Gov’t openings on religious freedoms amount to one step forward, two steps back
Syriac Christian girls who are members of a choir attend an Easter service at the Virgin Mary Syriac Church in Diyarbakır in southeastern Turkey in this 2011 file photo. (PHOTO REUTERS)
Since the beginning of the 2000s, there have been many signs that there are high hopes for the religious minorities in Turkey, and those positive signs have encouraged some of those living abroad to return to their homeland.
“I am one of them,” said Tuma Çelik, editor-in-chief of Sabro, which means hope in Aramaic and which is the first newspaper representing the Arameans (the Syriac community) of Turkey.
He has been in Turkey for the past year and a half after living in Europe for 25 years.
“We were impressed by the first years of the Justice and Development Party [AK Party],” he said in reference to the ruling AK Party’s initiatives in regards to granting greater religious freedoms in the country, which pleased the Arameans, who originated in Turkey, but the current population has dwindled to around 20,000 despite numbers of around half a million in Europe.
“Now many Arameans question the motives and actions of the government. People who plan to come back to Turkey think twice,” he said, pointing out the decreasing confidence that Arameans have in Turkey.
Some recent developments seem to prove them right. The Supreme Court of Appeals passed on June 13 its final ruling to seize some of the lands of the Aramean Mor Gabriel Monastery, near Midyat in the province of Mardin in southeastern Turkey. The ruling came after a legal battle which started in 2008 when the villages around the monastery claimed land while the land officials redrew the boundaries around the monastery as part of a modernization project involving its land registry records. As a result, founded in A.D. 397 and often referred to as a “second Jerusalem,” the monastery does not have rights to the land on which it sits.
“This is quite puzzling for us,” Çelik said. “On one hand there is this government which has taken some positive steps when it comes to granting rights to its minorities, but on the other hand is a government that does this.”
However, he added that all the information they have with regards to the top court’s verdict has come through the Turkish press, which called it scandalous since the court “lost” several land title and financial/tax documents that undoubtedly demonstrated the ownership of the land by the monastery. The fact that the ruling of the court has not been officially submitted to Mor Gabriel Monastery officials yet leaves the Aramean community in limbo since they are not in a position to carry their case further to the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR).
“We would like to solve our problems here, not elsewhere. But this court decision, if true, will help to create enemies of the Turkish government abroad,” he said. “How are the Arameans living in Europe supposed to understand this situation?
Erkam Tufan Aytav, secretary-general of the Journalists and Writers Foundation’s (GYV) Medialog Platform, suggested that the court’s verdict is “retaliation” for some Turks after the Swedish parliament officially recognized on March 11, 2010, the alleged genocide of the Assyrians alongside that of the Armenians and Pontic Greeks.
“Because some Arameans who live in Sweden have been influential in the Swedish parliament’s recognition of the genocide, the decision of the Supreme Court of Appeals pleased many Turks. However, Turkey, which abides by the rule of law, and its courts should rule accordingly,” he said.
In a related development, a petition campaign has been started through a website called, in English, “We grew up together in this country” (http://beraberbuyudukbuulkede.com/). So far, 300 academics and intellectuals have signed the petition to back Turkey’s Arameans in their case.
“According to us, the decision by the Supreme Court of Appeals reveals the hypocrisy of the state towards Arameans. While on one hand there are calls to the Aramean people who live outside Turkey to return, on the other hand, Arameans are declared occupiers,” they said.
More paradoxes in minority policies
During his historic visit in early June to the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I at the İstanbul-based Fener Greek Orthodox Patriarchate, the president of Turkey’s Religious Affairs Directorate, Professor Mehmet Görmez, voiced his support for the reopening of the Greek Orthodox Halki (Heybeliada) Seminary, saying that it is a fundamental right of non-Muslims living in Turkey to raise their own theologians. It was not the first time that a Religious Affairs Directorate -- under the Prime Ministry -- visited the patriarchate. The first time was by then Religious Affairs Directorate President Mehmet Nuri Yılmaz in 2001, but this was the first one that was so publicized.
“The Religious Affairs Directorate sees non-Muslim citizens living in Turkey as an integral part of this country. Regarding religious freedoms -- freedom of religion, freedom to receive an education and the sacredness of places of worship -- we demand for them the same rights that we demand for ourselves,” Görmez said.
On the issue of reopening the Halki Seminary, closed in 1971 under a law that placed religious and military training under state control, Bartholomew I said the government is supportive of the reopening of the school and that they are hopeful that it will be reopened.
