06 March 2007

Turkey Violates Religious Freedom

EXCLUSIVE: My sources in Turkey inform me that authorities in the north-west of the country are trying to shut down yet another local church, less than a month after it purchased a building to use as its place of worship. The church is also being falsely accused in the local press and on local television of offering $25,000 to people who are willing to change their religion.

Property ownership for minority religious communities is beset with problems. Groups such as the Greek Orthodox, Armenians, Syrian Orthodox, and Jews are supposed to be allowed to own their own places of worship, while for Catholics and Protestants, the congregations or church communities have to own the buildings. Yet the state often refuses to recognise even this.

When negotiations were still in progress over Turkey's possible accession to the European Union, the country appeared willing to make concessions over religious freedom. However, now that these have stalled over the Turkish government's refusal to recognise the government of Cyprus in Nicosia, it seems that neither the governing Islamist-based Justice and Development Party (AKP) nor the opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) accepts the principle that all their citizens have rights. Neither party appears to have read or understood Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights, still less that they are ready to grant individuals their rights to religious freedom. Turkish diplomats and secularist government officials fear that if the AKP increases its vote in elections scheduled later this year, it would be strong enough to change the Constitution; also that it could install a President who, unlike the current President, would not veto laws deemed to be part of an Islamist agenda.

It is just over a year since Father Andrea Santoro was murdered while praying in his church in Trabzon, in the east of the country, and less than two months since the journalist and former chairman in the Armenian Evangelical Church, Hrant Dink, was assassinated in Istanbul.