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NHC: İÖG “Reform package fails to solve key freedom of religion issues”

YILDIRIM: "A major problem with the package is, however, that it does not include legislation which could prevent violations of the right to freedom of religion or belief similar to those which have been found by the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) in cases concerning Turkey."

On 30 September 2013, Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan presented a democratization package to address some of the fundamental issues in the country, including freedom of religion or belief issues. “While the package includes positive elements, it falls short of introducing a principled approach to freedom of religion or belief”, said Mine Yildirim, head of the Norwegian Helsinki Committee Freedom of Belief Initiative in Turkey.

– We welcome reform steps such as guaranteeing freedom of dress in the public sector (except in the security services and the judiciary), the permission to have education in the mother tongue, and the return of land that has been taken from the Syriac Christian Mor Gabriel Monastery Foundation, said Yildirim. – Among other positive elements are the introduction of hate crimes legislation and the establishment of a Council on Equality and Fight Against Discrimination.

– A major problem with the package is, however, that it does not include legislation which could prevent violations of the right to freedom of religion or belief similar to those which have been found by the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) in cases concerning Turkey, said Yildirim.

ECtHR judgments clearly state that Turkish law should recognize the right to conscientious objection (among others, Erçep v. Turkey, 2011), and remove the religion section from the national identity register and identity cards (Sinan Işık v. Turkey, 2010). Authorities have also been called to change the curricula of the mandatory Religious Culture and Knowledge of Ethics lessons in order to bring it in line with the obligation to respect the right of parents and legal guardians to raise their children in line with their religious or philosophical beliefs (Hasan and Eylem Zengin v. Turkey, 2008). Mandatory religion lessons should always be taught in a neutral and objective way. However, Turkey has not taken any measures to prevent similar violations.

In implementing the reform package and in discussing further reforms, Yildirim underlines that authorities should recognise that:

  • Education in mother tongue is of particular significance for belief communities that use certain languages in their worship. Education in mother tongue should not be only be permitted in private schools, but should also be introduced in public schools. Measures should be taken to develop curricula and train teachers for education in mother tongue;
  • While drafting legislation pertaining to dress in the public sector, not only the demands of the majority should be taken into account. The plural nature of the society should be taken as a guiding principle;
  • The title of the Syriac Christian Mor Gabriel Monastery’s land should be given back to the Mor Gabriel Monastery Foundation without delay and no further court cases should be brought against the Foundation;
  • Legislative changes related to hate crimes should be compatible with the benchmarks established by the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in 2009, avoid using vague or undefined terminology and be symmetrical in its application;
  • The Council on Equality and Fight Against Discrimination should be established as an independent Council with wide powers to carry out its mandate. The draft Law on Equality and Fight Against Discrimination has been pending in the National Assembly for four years. This law needs now to be adopted for the Council to be established on a firm legal basis, enabling it to fulfill its mandate effectively.

– Among serious shortcomings of the reform package is its lack of a principled approach to solving problems that are outlined in our recent Report on the Right to Freedom of Religion or Belief in Turkey – January-June 2013. The right to establish places of worship, including Alevi cem houses, and the right to establish seminaries, including the Halki Seminary, for all belief communities are only a couple of the outstanding problems that need to be addressed, said Yildirim


Background: mixed reception of reform package

The reform package has important consequences for a range of contentious issues in Turkish society and politics. In particular, the reforms include strengthening Kurdish rights, allowing towns to use their Kurdish rather than Turkish names, and allowing education in Kurdish to be broadened.

Finding a peaceful solution to the Kurdish question is a key motive behind the reforms. Even though the Kurdish BDP party says the package does not meet their expectations, commentators said it might still function as a tool to prepare for new steps in the future.

A long awaited issue to be solved is the excessively high 10 % electoral threshold, which prevents Kurdish and other small parties from entering parliament. Prime Minister Erdogan signaled that the threshold should be lowered. He proposed two alternatives; adding that if these alternatives do not receive support of the opposition the existing system will continue. It is unlikely that the opposition parties will accept the proposed alternatives so this is widely seen as a maneuver by the AK Party to keep the existing threshold.

The ending of the ban on women wearing headscarves in public service has been a longstanding goal for the AK Party. The ban has been among the most contentious in Turkey – leading to bitter conflicts between supporters of Turkey’s secular constitution and those who favor Islamic rights.

The lack of any new rights for the Alevi religious minority – one of the most important political fault lines in the country – has been criticized by many. The government said, however, that it is preparing a separate reform package on this issue.

For more information on freedom of religion or belief issues in Turkey, visit our project website or contact Mine Yildirim by email:

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