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Otmar Oehring {*}

Here the President was Fibbing

Are non-Muslim Citizens no longer Discriminated in Turkey?


From: Herder-Korrespondenz, 12/2010, P. 621-625
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


    When in mid-October on the occasion of his visit of Turkey President Christian Wulff stated that Christianity was also a part of Turkey he probably wanted to make his hosts aware of the respective problems. For in spite of numerous contrary media reports from recent months, reliable evidence of increasing religious freedom in Turkey can hardly be found.


In his speech on October 3, 2010 in Bremen on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of German Unity President Christian Wulff said among other things, "Christianity belongs without a doubt to Germany. Judaism belongs without a doubt to Germany. (...) But Islam meanwhile also belongs to Germany." He continued, "Of course I am also the President of the Muslims." The critical reactions from politicians and churches were still ringing in our ears, as Wulff took the opportunity of a visit to Turkey to complete the above mentioned statement of his Bremen speech by referring to the Christians.

Even before his flight to Ankara the President said in an interview with the Turkish newspaper "Hürriyet" published on October 19, "As a country with a predominantly Muslim population, Turkey can and will be an important role model if it fully implements tolerance and freedom of religion not only for Islam but also for other religions such as Christianity and Judaism."

On the first day of his state visit Wulff said in a speech before the Turkish Grand National Assembly, "Both of our countries have long been members of the Council of Europe. For many years, we have been bound by the principles of human rights, democracy and the rule of law, as laid down in the European Convention on Human Rights. This includes the protection of minorities as well as religious and cultural pluralism. Muslims in Germany are able to practice their faith in a dignified setting. The increasing number of new mosques is a clear sign of this. We therefore expect Christians in Islamic countries to enjoy the same right to openly live their faith, educate their own clergy and build churches. In all countries, and especially in our two countries, people should enjoy the same rights and opportunities regardless of their religious beliefs. Here in Turkey, there is a long tradition of Christianity. There is no doubt that Christianity is part of Turkey."

At a state banquet on 21 October in Istanbul, where he thanked his host, President Abdullah Gül, for the hospitality, Wulff developed this thought further. He quoted the Ottoman Sultan Mahmud II who had said to his military advisor Helmuth von Moltke on the occasion of an audience in 1837, "You Greeks, you Armenians, you Jews are all servants of God and my subjects like the Muslims. You are different in your faith, but all of you are protected by my law and my imperial will." The President went on, "Applied to our present republican times, may this commitment to pluralism and tolerance give orientation to our two peoples."

Now one could surmise that the President had wanted to qualify his remarks on the location of Islam in Germany with regard to the criticism of individual church leaders and politicians. But one can also assume that Wulff wanted to remind the Turkish hosts of the respective problems in Turkey by his statement that also Christianity is a part of Turkey and by the additional reference to the commitment to pluralism, democracy and rule of law, human rights and religious freedom, and to the European Human Rights Convention signed and ratified by Germany and Turkey. I would understand the President's speeches in Turkey in this way (see HK, July 2009, 368 ff.)



No Reliable Evidence of Increasing Religious Freedom

The problematic situation in Turkey can be sketched quickly: According to its current constitution, Turkey is a democracy (Preamble, Article 2), a state governed by the rule of law (Article 2). All individuals are equal without any discrimination before the law, irrespective of ... religion (Article 10, paragraph 1) and everyone has the right to freedom of conscience, religious belief and conviction (Article 24). In addition, Turkey is a secular state (Article 2).

In fact, one can describe now Turkey as a democracy. Until recently, Turkey was rather a "democratorship" because the General Staff had a determining influence on the fate of the country due to its dominance of the National Security Council - a relic of military rule in the early eighties and the actual policy-making body. Meanwhile, this applies at least not to the same extent.

According to the European Commission's Turkey 2010 Progress Report the rule of law is still not fully guaranteed in Turkey. Not only religious minorities - and here not only Christians and Jews - can tell you a thing or two about that. Equality before the law, regardless of religious affiliation, is still not given. This shows the daily life of Turkish citizens who are not members of the de facto state religion, Sunni Islam. It does not matter whether they belong to a non-Muslim minority or to the Alevis, with up to 30 percent of the population the largest religious minority.

