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The new constitution and Protestants

02.05.2012, Today’s Zaman

Orhan K. Cengiz

There is nothing that prevents this government from introducing a new constitution, which has been desperately needed for such a long time. We still have our 1982 Constitution, which was introduced after a military coup. The funny thing is that today the architects of the 1980 coup are being tried for overthrowing the constitutional order and they are being tried under the very same Constitution that they themselves introduced.

A silent and routine preparation of a new constitution is under way in the Turkish Parliament. Like Turkey’s candidacy for the EU, no one knows when this process will be completed. Creating a new constitution is always on our agenda, but there has been no meaningful effort to reach this goal.

As part of the preparation process, Parliament is meeting with civil society leaders to hear their opinions and suggestions. Leaders of religious minority groups are also meeting with members of Parliament to voice their concerns about the new constitution. Zekai Tanyar, a leader in the Turkish Protestant community, has also met with the MPs and submitted to them a short paper outlining this community’s concerns and opinions about the new constitution. Their specific proposal casts light on the shortcomings of the constitutional order in Turkey when it comes to freedom of religion. I really hope the Protestant community’s proposal, which I will summarize below, will be taken seriously by Parliament. Tanyar, on behalf of the Protestant community, stated the following:

1) Preamble: The preamble to the constitution should emphasize the cultural, religious, ethnic and intellectual diversity of our country, view these diverse groups as an asset, deny crimes and discourse of hatred, guarantee the individual rights and freedoms within the universal human rights and reinforce our social peace, all the while refraining from imposing restrictions. It should also be stressed in the preamble that the state will remain neutral and impartial in religion-related matters and observe the principle of equality.

2) Freedom of religion and belief: The new constitution should borrow Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) on the freedom of thought, religion and belief. By insertion of this article in the new constitution, it shall be guaranteed that freedom of religion and belief is not all about worship and that it also involves broader practices relevant to education and observation of religious duties. For instance, recognition of the right to religious education will serve as the basis for training clerics and opening relevant institutions that offer religious programs. The issues of freedom of thought, religion and belief — which should be rearranged from a pro-freedom perspective — could be addressed in a separate law on religious freedom. This legislation may focus on such extensive and crucial issues as the legal personality of religious institutions, freedom of assembly, the right to establish religious educational institutions, the right to establish places of worship and conscientious objection.

3) Right to assembly: The state should allow all groups and organizations that do not use, support or promote violence and do not prevent others from enjoying their freedom of belief and expression; in the process of assembly, the state should adopt a facilitating role. Religious groups and entities should also be allowed to have a legal personality. The right to assembly could be framed in reference to Article 11 of the ECHR.

4) Right to education: The right of parents to raise their children in accordance with their religious values should be protected. The mandatory courses on religion should be abolished; optional courses on religion should be offered based on the requests of the parents; for those parents who do not want a religious course for their children, additional optional courses on ethics, arts or philosophy should be offered. Legislation on higher education should make sure everyone is able to launch schools to train clerics or offer such training in existing educational institutions.

5) Religious Affairs Directorate: In its current setting, the Religious Affairs Directorate is not consistent with the state’s responsibility to remain neutral and impartial. The directorate should be rearranged from a pluralist perspective in consideration of the religious diversity in Turkey, of the state’s responsibility to be neutral, of the prohibition of discrimination as well as of the principle of equality. If the present status and goals of the directorate are preserved, it should be made a free-standing institution, and the financial support to this institution should be made optional and voluntary.

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