Turkish gov’t continues to fuel a political environment hostile to minorities, US religious freedom commission says

The Turkish government has continued to engage in action, deliberate inaction and rhetoric to fuel a political environment hostile to religious minorities, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) said on Friday, in a country update on Turkey.

According to the report little effort has been made to address key religious freedom issues, and as a result religious freedom conditions in Turkey remained poor in 2021.

The report listed such key religious freedom issues as granting minority religious communities legal personality and permission to hold board member elections; recognizing Alevi houses of worship; and reopening the Theological School of Halki — a seminary of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of the Eastern Orthodox Church. Government tolerance of hate speech and acts of violence were also mentioned as key issues.

USCIRF is an independent, bipartisan federal government entity established by the US Congress to monitor, analyze and report on threats to religious freedom abroad. USCIRF makes foreign policy recommendations to the president, the secretary of state and Congress to deter religious persecution and promote freedom of religion and belief.

According to the report the Turkish occupation of territory across northern Syria remains a serious threat to the vulnerable religious and ethnic minority populations of that area, including Yazidis, Christians and Kurds. “Turkey and TSOs [Turkish-supported opposition groups] have continued to attack and displace communities with large religious minority populations,” the report said.

USCIRF also highlighted the risk of deportation faced by Uyghur refugees in Turkey, despite Ankara’s reluctance to ratify an extradition treaty with Beijing, which was signed in 2017.

“Still, Uyghurs and others have reason to worry, as Ankara has a history of deporting refugees and asylum seekers back to conflict zones or likely persecution,” the report said. “Turkey has detained and sent Syrian refugees and activists to Idlib; deported at least four Uyghur refugees to China in 2019; returned thousands of Afghans fleeing conflict and Taliban persecution in 2018; and secretly expelled two asylum seekers back to Uzbekistan in 2017, where they faced torture.”

According to the report members of persecuted religious minorities from Iran who have sought refuge in Turkey reportedly continue to receive threats from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). The report mentions followers of spiritual leader Dr. Mohammad Ali Taheri and the Erfan-e Halgheh movement as examples of groups receiving messages from the IRGC threatening violence against their families.

“Turkish police and security services, however, have expressed little interest in investigating these threats or providing protection,” the report said.

In its 2020 Annual Report, USCIRF had recommended that the State Department include Turkey on its Special Watch List “for engaging in or tolerating severe violations of religious freedom.”

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