That everyone enjoys the freedom of conscience, religious beliefs and convictions is further on only stated in the Constitution. In its Progress Report 2010, the European Commission declares that with regard to fundamental rights in most areas - inter alia religious freedom is explicitly mentioned here - further significant efforts are needed (see in this issue, 609 et seq.)

How does this fit in with media reports in recent months that progress was made with regard to religious freedom and the situation of non-Muslim minorities in Turkey? If you look more closely at the underlying events, it becomes soon clear that the reported events - as pleasant as they may be - are no reliable evidence of increased religious freedom in Turkey.

Eighty-eight years after the expulsion of Greeks from the region, it was possible to celebrate for the first time the Divine Liturgy on the feast of Assumption in the church of the Greek Orthodox Sumela monastery in the town Macka near Trabzon at the Black Sea coast. Celebrant was the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew.

This had been celebrated at home and abroad already in the run-up to the event, but for very different reasons. Regarding the Orthodox Christians it was the fact that, 88 years after the expulsion of Greeks from the region, it was possible again to celebrate the Divine Liturgy in the monastery church, whereas the Turkish tourism industry and the Tourism Minister enjoyed the fact that they had pulled off a "coup" - regarding the promotion of regional tourism.

It is said that between 650 and 3.500 believers attended the church service, and that about 6.000 tourists came in the region due to this event. The President of the Chamber of Commerce and Industry of Trabzon hopes that the event increases the annual number of tourists in the province from the current 300.000 to one million as early as next year. A help could certainly be here the offer of the mayor of Macka to advocate that in future the authorities permit regular divine services. In a speech in front of the church, the Ecumenical Patriarch stated that the Christians abroad and all those who want to see Turkey in the European context welcomed the tolerance and the support given to the Patriarchate. They were manifested through the opportunity to celebrate the Divine Liturgy at this place and made this day a historic day. If you read the press reports about the event, then it becomes evident that the thanks of the patriarch has indeed been perceived. But it is questionable whether all people in Turkey properly understood his reference to the European context.

A month later, on 19 September 2010, in the Armenian Orthodox Church of the Holy Cross (Surb Hatsch) on the island Ahtamar in Lake Van, about 45 miles southwest of the provincial capital of Van in eastern Anatolia, for the first time in almost a century - in fact 95 years after the genocide of the Armenians - another church service took place. About 3.500 people, including many diplomats from Ankara, took part in the Divine Liturgy. It was celebrated by the Armenian Orthodox Patriarchal Vicar General Aram Atesyan who had been installed in spring by the Turkish government.



About 550 policemen were responsible for the safety of the worshipers on the otherwise uninhabited island. In the run-up to this event, Turkish media had reported that in connection with the church service 45.000 to 50.000 Armenian Christians had come from abroad as tourists to Turkey. Whether this was indeed the case can hardly be ascertained. But such media reports show that here, too, interests of the tourism industry played a decisive role.

From a reference in the speech of the new Patriarchal Vicar General Atesyan you could learn that the Turkish authorities had obviously trouble with the approval of the divine service. He recalled that the seriously ill Patriarch Mesrob Mutafyan had asked the then minister for education and cultural affairs to advocate the granting of a permit to celebrate at the day of the patron saint a divine service - on the occasion of the in 2005 completed renovation of the church. Obviously, the time for issuing the relevant approval had come only now.

And one more detail: In the run-up to the divine service there was a controversy over a six-foot high, wrought-iron cross, which should be attached to the dome of the Church of the Holy Cross. This was prohibited under reference to static concerns. Appeals of the Christians in the Armenian Diaspora outside of Turkey not to participate in the divine service on the island Ahtamar were the result. They did not want to believe the indication of alleged structural problems. Surprisingly, two weeks later the cross was allowed then to be attached to the dome of the church, which is officially a museum. According to media reports the island is meanwhile no longer accessible - whether to protect the church or for other reasons is unknown.


The Struggle for the St. Paul Church in Tarsus

Even for divine services in the so-called St. Paul's Church in Tarsus it was for a long time necessary to obtain the proper permit by the competent authorities and to pay the entrance fees - the church is after all a museum. When in the late eighties the church became vacant - previously it had served the army as a depot - the superior of the Custody of the Capuchin Province of Parma in Turkey and today Archbishop of Izmir, Ruggero Franceschini, succeeded in getting from the authorities the permit for regularly using the church for divine services. In fact, subsequently more and more pilgrims came to Tarsus and celebrated in the church divine services. This attracted the attention of the higher authorities in Ankara - the church became a museum.

