An Appeal to Move Forward from Aspirations to Actions – Monitoring Report on the Right to Freedom of Religion or Belief in Turkey, 2022 covers key legislative, judicial, and administrative developments on the right to freedom of religion or belief between April 2019 and December 2021 in Turkey. The report identifies discrepancies with international human rights standards and makes recommendations for public authorities to seek corrective action.
During the preparation process of the report which is written by Dr. Mine Yıldırım, we conducted interviews with more than 50 individuals from diverse religious or belief groups, atheist and deist groups, relevant non-governmental organizations, experts and human rights defenders in Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir, Malatya, Elazığ, Mardin and Diyarbakır. The Chapter titled, Women and freedom of religion or belief, adopts a gender lens in monitoring the right to freedom of religion or belief. While it has been a goal of the Freedom of Belief Initiative to mainstream this gender lens, it is fitting to identify and highlight unique challenges faced by women in a separate chapter.
Turkey’s long-standing freedom of religion or belief issues remain unresolved
The long-standing issues in the field of freedom of religion or belief in Turkey remain unresolved. This is despite Turkey’s significant human rights obligations as a party to core human rights treaties:
Resolving these issues will require a multi-thronged effort on the part of the executive, legislature and judiciary. Were the judiciary to consistently apply constitutional and international human rights standards pertaining to the protection of the right to freedom of religion or belief, individuals and religious or belief communities could access justice.
Atheists, deists and agnostics face violations in all aspects of life
Atheists, deists, and agnostics encounter daily infringement on their right to freedom of thought and belief in the workplace, family, and the education system:
Atheist, deist and agnostic parents and students do not have the right to exemption from the compulsory religious instruction in the Religious Culture and Ethics lessons. Those who express criticism of religion or belief in general, or of specific interpretations, especially those of Islam, face complaints and risk being prosecuted under the Turkish Penal Code.
Places of worship issues continue, ECtHR decisions are disregarded
Acquiring place of worship status remains an ongoing challenge for several religious communities. This is particularly true for the Alevi, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Protestant communities. The public authorities have systematically denied place of worship status to these sites in disregard to relevant ECtHR judgments.
Glaring inequalities in the training of religious personnel and religious services
Discrimination regarding the training of religious personnel is also covered. Legal restrictions for the training of religious personnel other than Sunni Muslim religious personnel remain valid:
Glaring inequalities in the legal restrictions facing training religious personnel other than Sunni Muslim religious personnel and in public resources allocated to the training of Sunni Muslim religious personnel versus the denial of resources to the training of other religious personnel, have not been remedied. Religious communities, such as the Alevi community, Greek Orthodox Patriarchate, Armenian Patriarchate and Protestant community, have been unable to train religious staff within Turkey.
Moreover, the allocation of public funding of religious services provided solely for the Sunni Islamic community. This is in contradiction with the prohibition of discrimination and with the state’s obligation to observe the principle of equality.
The non-recognition of the right to conscientious objection infringes on several human rights
The lack of recognition of the right to conscientious objection to military service is in direct contradiction to international human rights law, this non-recognition infringes on several human rights of conscientious objectors:
Administrative and criminal punitive measures are applied to conscientious objectors who are categorised as draft evaders or deserters. Although violations have been been found in several ECtHR judgments and in one UN Human Rights Committee (HRC) view, the necessary regulation has not yet been adressed in domestic law.
Women feel compelled to live double lives
Interviews conducted with women from a wide range of religious or belief backgrounds demonstrate that women;
- face significant obstructions to free will in the exercise of their human rights, including freedom of religion or belief,
- continue to be especially vulnerable in their homes,
- are prone to pressures from secular and religious segments of society,
- often feel compelled to live double lives and,
- and their representation is extremely low in religious institutions.
Critical stance against the denigration of women in the name of religion and “Women in Mosques Campaign”
The report highlights the cases of three women where women who publicly took a critical stance against the denigration of women in the name of religion have had to face repercussions. In addition, the report provides an overview of the relevant issues raised about the place of women in mosques with the “Women in Mosques Campaign”.
