US religion commission divided over Turkey

March 21, 2012, Wednesday/ 16:16:00

The bipartisan US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), which grouped Turkey among 15 other nations in its “countries of particular concern” category for its "systematic and egregious limitations" of religious freedoms, has been divided over the decision, with their report monitoring religious freedom around the world being passed by five to four votes.

The ranking was a sharp downgrade from Turkey's less-severe status as a watch-listed country in years past, and the commission recommended the US government categorize Turkey with other “countries of particular concern” which, according to the list, are Tajikistan, Myanmar, North Korea, Egypt, Eritrea, Iran, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, China, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Vietnam.

The supporters of the report stressed the situation of the Christian minorities in Turkey, saying that Turkey presents itself as a model country for the Arab Spring but it cannot be a model as far as religious freedoms are concerned. The commission members added that they have waited for 10 years for the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) to make a difference but that they can no longer sit and wait.

On the other hand, a joint statement released by members of the commission on Tuesday said there are no records with regards to Turkey's regression on religious freedom; on the contrary, some positive steps have been taken which should be applauded. They pointed out that according to the US Religious Freedom Restoration Act -- aimed at preventing laws that substantially burden a person's freedom to exercise their religion -- there need to be systematic breaches of freedom of religion, including detention and torture of people for a country to be classified in this way. Those members indicated that they are fiercely opposed to the report's section on Turkey and the inclusion of Northern Cyprus in that section.

The USCIRF report, which refers to the April 2011-February 2012 period, heavily concentrates on the problems of non-Muslim and Alevi citizens in Turkey. The report also touches on the Sunni majority's problems, mentioning the restrictions on headscarves in some public spaces. The report also refers to the massacres of Christians at the Malatya Zirve Publishing House and the murder of Hrant Dink, who was the editor-in-chief of the Turkish-Armenian weekly Agos. Both murders are allegedly connected to the deep-state related Ergenekon crime network.

Meanwhile, Turkey's ambassador in Washington lashed out at suggestions in the report, saying the report's comments on Turkey were politically motivated.

"Any independent perspective would acknowledge that Turkey does not belong to the place the commission designates for it. Listing Turkey among 'countries of particular concern' is unjust and unexpected," Namik Tan told the Anatolia news agency.

Tan said Turkey implemented a major reform in 2011 to give religious communities their properties back, which he said was also lauded by the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

The US Department of State said in its latest annual report on religious freedoms that the Turkish government had taken significant steps to expand religious freedoms.

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