of the ECHR in allowing the right to manifest a religion or belief in worship, teaching, practice and observance.

But the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) did not change its historic position restricting the right to manifest a religion or belief in teaching, and requiring the state to provide religious instruction. However, the CHP and the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) proposed the inclusion of a statement that the state will maintain equal distance to beliefs and take into account the religious pluralism in society in its dealings concerning religion or belief. But the AKP and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) opposed this.

The controversial compulsory secondary school Religious Culture and Knowledge of Ethics (RCKE) courses (which instruct pupils in Sunni Islam and which the ECtHR has required Turkey to change and provide real exemptions from) were opposed by the CHP and BDP. But the AKP and MHP wanted to keep RCKE lessons. The right to conscientious objection to compulsory military service was proposed by the BDP. But no other party accepted this.

The BDP also proposed abolishing the Diyanet, or Presidency of Religious Affairs (which reports to the Prime Minister and is funded by the state). But no other parties backed this proposal. The CHP argued that the Diyanet should serve the population while taking into account religious pluralism.

Despite the BDP putting forward proposals to bring the Constitution into line with international human rights standards, freedom of religion or belief in the new Constitution is unlikely to include a provision that is in line with international law.

Indeed, in April 2012 the Constitutional Court (AYM) established a new jurisprudence on “Turkish secularism” (laiklik), which ignored international human rights obligations. The AYM did this by attributing to the state a positive obligation to provide Islamic religious teaching, and so in practice to continue to restrict the rights of others to teach their religion or belief. This has wide and possibly unforeseeable implications, not least as the AYM’s perception of Turkish society is strikingly at odds with the reality of today’s diverse society. But the AYM decision does match the observable AKP approach to freedom of religion or belief.

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