Yorgo Demir, a journalist who writes about the issues affecting Turkey’s Greek minority, said the Turkish government might be preparing the public for the reopening of the seminary.
“Görmez’s visit was on live television. This might be part of the government’s policy to prepare the public for the reopening of the seminary,” he said.
He also said that the positive steps of the government with regard to minority rights have so far pleased Turkey’s Greek minority, but that they also have some concerns.
“Some government officials have indicated that there are no obstacles in the Constitution to the reopening of the Halki Seminary,” he said. “Does the government expect something in return?” He further added that Görmez mentioned the issue of building a mosque in Athens during his visit to the patriarchate.
A few days after Görmez’s visit to the Greek Patriarchate, Parliament Speaker Cemil Çiçek rejected a request that an Alevi house of worship, a cemevi, be established on the premises of Parliament.
“According to the Religious Affairs Directorate, Alevism is not a separate religion but a formation within Islam, and a part of the richness of Islam that arose during the course of history, and the house of worship in Islam is the mosque.”
These remarks angered both Alevis, who have been historically suspicious of Sunnis, and human rights defenders.
Does the İttihatist mentality persist?
“Who dares question somebody’s beliefs?” asked Fermani Altun, president of the World Ahlul Bayt Foundation, an İstanbul-based organization which brings together Alevi groups from around the world.
“Discrimination based on religion is a global problem, and it is an abuse of human rights. Islam teaches that it is a sin to think badly of someone because of his/her beliefs,” he said.
But why does the government, which introduced its Alevi initiative back in 2009 and held seven workshops attended by several leaders from Alevi associations, fail to recognize the cemevi?
Altun said there are plenty of reasons, including the status quo forces within the state which resist change.
“But much of the fault belongs to the AK Party, which went only half way in meeting the demands of the citizens. Obviously some people would be disturbed by the AK Party’s initiatives -- this country was established on the basis that it would be Turkish and Sunni -- but the government should have been more courageous than this,” he said.
He also said that there were Alevis who were supportive of the government, and they expected to be political candidates for the AK Party, but none of the nearly 200 Alevi candidates were given a chance in the June 2011 elections.
According to academic and human rights defender Baskın Oran, the AK Party has paradoxes in its minority policies because on the one hand it does not have the İttihatist mentality -- the mentality of the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP) (İttihat ve Terakki Cemiyeti), which wanted to get rid of non-Muslims from Turkey when the Ottoman Empire was falling apart at the beginning of the 20th century -- but on the other hand it supports the policy of one-religion.
“Since it is not İttihatist, it can employ measures to remove the oppression that minorities are subjected to,” he said. “However, it is also quite conservative and Islamic, plus it acts like a burgher.”
According to academic Cengiz Aktar, who is among the leaders of the campaign in support of the Arameans of Turkey, the biggest obstacle in front of the government when tackling minority issues is its nationalistic stance.
“This is the soft belly of the government. Old elites are using this point,” he said, adding that the AK Party government should stay away from the very same ideology, the ideology of the İttihatists and Kemalists, from which they have suffered.
“The more they realize this, the more they can be empathetic toward minority groups, and the stronger Turkish democracy will be,” he said. “What is needed is political will which will ensure rights for all citizens.”
Gov’t, non-Muslims get closer but…
After years of mistrust and distance, the government and the non-Muslim community have been establishing closer relations despite some recent setbacks.
In November 2006, Parliament passed a bill to return assets and property previously seized from non-Muslim foundations by the state, but it was vetoed by then-President Ahmet Necdet Sezer, who claimed the bill was a national security risk and returned the bill to Parliament. That law was subject to much criticism because it violated the fundamental rights and liberties of non-Muslim citizens, which are guaranteed under the Turkish Constitution, the European Convention on Human Rights and the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne.
Then, civil society groups appealed to the government and Parliament not to pass the bill in its current form and to listen to representatives of non-Muslim foundations before coming up with a new draft.
Last year, the government issued a decree to return properties confiscated from religious minorities since 1936, and in cases where property belonging to such organizations has been sold by the state to third parties, the religious foundation will be paid the market value of the property by the Ministry of Finance. The decision was announced before an iftar (fast-breaking dinner) on Aug. 28, attended by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and representatives of non-Muslim communities in İstanbul. Non-Muslim groups in Turkey have highly praised the government’s move.