The right to association is suspended
One of the prominent issues underscored in the report is the problems caused by the fact that no religious or belief community has legal personality in Turkey. Non-Muslim community foundations still cannot elect new board members and this situation constitutes a de facto suspension of their right to association:
The foundations’ board elections have been obstructed since 2013. As a result, the functioning of the community foundations and the beneficiary communities continue to be paralyzed and weak. These community foundations administer and fund non-Muslim community properties such as church and synagogue buildings, schools, hospitals, and other charitable work. They constitute a lifeline for these communities.
The disproportionate impact of the Covid-19 Pandemic on religious or belief communities
The various effects of the measures taken since March 2020 in connection with the Covid-19 Pandemic on believers and religious or belief communities are also covered in the report:
While more guidance and accommodation were provided for mosques, other religious or belief communities were not given specific guidance. Accommodation lagged and was not on a par. Deep systemic inequalities became even more apparent during the Pandemic. As always, public resources continued to be available to mosques and those benefiting from these public services but not to other religious or belief communities.
Freedom of religion or belief is restricted in education
The child’s right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, their right to participation, as well as parents’ rights to raise their children in line with their own philosophical or religious views, are subject to systematic interference in Turkey’s national education system:
The mandatory Religious Culture and Ethics lessons, including the exemption mechanism, the optional religion courses, Islamic religious practises in schools and high school placement exam, constitute substantial interference in the protection of, among others, the child’s right to freedom of religion or belief.
Seized properties still have not been returned religious or belief communities
The impact of past loss of properties, belonging to Sunni Muslim, Alevi, Christian and Jewish religious communities, continues to be a scar in need of attention.
For non-Muslim communities, the process of returning community foundation property unjustly taken from them is yet to be completed. In addition, thousands of historical religious sites and buildings remain at the risk of being completely lost.
Some of the report’s concrete recommendations are as follows:
- Turkey should lift all its reservations to international human rights treaties.
- Turkey should ratify the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages and the Framework Convention for the Protection of Minorities.
- Turkish authorities should enforce the ECtHR judgments and HRC Views on freedom of religion or belief cases and take general measures to prevent similar violations from happening, without delay.
- Public authorities should take steps to understand the challenges to the right to freedom of religion or belief in the family, religious or belief communities and workplaces.
- The religion field in population records must be removed. Until the field for religion is removed from official documents, individuals must be permitted to express a religion or belief in the manner they choose. In order for this to include worldviews such as atheism and agnosticism, they should not have to choose from a list of limited options.
- Christian and Jewish students wishing to exercise their right to exemption from the Religious Culture and Ethics course should not be forced to forfeit their equal right to leave the religion field of their identity documents blank. Their statement to this effect should be sufficient for exemption.
- The MEB should take steps to implement non-discriminatory exemptions without delay.
- The MEB should review and revise its programs and practice with a view to uphold the child’s right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion in the education system.
- Conscientious objection to military service must be recognized as a constitutional right, without delay. All criminal proceedings against conscientious objectors should be ended and compensation should be provided.
- Statistics should be kept on conscientious objection applications. These should include the number of conscientious objectors, monetary fines, criminal investigations and convictions delivered in connection to conscientious objectors and shared with the public.
- Women’s equal access to mosques should be ensured by the Presidency of Religious Affairs.
- The systematic obstacles impeding the recognition of cemevi, Protestant churches and kingdom halls should be removed, without delay.
- Public authorities should refrain from interfering with the use of the mother tongue in worship and practice. Instead, religious or belief communities should be supported in the use and development of the use of the languages they traditionally use in their worship.
- Public religious services should not be denied to individuals who have been convicted on terrorism charges.
- Steps should be taken to fully protect non-Muslim communities’ freedom of association.
- New legislation should be passed that allows for the restitution of all properties lost unjustly by all religious communities/foundations in the past.
- Turkish Penal Code Article 216, which criminalises “denigrating religious values”, should be repealed.
- The Presidency of Religious Affairs should ensure that women’s access to places of worship, particularly mosques, equals that of men.
- Where women and LGBTI individuals express a critical stance toward the dominant dogma and doctrines of faith, public authorities should uphold these groups’ freedoms of expression and of religion or belief and take care that these groups are not stigmatised, threatened or prosecuted. Where these individuals are targeted, authorities should take measures to protect them.
- Religious or belief communities should ensure that women have equal representation in associations responsible for the administration of places of worship, including synagogues, churches, mosques, cemevis, and kingdom halls.