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2019 Report Pursuing Rights and Equality: Monitoring Report on the Right to Freedom of Religion or Belief in Turkey

The Report covering the period of January 2016 – March 2019 finds that the effective protection of the universal right to the freedom of religion or belief in Turkey requires a fundamental transformation of law and policy that needs to be based on an inclusive consultative process and on international human rights law.

Pursuing Rights and Equality: Monitoring Report on the Right to Freedom of Religion or Belief in Turkey covering the period January 2016 – March 2019 systematically examines the state of the protection of the right to freedom of religion or belief in Turkey on the basis of international human rights law, makes recommendations on aligning legislation and implementation with international standards and highlights good practices.

Some of the key findings of the Report include:

  • Despite important international and national obligations undertaken by Turkey in the field of freedom of religion or belief, still, many aspects of Turkish law and implementation must change to resolve violations of the freedom of religion or belief. This includes both new instances and longstanding challenges still awaiting resolution.  
  • Individuals interviewed for this report indicated that individuals, especially those who hold a religion, belief, or worldview other than Sunni Islam, are subject to pressure and discrimination in the context of family, work, and social environment on the basis of their belief, non-belief, or changing their religion or belief, or that they were faced with this risk notwithstanding legal guarantees against this discrimination. These circumstances are widely experienced by atheists, converts to Christianity, Alevis, and members of non-Muslim minorities. 
  • During the monitoring period, attacks, threats, and acts of intimidation occurred against places of worship and the people involved with them. It appears that very few of the perpetrators of these acts faced any sanctions. In order to eliminate this multifaceted oppressive dynamic, it is be necessary to have monitoring, reporting, and effective investigation of religious- or belief-based hate crimes, with compensation relative to damages for crimes that occur and a holistic approach directed towards hate crime prevention. Furthermore, there is a need for initiatives to be undertaken collaboratively between public institutions, religious and belief institutions and non-governmental organizations working in this field. 
  • Turkey continues not to recognize the right to conscientious objection to military service. The conversion of penalties for failure to perform military service into monetary fines has meant that conscientious objectors face penalties that have essentially been lessened in degree but have become more widespread.  
  • Systematic obstacles continue to block the recognition of official places of worship, in particular for cemevis [Alevi places of worship], Protestant churches, and places of worship used by Jehovah’s Witnesses. The government of Turkey has not implemented the general measures set out in judgments of the European Court of Human Rights to prevent similar violations from happening on this issue. 
  • The most striking problem regarding freedom of association of religious or belief communities is that this right has been effectively suspended since 2013, due to the lack of arrangements for non-Muslim community foundations to hold elections. In January 2013, the General Directorate of Foundations repealed the provisions on the election of board members in the current regulation and announced that new provisions would be prepared to replace them.  
  • In Turkey, no religious or belief community has been able to gain legal personality as a faith community. Religiously motivated associations can be established, and this formula has been useful for many religious or belief communities to gain a kind of legal status, which have used this for activities in the public sphere such as opening places of worship or charitable purposes. As the European Court of Human Rights, in Altınkaynak and Others v Turkey, found, the restriction, present in the Civil Code, that “no foundation can be established to support a particular [religious] community,” constitutes an obstacle for the establishment of new foundations to support a religious or belief community.
  • Restrictions on the selection and appointment of religious leaders continue to apply to certain religious or belief communities. The structure for appointing religious officials, imams, and muftis in the Presidency of Religious Affairs does not include a participatory process. Armenian Orthodox, Jewish, and Greek Orthodox communities are also subject to restrictions in this respect.
  • Turkey has not yet been able to establish an educational system that fulfills its obligations to respect, both, children’s freedom of thought, religion, and conscience and parents’ right to raise their children in line with their religious or philosophical views while carrying out its duties in the field of education. Despite European Court of Human Rights’ judgments finding, in regards to the mandatory Religious Culture and Ethics courses, that Turkey has violated the right to education, the course content and methods for exemptions from the courses have not been brought into alignment with international human rights law. 
  • Elective religion courses still do not reflect the diversity of views on religion, belief, and philosophy that exist in Turkey. In addition, as schools offer general elective courses in the form of packages also containing religion courses, many students are forced to take elective religion courses they would not otherwise choose. 
  • To the extent that the public sphere in schools has opened up to religious symbols or practices, these have included activities such as the freedom to use the headscarf, facilitating participation in Friday prayers, opening masjids, and holding activities related to Holy Birth [of the Prophet Mohammad] Week celebrations, which shows that space has been opened only for one religion’s symbols and practices. There is no equivalent freedom in the public sphere for the symbols or practices of other religions or beliefs, or to celebrate or participate in activities related to people or special days that are important to those religions or beliefs. Reform efforts in the Ministry of National Education are not directing adequate attention to the right of freedom of religion or belief. 
  • The security operations that began in July 2015 and have continued in various provinces in the Southeastern Anatolia region, as well as the events unfolding in their aftermath have led to the loss of life, damage to cultural heritage, and other serious and widespread human rights violations in the region. In particular, the period during and after the intense clashes in the Sur District of Diyarbakir, gave rise to developments gravely affecting freedom of religion or belief, the effects of which are still visible. The impact of this destruction on the small Armenian and Syriac communities has, undoubtedly, been severe. These raise concern regarding the ability of these communities to sustain their presence in Diyarbakir. 
  • The individual application to the Constitutional Court mechanism that has entered into Turkish law as a new means (2012) of pursuing legal remedies provides new opportunities for the resolving important freedom of religion or belief issues in the domestic setting. However, so far, the Constitutional Court has only reached a small number of decisions on freedom of religion and conscience, and applications regarding key issues of freedom of religion or belief are still pending review. Among these applications awaiting review is one regarding the right to conscientious objection, which was sent to the Plenary Assembly of the Constitutional Court. The Court has given inadmissibility judgments related to the protection of property of religious communities, excessively loud ezan [call to prayer], and the use of the Hagia Sophia Museum. On the other hand, the Tuğba Aslan decision, given by the Plenary Assembly of the Constitutional Court in a case regarding the use of the headscarf, represents an important development in that the Constitutional Court presented a new accommodating and liberal position on the issue. 
  • The recommendations and decisions of international human rights protection mechanisms regarding the right to freedom of religion or belief, in particular the judgments of the European Court of Human Rights, have not been effectively implemented. Effectively implementing the general measures set out in judgments related to compulsory Religious Culture and Ethics classes, conscientious objection, the status of places of worship, and the failure to provide resources from the Presidency of Religious Affairs to the Alevi community for public religious services would provide a significant improvement in the protection of freedom of religion or belief in Turkey. Therefore, public institutions, non-governmental organizations, and international human-rights monitoring mechanisms should prioritize monitoring the execution of these judgments.

