US religious freedom commission recommends placing Turkey on special watch list for severe violations

The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) recommended that the State Department place Turkey on its special watch list based on the Turkish government’s perpetration or toleration of severe violations of religious freedom, in its annual report released on Wednesday.

According to the report religious freedom conditions in Turkey continued to follow a troubling trajectory in 2020. The government “made little to no effort to address many longstanding religious freedom issues and it ignored the continued targeting and vandalization of religious minority properties throughout the country,” USCIRF said.

A total of 12 countries are recommended for placement on the State Department’s Special Watch List based on their governments’ perpetration or toleration of severe violations — Cuba, Nicaragua, Afghanistan, Algeria, Azerbaijan, Egypt, Indonesia, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Malaysia, Turkey and Uzbekistan.

According to USCIRF the Turkish government has become increasingly repressive since a July 2016 coup attempt, detaining numerous journalists and perceived political opponents, including a reported 292,000 individuals affiliated with—or accused of affiliation with— the Gülen movement, which was inspired by US-based cleric Fethullah Gülen.

The report cited the conversion of Hagia Sophia back into a mosque with a decree issued by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan; continued disregard of calls for the reopening of the Greek Orthodox Halki Seminary; the denial of legal personality to all religious communities; the failure to recognize Alevi gathering houses (cemevleri) as places of worship and the failure to resolve other religious freedom concerns for Alevis and other communities; and the Erdoğan government’s regular failure to prevent or punish vandalism, damage and destruction to religious sites as some of the key religious freedom issues in Turkey.

The report also said the authorities brought politically motivated charges of blasphemy against individuals and groups and “utilized rhetoric characterized as hate speech that denigrated nonreligious individuals and members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) community.”

In its Syria section the report mentioned violations committed by armed factions under Turkey’s control or influence and asked the US government to exert pressure on and engage with Turkey “to provide a timeline for its withdrawal from all territory that it occupies as a result of cross-border operations into north and east Syria” and that Turkey order armed factions to “cease all activities negatively impacting religious and ethnic minorities in that area.”

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, secretary of state and Congress to deter religious persecution and promote freedom of religion and belief.

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