Now the Ministry of Culture and Tourism in Ankara was responsible. Initially, nothing changed on the spot until the political conditions changed in the municipality of Tarsus. The church was no longer available for divine services, it was after all a museum. And you have to pay admission if you want to visit a museum. But Turkey is Turkey. And that's why, in spite of this fact, divine services could be celebrated occasionally in the church. This time a permit from the district administrator and the payment of entrance fees for all participants was necessary, another time only one or the other, sometimes neither this nor that.

The late Apostolic Vicar of Anatolia, Luigi Padovese then tried - supported by the Cologne Cardinal Joachim Meisner - to persuade the authorities to leave the church building to the church. This has always been refused by the authorities, but as an alternative they offered a nearby factory building for usage as a pilgrimage center. One can also wonder why the authorities should leave the church building to the Catholic Church and by what right she struggled for the transfer of the building. The church is supposed to have been originally a Greek Orthodox church and came probably in the chaos after the war of liberation in the possession of the Turkish state.

In any case, the commitment of the German ambassador in Turkey, the chairman of the Committee on Foreign Affairs in Bundestag, Ruprecht Polenz, and his Turkish counterpart, Murat Mercan, had the result that during the Pauline Year the church could be used for divine services. With the end of the Pauline Year, also this possibility was over. Meanwhile it was reported that it was possible again to celebrate divine services in the Church. It is not yet finally clarified whether entrance fees have further on to be paid. However, in the media nothing was reported that indicated that President Wulff and his entourage first had to pay entrance fees before attending an ecumenical service in the church on the 21th 0ctober. But the divine service was only possible after the Turkish authorities had issued a special permit.

These three examples, which have partly been interpreted as an indication of greater religious freedom in Turkey, show on closer inspection that they are certainly not suitable for it. If in Turkey religious freedom would exist, the question whether it is possible to celebrate divine services in those churches or not could not arise in this way. However, the question of to whom these churches actually belong must be clarified previously. One thing is for sure: the original owners have certainly not offhandedly left the aforementioned church buildings to the Turkish state.

But the three examples also show that the countries of the Western world are greatly interested that in Turkey as soon as possible religious freedom exists, or at least more freedom of religion, and particularly for the non-Muslim minorities, including Christians. In order not to have to admit that this is still not so, observers both in area of media and politics tend to clutch at any straw, however small it may be. So far, this straw was called Foundation Law.



The Foundations Law No 5737 of 20 February 2008 actually brought improvements in the so-called community foundations. The legislator describes property of certain non-Muslim communities with the term community foundation (cemaat Vakif). So e.g. Armenian Catholic, Armenian Orthodox, Chaldean Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Syrian Catholic and Syrian Orthodox, Jewish and some other Christian communities have community foundations. These have legal personality and are the owners of churches, monasteries, schools, hospitals in the respective communities.

The improvements that the new foundation law has brought include inter alia the possibility that "seized" (mazbut vakýf) property of community foundations can be registered as property of the community foundations in the land register. Property was regularly seized if it was confiscated by the authorities on the basis of an interpretation of the law in favour of the state. The government has now promised to refund property, provided it is still in its possession. If property is e.g. used by the state as a school and can therefore not be transferred back, the government compensates the community foundations according to value.

But the Act provides no regulation regarding real estates that were sold to innocently trusting third parties. In case the state has sold a confiscated school, the real owner, a community foundation, has bad luck. The new foundation law has also not clarified the question of what has to happen regarding community foundations that are seized, according to the version of the state. Foundations are e.g. seized because, due to the demographic developments, in a particular parish there lived no longer enough members of a certain non-Muslim minority who could elect an executive board.

The fact that foundations were unable to elect a board of trustees and time limits were exceeded was regularly used by the government as an opportunity to declare that the respective foundations had come to an end and to acquire their property. But of much greater significance for the non-Muslim minorities in Turkey is the fact that between the Christian churches or the Chief Rabbinate on the one hand and the community foundations on the other hand no legal relationship exist.



