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Legal personality problem persists for some non-Muslim groups

03.01.2012, Today’s Zaman

Obtaining a legal personality for some non-Muslim groups, including Roman Catholics, Protestants, Jehovah’s Witnesses, various evangelical free churches and the Baha’I, still remains a problem in Turkey.

The lack of legal personality, these groups claim, is preventing these sects and religious groups from accessing rights and protections afforded to minorities, particularly in the fields of education, charitable organizations and property ownership. Although there are ways to circumvent restrictions, such as organizing themselves as associations, they demand recognition in accordance with EU norms.

Turkish authorities say that the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, the main agreement regulating minorities in Turkey, recognized only Jews, Armenians and Greek Orthodox communities as minorities, meaning many others, including Roman Catholics, Syriacs and Protestants, were left out. The European Union Progress Report for Turkey this year also underlined the problem of the legal personalities and recalled that “in March, the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe concluded that the fundamental right to freedom of religion, as protected by Article 9 read in conjunction with Article 11 of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR), includes the possibility for religious communities to obtain a legal personality.”

However, some experts question the rationale behind the Lausanne Treaty’s categorization of minority groups. Ankara University Professor Baskın Oran, for example, told Today’s Zaman that non-recognized communities are facing many problems at different levels, including education, property rights and places of worship. He underlined that there are actually no limitations in the Treaty of Lausanne on which communities should be recognized as religious minorities. “It considers all non-Muslim groups religious minorities. When the negotiations for Lausanne were under way, they did not discuss all these issues openly,” he said.

The progress report, while explaining the problems that religious minorities are facing due to their lack of legal personalities, mentioned that protestant and some other churches have not been able to obtain permission for places of worship.

“Jehovah’s Witnesses have had similar problems, as the courts found that their place of worship in Mersin violated the zoning law. This case has been taken to the ECtHR. They also have a similar case related to a worship place in İzmir,” the progress report pointed out.

While receiving Kenan Gürsoy, the ambassador of Turkey to the Holy See, at the beginning of last year, Pope Benedict XVI said that the Catholic Church in Turkey is waiting for civil judicial recognition. Although diplomatic relations between the Vatican and Ankara were established more than 50 years ago, the Catholic community was not given an official status.

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