Freedom of Belief Initiative is a project of the Norwegian Helsinki Committee and is financed by the Norwegian Foreign Ministry. 

This Report, Pursuing Rights and Equality – Monitoring Report on the Right to Freedom of Religion or Belief in Turkey (January 2016 – March 2019) was authored by Dr. Mine Yıldırım. Mine Yıldırım is the Director of Norwegian Helsinki Committee’s Freedom of Belief Initiative. Yıldırım who has published extensively on the right to freedom of religion or belief in international law and the state of this right in Turkey has wrote her doctoral thesis on “The Collective Dimension of Freedom of Religion or Belief in International Human Rights Law and the Application of Findings to the Case of Turkey” at Human Rights Institute at AAbo Akademi University in Finland. Currently, she is a member of the OSCE/ODIHR Panel of Experts on Freedom of Religion or Belief. 

Norwegian Helsinki Committee (NHC) is an Oslo based human rights organization established in 1977 and works to improve the protection of human rights in practice. To this end the NHC’s activities include monitoring and reporting, human rights training and supporting democratic structures.  

The Freedom of Belief Initiative started its activities in 2011 with a view to monitor the state of the right to freedom of religion or belief in Turkey, promote relevant international human rights standards and disseminate its findings to public authorities, stakeholders, civil society, national and international human rights compliance control mechanism and media. Its main activities are monitoring, reporting and making policy recommendations, advocacy and creating platforms for dialogue.

To access the report click here

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