US State Department highlights Turkish gov’t’s violations of religious rights in its 2017 report

The US State Department has highlighted the massive violations of religious freedom and rights by Turkish government across the country in 2017 in its annual International Religious Freedom Report for 2017, which was released on Tuesday.

The report said that since a July 2016 coup attempt, the Turkish government had dismissed or suspended from state institutions more than 100,000 government officials, including more than 4,000 staff from the Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet), for alleged links with the Gülen movement.

Based on data provided by the Ministry of Interior, the report stated that authorities had arrested more than 50,000 individuals since the coup attempt on alleged terror-related grounds.

The report said the Turkish government also continued to detain some foreign citizens for what it stated were potential links to the Gülen movement. In August an İzmir judge added related charges to the original December 2016 indictment of a US citizen and Protestant pastor (Andrew Brunson) detained since October 2016.

According to the report, the Turkish government led by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan  continued to limit the rights of non-Muslim minorities, especially those it did not recognize as covered under the 1923 Lausanne Treaty.

The Turkish government also “continued to consider Alevism a heterodox Muslim group and continued not to recognize Alevi houses of worship (cemevis).”

The report stated that “as part of a broader shutdown by government decree of organizations for allegedly spreading terrorist propaganda, the government closed two Shia Jaferi-owned television stations in January. The decrees did not specify the nature of the ‘terrorist propaganda.’ Alevis expressed concern about security and said the government failed to meet their demands for religious reforms.”

“In July 2017 the Ministry of National Education implemented an extensive revision of the school curriculum, which secular individuals and other citizens said increased the Sunni Muslim content in the textbooks and undermined the country’s secular education system. Non-Sunni Muslims did not receive the same protections as recognized non-Muslim minorities, although both experienced difficulty operating or opening houses of worship, challenging land and other property claims, or obtaining exemptions from mandatory religion classes,” said the report.

According to the report, the Turkish government continued to train Sunni Muslim clerics, while restricting other religious groups from training their clergy, and continued to fund the construction of Sunni mosques while restricting land use of other religious groups.

“Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of the Greek Orthodox Church continued to call on the government to allow the Halki Seminary to reopen as an independent institution to train Greek Orthodox clerics in the country,” according to the report.

“Following the attempted July 2016 coup, the government declared a three-month state of emergency, which it renewed in October (2017) for the fifth time. The government ascribed responsibility for the coup attempt to self-exiled Muslim cleric Fethullah Gülen and his movement, which identifies itself as an Islam-inspired civic, cultural and education movement, although the government considers it a terrorist organization,” said the report.

“Since the coup attempt, police arrested more than 50,000 individuals, many for allegedly having ties to the Gülen movement. During the year the government suspended thousands of public officials, including more than 1,000 Diyanet employees. The government reinstated some public employees by state of emergency decree; several hundred were from the Diyanet,” the report added.

Report continued as follows:

“Some foreign citizens, including several individuals with ties to Christian groups, faced detention, problems with residency permits, or denial of entry to the country under the state of emergency. Some Protestant community sources said they did not believe the government was specifically targeting foreign missionaries or those linked to Christian groups.

“In October the government added additional charges to the case of a US citizen Protestant pastor, who at year’s end remained in pretrial detention in connection with charges including membership in the movement associated with Fethullah Gülen (labeled by the government as the “Fethullah Terrorist Organization” or “FETO”), espionage, and attempting to overthrow the government.

“President Recep Tayyip Erdogan publicly linked the pastor’s case to the extradition of Fethullah Gülen from the United States. The government asserted that it was not holding the pastor because of his religious work. Most observers in the country said the case was political in nature; some US-based organizations said the pastor’s detention was related to his work as a Christian minister. The pastor’s was one of several cases of US citizens detained under the state of emergency; the other cases did not involve religious leaders.

“In May and October a court in Ataşehir, a suburb of İstanbul, held hearings on the charge of ‘willful and malicious injury’ for a man who attacked two Jehovah’s Witnesses with a baseball bat in December 2016, severely injuring a 17-year-old Witness. A judge postponed the case; the next hearing was scheduled for January 2018.

“According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, 29 different municipalities denied 91 requests made by Jehovah’s Witnesses to obtain a religious facility location on municipal zoning maps. Local governments did not permit zoning for any Kingdom Halls in the country.

“According to Protestant groups, many local officials continued to impose zoning standards on churches, such as minimum space requirements, that they did not impose on mosques. Local officials required Protestant groups to purchase 2,500 square meters of land (27,000 square feet) to construct churches, even for small congregations. Officials did not apply this requirement to Sunni Muslim congregations, whom they permitted to build small mosques in malls, airports, and other spaces. The Protestant groups said they had not applied for permits to build any new churches during the year, in part because of the zoning requirements.

“Religious communities continued to challenge the government’s 2016 expropriation of their properties damaged in clashes between government security forces and the terrorist group Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK). The government expropriated those properties for their stated goal of “post-conflict reconstruction.”

“By the end of the year, the government had not returned or completed repairs on any of the properties, including the historic and ancient Sur District of Diyarbakir Province, Kursunlu Mosque, Hasirli Mosque, Surp Giragos Armenian Church, Mar Petyun Chaldean Church, Syriac Protestant Church, and the Armenian Catholic Church.

“In April the Council of State, the top administrative court, issued an interim decision to suspend the expropriation of Surp Giragos Armenian Church. The church remained closed and these cases continued at year’s end. Additionally, at year’s end the government had not paid restitution and compensation to the religious groups for the expropriation of property damaged in fighting with the PKK.

“In September 2016 the General Directorate of Foundations (GDF) began restoring the expropriated Armenian Catholic Church; by the end of the year, the restoration was not complete, and the church was not accessible for public use. The government said the Ministry of Culture would coordinate the restoration of some properties, and the GDF would restore properties it owned; however, no restorations occurred by the end of the year.

“The government did not return any additional properties it had seized in previous decades by year’s end. Since 2011 the GDF received 1,560 applications from religious minority foundations that had applied for compensation for seized properties. The GDF returned 333 properties and paid compensation for 21 additional properties.

“The GDF rejected the other applications pending from 2011; it said the applications did not meet the criteria as outlined in the 2011 compensation law. The period for submitting compensation applications expired in 2013, and therefore no religious foundations submitted new applications during the year.

“The Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, Jewish, Syrian Orthodox, Bulgarian Orthodox, Georgian Orthodox, Chaldean, and Armenian Protestant communities, which had previously submitted applications for the return of properties, continued to say these unresolved claims were an issue for their communities. Recognized religious foundations were able to receive compensation for their seized properties, but religious institutions and communities without legally recognized foundations were not.

In June a Mardin court denied appeals from the Syriac Mor Gabriel Foundation regarding the Treasury’s ownership of expropriated Syriac community properties, including churches, graveyards, and village homes not registered to a Syriac foundation. Current law does not allow the Syriac community to transfer such community-owned (unregistered) properties from the Treasury to a religious foundation.

“The government offered to transfer the religious properties to the GDF and to give the Syriac community long-term leases, but the community rejected the proposal and was seeking a legal framework that would give it full ownership. A Syriac member of parliament in July called for the government to adopt policies to protect citizens of different faiths.”

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