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The State Department Report on Religious Freedom Reaffirms Turkey’s Failure to Implement Reforms

The State Department Report on Religious Freedom Reaffirms Turkey’s Failure to Implement Reforms

November 30, 2009

WASHINGTON (November 30, 2009)—The U.S. Department of State, in its latest International Religious Freedom (IRF) Report, reaffirmed that the Turkish state has failed to implement a series of amendments to its Constitution regarding the integrity and existence of a secular state, and furthermore, has failed to fulfill its commitments to employ significant bilateral and multilateral arrangements within the context of fundamental civil, political and religious rights, announced the American Hellenic Institute (AHI), a leading Greek American public policy center. The State Department published the report on October 26, 2009.

“We urge President Barack Obama to exert pressure on Turkey to comply with its commitments and impose the appropriate sanctions in the cases of non-compliance,” said AHI Executive Director Nick Larigakis. “Failing to do so makes the U.S. complicit in Turkey’s insidious efforts to extinguish its Greek Orthodox minority and the Ecumenical Patriarchate, which is the spiritual center for 300 million Orthodox Christians worldwide.”

AHI has been the front-runner in informing the U.S. government about Turkey’s continuous violations of human rights and international law, and the need for the U.S. to act accordingly to address these issues affecting the Greek American community. A synopsis of IRF Report is found below.

Synopsis: U.S. Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report

The International Religious Freedom Report specifically states that Turkey continues to place a significant level of limitations on the freedom of expression of religious minority communities for the “stated reason of preserving the secular state.” These significant restrictions, including state policies and actions, effectively place restrictions upon the ability of religious minorities to work in state institutions due to their faith. In addition, religious minorities have faced serious difficulties in practicing their faith, registering their status with the Turkish government, in their right to own and maintain property, train religious clergy and offer religious education. Social harassment and restrictions on expression have led to the decline, or in some instances disappearance, of some religious minorities from lands they had inhabited for centuries. The report found that the persistence of this problem places the existence of several religious minorities in Turkey at risk.

According to the Report’s findings, the legal/policy framework in Turkey is as one of the core problems leading to the restriction of religious freedom. Even though registration with the government is not mandatory for religious groups, failing to do so results in harassment. Any organization or religious group can register as an association or foundation but is not allowed to register on “religious grounds.” Moreover, the process of application is lengthy, expensive and involves high levels of bureaucracy. According to the law, non-registration prevents a religious group from owning real estate, and in addition, requires that it be administered by a Turkish citizen.

Failed Implementation of Protections for Religious Minorities in Turkey

Specifically, Turkey has failed to implement the guarantees and protections granted for all non-Muslim religious minorities under the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne. It is estimated that there are approximately 3,000 Greek Orthodox Christians in Turkey today who are severely limited to their means of obtaining legal recognition of their status as a Patriarchate rather than a foundation; a fact that severely restricts their ownership and property transfer rights within the Turkish state. In addition, the Turkish legal framework fails to allow the Greek Orthodox community to reclaim the hundreds of properties expropriated by the state over the years.

Furthermore, religious minorities have continued to report difficulties in maintaining and operating their houses of worship. In particular, the Greek Orthodox Church has faced significant restrictions with regards to the administration of its churches. Turkey still fails to recognize the Ecumenical status of the Greek Orthodox Patriarch. Also, the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Istanbul has continued to seek the reopening of the Halki seminary, which was closed in 1971. The IRF Report inaccurately states that the Halki seminary was closed to avoid being nationalized by the Turkish state. Instead, the seminary was closed due to a Turkish law that prohibits the operation of private institutions of higher education. The closure of the Halki seminary severely restricts the training of religious clergy and the religious education of the Greek Orthodox Christian minority.

On the matter of restoration or construction of facilities and monuments of religious minorities, the Turkish state requires that work needs to be granted authorization by the regional board. As a result, increased bureaucratic procedures relating to the historical preservation of sites of religious minorities have seriously undermined the repairs of religious facilities. This matter highlights the limitations placed upon religious freedom and shows the lack of respect on the part of Turkey to rightfully protect its cultural and national wealth. According to the IRF Report, on July 8, 2009, the ECHR ruled that Turkey had violated the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s property rights regarding a former orphanage on Buyukada Island. The process to determinate whether the land will be returned to the Patriarchate, or whether it will receive monetary compensation, is still in progress.

The U.S. State Department recognizes the Greek Orthodox community has suffered through a series of events resulting in the destruction of private and commercial properties, violation of religious sites, and expropriation of income-generating properties of both private citizens and the Ecumenical Patriarchate. In this state of affairs, survival of both the Ecumenical Patriarchate and the Greek Orthodox community in Turkey is severely undermined. With reference to its most recent findings, the report cites that in the first half of 2009, two Greek Orthodox cemeteries in Istanbul and one in Izmir suffered extensive damage as a result of vandalism. After a series of incidents reported in February, national police officials were assigned in March to protect a cemetery in Balikli. According to estimates of Greek Embassy officials, nearly 60 percent of Istanbul’s Edirnekapi cemetery has been destroyed.

In addition to the aforementioned examples, there is an endless list of continued Turkish suppression of other non-Muslim religious minorities.

In its final section, the IRF Report highlights the efforts of the U.S. Government to promote human rights and religious freedom to Turkish government officials and authorities. The reopening of the Halki seminary is an issue the U.S. ambassador and other U.S. officials in Turkey have repeatedly urged Turkish officials to act upon. On April 6, 2009, in his speech to Turkish Parliament, President Barack Obama reinforced this position, “Freedom of religion and expression lead to a strong and vibrant civil society that only strengthens the state, which is why steps like reopening the Halki Seminary will send such an important signal inside Turkey and beyond.” The following day he met with the Ecumenical Patriarch paying tribute to His All Holiness’s role as a significant religious leader.

The American Hellenic Institute is a nonprofit public policy organization that works to strengthen relations between the United States and Greece and Cyprus, and also within the American Hellenic community.

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