The first Turkish school year with optional religion lessons came to an end in June, and the government is once-again apparently considering allowing the re-opening of the long-closed Greek Orthodox theological seminary on the island of Heybeliada (Halki).
Turkey has undertaken solemn obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (ECHR). These include legally binding commitments to respect the religious or philosophical beliefs of parents and legal guardians in the education of children, and the right of religious communities to run their own theological training establishments; both manifestations are integral parts of the right to freedom of religion or belief.
Possible start to meeting international obligations?
If the state permits the re-opening of Halki Theological School, it would be the solitary exception to the current universal state monopoly. This might enable Turkey to begin to meet its international obligations in relation to allowing everyone to manifest freedom of religion or belief in teaching. But it would only be a beginning if the state abandons for everyone its monopoly on religious education of all kinds.
The Minister of Justice made a statement on 1 August that a democratisation package the government is considering includes the possibility of re-opening Halki. But it is not clear when this democratisation package will be adopted or what exactly will be in the package. Halki Seminary was closed in 1971, and long-standing government promises to consider allowing its re-opening have never led to re-opening (see eg. F18News 27 October 2009 http://www.forum18.org/archive.php?article_id=1368). The closure has had a major impact on the Greek Orthodox community, as it now has no educational institution to train clergy within Turkey.
The similar 1969 closure of the Armenian Apostolic Church’s theological college in Üsküdar has been far less publicised, but its continued closure also raises the issue of the right of communities to run their own theological training establishments.
Religious education in schools
An important related issue is the state’s monopoly over all religious education in all public and private schools. This means that only the state can provide religious education in middle and high schools. From the 2012-2013 school year onwards the government has implemented the provisions of its controversial 2012 Education Reform Law. Among many other changes which have caused controversy in Turkey, the Law introduced optional lessons in Islam, including the Koran, the Life of the Prophet Mohammed, and Basic Religious Knowledge (Islam). These lessons and their implementation raise a number of issues concerning human rights, in particular the right to freedom of religion or belief (see F18News 9 July 2013 http://www.forum18.org/archive.php?article_id=1855).
Firstly, the fact that the state has assumed that it has a positive obligation to introduce religion lessons in Islam, because the state has a monopoly over religious education, is problematic. In international law, positive obligations imply that the state should remove obstacles to the exercise of human rights – not that the state should create or reinforce such obstacles.
International law’s understanding of the state’s positive obligations would require Turkey to make legal changes to ensure respect for the freedom of religion or belief rights of parents, guardians, and children, as well as the right to run theological training establishments.
Secondly, there are indications that the supposedly optional religion lessons have not been optional in reality in some cases. The experience of the compulsory RCKE classes indicates that even those entitled to exemptions from RCKE classes have found this very difficult to exercise (see F18News 23 August 2011 http://www.forum18.org/archive.php?article_id=1603). So it is not surprising that the greatest challenge related to the new optional Islam classes is ensuring that they really are optional.
Normally in Turkey, school students are given a form with a list of all optional lessons to chose from at the beginning of the school year. To gain enough credits to move up to the next school year, pupils must take some optional lessons. This means that a limited choice of optional lessons places great pressure on pupils to choose lessons they may not want to take. Some schools appear to have in effect denied parents and pupils the right to choose whether or not to choose the “optional” Islam lessons.
In some schools there are not enough teachers for all the optional lessons, such as art classes. This means that these schools only offer the lessons they have teachers for. As RCKE teachers can teach the optional Islamic lessons, this significantly increases the chances that the optional Islam classes will be offered instead of other optional classes.
For example, Dogan Bermek, the Chair of the Federation of Alevi Vakifs (Alevi Vakiflari Federasyonu), and Ali Kenanoglu, the Chair of the Hubyar Sultan Alevi Kültür Dernegi [Association] (HSAKD), both told Forum 18 on August 20 that many Alevi families have felt pressured by school administrations to chose the “optional” Islamic religion lessons – even though the families did not want to choose them. School administrations told the families that as there was a lack of teachers only the optional Islamic religion lessons – and no other optional lessons – could be offered.
Pupils from other smaller religious groups also face problems. For example, a Christian student in Diyarbakir had to take an optional Islamic religion course to gain the number of credits needed to move up a school year. She was already exempt from RCKE classes as she is a Christian. But the school did not allow her to take other optional lessons offered in other schools nearby. Her father, Ahmet Güvener, told Forum on 18 July that after he complained to the Ministry of Education, the teachers in his daughter’s school were instructed to provide some optional lessons just for his daughter, so that she can complete her credits.
For the 2013-2014 school year the Ministry of Education has sent a circular to schools instructing them to “not to make any choices in relation to which optional lessons will be offered in schools, and refrain from not offering any of the optional lessons.” It remains to be seen what impact this will have.
Kenanoglu of the HSAKD further commented that families fear that their children would face discrimination and harassment from teachers and other pupils if they do not choose the “optional” Islam lessons. Such discrimination is a common experience for pupils from smaller religious communities in Turkey (see F18News 23 August 2011 http://www.forum18.org/archive.php?article_id=1603).
The Alevi community has, backed by an ECtHr judgment, long been demanding that the compulsory RCKE lessons be changed (see F18News 23 August 2011 http://www.forum18.org/archive.php?article_id=1603). “Now we have also have to deal with these new mandatory optional religion lessons”, Kenanoglu commented. In meetings the HSAKD has asked the Ministry of Education for optional lessons on the Alevi faith to be taught by Alevi teachers. But the Ministry rejected this, claiming that as the Alevi faith is Islam and this is already covered in the compulsory RCKE lessons. The Ministry also claimed that the RCKE lessons address the Alevi tradition. Alevis dispute both these contentions.