The buildings used e.g. by the Ecumenical Patriarchate could be sold at any time by the Community Foundation as the owner of this building. Due to the current legal situation, it would be impossible for the Ecumenical Patriarch to take legal action against it.


A Complex and Confusing Legal Situation

In this specific case there is also the fact that the Ecumenical Patriarch in Turkey is not the representative of an institution with legal personality. Like all religious communities in Turkey, the Ecumenical Patriarchate has no legal personality. Unaware of all these circumstances, in our country media and politicians commented the adoption of the new Law on Foundations as if an essential step towards the implementation of religious freedom in Turkey had been taken.

However, the criticized media and politicians must at least partially be relieved from the reproach of ignorance. For the legal situation, particularly of the non-Muslim minorities in Turkey, is de facto so complex and confusing that such misconceptions are almost inevitable. A current example may illustrate this.

On the island Büyükada, the largest of the Princes' Islands in the Marmara Sea, a huge wooden building is located. The Ecumenical Patriarchate is its owner. It had purchased the house in the early 20th century and used as an orphanage. When, due to political circumstances, the number of Greeks in Turkey decreased the orphanage has been closed. The state has taken this as an opportunity to confiscate the orphanage. The Ecumenical Patriarchate resisted this and went to court - as was to be expected, without success.

However, just this opened the possibility to go to Strasbourg to the European Court of Human Rights. On 15 June 2010 the court ruled in favour of the Patriarch and ordered the Republic of Turkey to return the orphanage. The Turkish authorities took their time with implementing the binding verdict - Turkey has after all already in 1954 ratified the underlying European Human Rights Convention. They argued that the building belonged to the category of "seized", which was introduced by the state for community foundations in order to be able to annex more easily their properties. But according to old land register extracts and to the Strasbourg verdict, the orphanage of Büyükada is demonstrably property of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, which according to Turkish interpretation has no legal personality. The Strasbourg verdict will now also serve as a basis for resolving this issue before the Strasbourg court.

In its resolution 1704 of 17th January 2010, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe where Turkey is a member since 1950 has inter alia called on Turkey to grant legal personality to explicitly mentioned Christian churches and the Chief Rabbinate, to clarify the issue of training of clergy for the non-Muslim minorities, and to grant residence permits to foreign clerics. As important and correct these demands are, it must be pointed out that the underlying problems have not been treated with due diligence. This becomes evident by the fact that neither the Protestant Free Churches, nor the Baha'i and other religious communities that have established themselves in the recent past in Turkey, are mentioned in the list of demands of the resolution.

A little later, on March 15, 2010, the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe published an opinion on the legal status of religious communities in Turkey. It lists and discusses in a systematic manner all the demands that have to be implemented by Turkey in order to guarantee really freedom of religion: This is first the legal status for religious communities; internal autonomy, which e.g. with regard to the Ecumenical Patriarchate had to include also the keeping of this title; in addition, the opportunity of training clergy in Turkey has to be given, or as a substitute the granting of residence and work permits for clergy from abroad..

Particularly important is the indication of the Venice Commission that there are no clues that the legal recognition of the religious communities in question in accordance with Article 9, Section 1 in Vm Art 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights could fail due to the restrictions of Article 9, Section 2 of the ECHR: i.e. the necessary protection of public safety, protection of public order, health or morals or the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.

The Turkish President said at a joint press conference with President Wulff on 19 October 2010, asked about his statements on Islam in Germany, "I can make a similar comment. We have non-Muslim citizens, we have Christian and Jewish citizens. I am also their president." But Gül fibbed when he added, "There is no discrimination. I do not think there's a problem." If Turkey would pay heed to the exhortations of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe in its resolution 1704 and implement the recommendations of the Venice Commission, Abdullah Gül would soon be right with his statement that in Turkey non-Muslim citizens would not be discriminated. But as long as Turkey continues not responding to respective warnings and recommendations, it will also in future be confronted with such warnings and recommendations.


    {*} Dr. Otmar Oehring (born in 1955) is since 2001 Head of the Human Rights Office of Missio in Aachen. Since late 1983 he has been in the foreign department of missio, the Pontifical Mission Society in Aachen, where he was initially Desk Officer for the Islamic countries. Oehring, who has lived in Turkey for years is inter alia a member of the Advisory Board of the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).


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