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Freedom of Belief Initiative’s submission to the CM on the Zengin Group of Cases

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The Norwegian Helsinki Committee’s Freedom of Belief Initiative made a submission to the Council of Europe Committee of Ministers (CM) on March 2, 2021. The submission aims to contribute to the monitoring process of the execution of the Zengin Group of Cases judgments regarding the compulsory Religious Culture and Knowledge of Ethics (RCKE) courses in Turkey.

The submission, which has been published on the Council of Europe’s website, provides information on the status of the general measures that the Turkish Government needs to take in the context of the enforcement of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) judgments on the Zengin Group of Cases. The Zengin group of cases are under the enhanced supervision of the Committee of Ministers (CM). 

The Zengin Group of Cases comprises of two important ECtHR judgments: Hasan and Eylem Zengin v. Turkey and Mansur Yalçın and Others v. Turkey. The judgments remarked that the content of the RCKE courses lacks objectivity, the education system has structural problems in respecting the rights of parents to raise their children in line with their religious or philosophical views, and that a reform process compatible with human rights standards on religious education in schools should be carried out:

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

The CM’s latest deliberation on the Alevi cases took place in December 2019. The CM Decision noted the information provided by the Turkish authorities that the 2018 curriculum for the compulsory “religious culture and ethics” classes in primary and secondary schools includes information on the Alevi faith and that parents may initiate legal proceedings requesting exemption of their children. However, the Decision emphasized that these measures do not appear to remedy all the concerns raised by the Court, in particular in the absence of an exemption procedure which does not subject parents to a heavy burden and to the necessity of disclosing their religious or philosophical convictions. Furthermore, the CM strongly encouraged the authorities to draft a comprehensive action plan with a concrete calendar by 1 June 2020.

The Government of Turkey sent a response to the CM regarding the execution of the judgments on January 4. The response states that religious education in Turkey is in line with the TOLEDO Guiding Principles by covering all beliefs and world views objectively and pursuing the principle of pluralism. It is pointed out that the RCKE lessons are covered in the following framework: “If the compulsory RCE lesson is objective in public schools, then it is in compliance with freedom of religion and belief. Wider coverage may be given to the religion prevailing in a place where education of religion and belief is provided.” In addition, the answer states that if the RCKE education is provided objectively, fact-based, and in accordance with academic and professional standards, it does not constitute a problem.

In the submission, the findings of ‘Compulsory Religious Education in Turkey: A Human Rights-Based Evaluation of the Religious Culture and Ethics Course and Books’ report were conveyed to the CM.  The report, published by the Association for Monitoring Equal Rights and the Norwegian Helsinki Committee evaluates RCKE textbooks’ content and the course exemption process. The findings demonstrate the incompatibility of the teaching materials of the RCKE lessons with the ECHR standards, the general measures indicated by the ECtHR as well as the Toledo Guidelines:

  • In the RCKE textbooks, information on the existence and nature of God, the Holy Qur’an, information about the Prophet Mohammad, the formation of the world, the purpose of human beings and life, death, afterlife, angels and demons is presented from within the theological discipline and with reference to the doctrines of the religion of Islam in the form of positive propositions.
  • RCKM textbooks preserve their qualification as religious education; it contains biased and non-objective information about religions, presented from a Sunni Islamic theological perspective.
  • The brevity of the sections devoted to Alevism in all the RCEK textbooks has been a matter of criticism. In addition, it is not stated that the cemevis, which are considered places of worship of the Alevi community by this community, are places of worship, and that the Alevi prayer semah is a form of worship.
  • Although the information about Judaism and Christianity and practices of the worship of these religions widely covered, the assumption of the Islamic view that their scriptures which constitute the main sources of Christianity and Judaism, “have been tampered with” has an important place in the book.
  • Theism, deism, atheism, and agnosticism are dealt with Islamic explanations/defences and its teachings are not presented objectively.
  • One of the aims of the RCMK program is that students adopt “national values”. And these values are not available to take into account religious and other diversity in Turkey.
  • Children have to give “right” answers to doctrinal matters that are not presented objectively and that children are led to certain behaviors as “right” behavior. This exposes the child to conditions in which he or she may have to act against his/her thoughts, conscience or religion.
  • Expressions such as “our religion”, “our prophet”, “our holy book, the Quran,” which are signs of a language that teaches religion from within, continue to be used in many books.
  • The doctrinal information may or may not be compatible with the religious or philosophical views of some parents.
  • Religious education constitutes an obstacle to both the freedom of thought, belief and conscience of the child and the right of parents to raise their children in line with their religious and philosophical convictions.

The findings show that, the current teaching materials of the compulsory RCKE course constitute religious instruction and not objective teaching about religions. Therefore, under international human rights law the course cannot be compulsory. If it is compulsory a non-discriminatory exemption procedure must be adopted urgently. As a result of the non-implementation of the ECtHR judgments on the Zengin Group of Cases potentially thousands of students and their parents’ rights at the intersection of freedom of religion or belief (Article 9) in the context of education (Article 2 Protocol I) continue to be violated.

Considering the Court’s findings on the Zengin Group of cases, the Freedom of Belief Initiative recommended that:

  • The Government to be asked the following:
    1. to bring the Turkish educational system and domestic legislation into conformity with the Convention – in particular, by remedying the shortcomings of the teaching materials and exemption mechanism.
    2. to take steps to implement non-discriminatory exemption.
  • The Government to be asked to provide a new Action Plan by June 2021, setting out plans to bring about these changes by September 2021 in time for the 2021-2022 school year.
  • The Committee of Ministers schedule a CM-DH meeting on the Zengin group of cases for its June 2021 meeting.
  • The Committee of Ministers to prepare a speedy timetable for the measures to be put in place and that the Committee of Ministers review the implementation of the timetable in the near future, given the extensive delays already involved in these cases.

Please click here to read the full submission.