Turkey on religious freedom watch list for 3rd year in a row

April 29, 2011, Friday/ 17:25:00/ MUHLİS KAÇAR

Turkey remains on a US panel’s watch list of 11 countries for the third year in a row for its violations of religious freedom, according to the annual country report released by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF).

This year, according to the USCIRF report, 14 countries were designated as countries of particular concern (CPC) since “those governments have engaged in -- or tolerated -- particularly severe violations of religious freedom.” Burma, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea), Egypt, Eritrea, Iran, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, the People’s Republic of China, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Vietnam are on the CPC list.

According to the report, USCIRF also maintains a watch list of countries where the serious violations of religious freedom engaged in or tolerated by the governments do not meet the CPC threshold but require close monitoring. This year, along with Turkey, Afghanistan, Belarus, Cuba, India, Indonesia, Laos, Russia, Somalia, Tajikistan and Venezuela will all be on the watch list.

“Turkey was first placed on the USCIRF watch list in 2009, and the commission notes with concern that conditions have deteriorated further since then, underscoring the need for continued vigilance in monitoring,” the report states. According to the report, the Turkish government continues to impose serious limitations on freedom of religion or belief, thereby threatening the continued vitality and survival of minority religious communities in Turkey. The USCIRF report recognizes that Turkey has a democratic government and an energetic civil society and media, and that the country’s Constitution protects the freedom of belief and worship as well as the private dissemination of religious ideas, but it also criticizes the Turkish government’s formal and longstanding efforts to control religion by imposing suffocating regulations by denying full legal status to religious institutions, resulting in serious violations of religious freedom.

Moreover, according to the said report, the government in Turkey has failed to take decisive action to correct the climate of impunity against religious minorities and to make the necessary institutional reforms to reverse these conditions.

Concerns of rising anti-Semitism and alleged plans of mosque bombings

“Instead, Turkey continues to intervene in the internal governance and education of religious communities and to confiscate places of worship,” the commission states. The alleged involvement of state and military officials in the Ergenekon conspiracy, which includes alleged plans to assassinate minority religious leaders and to bomb mosques, is also of serious concern, according to the USCIRF report. It also criticizes the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) for the alleged use of preventive arrests to repress critics.

The report says it is concerning that there is a rise in anti-Semitism in Turkish society and media. “Due to these concerns, and others set forth in the related chapter, USCIRF continues to place Turkey on its watch list in 2011,” the report notes.

Restrictive state secularism and the EU accession process

The report points to state secularism as being significantly restrictive on religious freedom, especially for religious minority communities, including the Greek, Armenian and Syriac-Orthodox Churches; the Roman Catholic and Protestant Churches; and the Jewish community, but also for the majority Sunni Muslim community and the minority Alevis as well.

“As part of its EU accession process, Turkey has adopted some reforms relevant to religious freedom, and although the Turkish government has arrested those suspected of violent hate crimes linked to religion and has instituted legal reforms to decrease military involvement in civilian politics, protracted trials underscore judicial weakness in correcting impunity on religious freedom violations,” the report reads.

Recommendations for US policymakers

The USCIRF report recognizes the fact that the United States regards Turkey as an important strategic partner and continues to support Turkey’s EU accession process. But the report sends a message to US policymakers that the latter should place greater emphasis on Turkey’s compliance with its international commitments regarding freedom of religion or belief.

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