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US report says Turkey still restricts religious freedom

ISTANBUL - 21.05.2013 18:37:29

A US State Department report has said Turkey generally protects religious freedom but that there are some laws, policies and constitutional provisions that restrict religious freedom.

The International Religious Freedom Report released by the US State Department on Monday said there were reports of abuses of religious freedom, including the imprisonment of at least one conscientious objector for his religious beliefs. It said the trend in the government's respect for religious freedom did not change significantly during 2012.

The report said the Turkish constitution, written by the military junta in the early 1980s, defines the country as a secular state and provides for freedom of belief, worship and the private expression of religious ideas. The constitution prohibits discrimination on religious grounds.

Despite these provisions, the report noted, the government provides favorable and prejudicial treatment to Sunni Islamic groups. The report stated that the Turkish government donates land for the construction of mosques and in many cases funds their construction through the Religious Affairs Directorate or municipalities. Municipalities pay the utility bills for mosques located within their boundaries. These benefits are uniquely available to Sunni Muslims. The Turkish Religious Affairs Foundation (TDV), a quasi-governmental entity, owns many of the mosques around the country.

The government considers Alevism a heterodox Muslim sect and does not financially support religious worship for Alevi Muslims.

The state provides training for Sunni Muslim clerics. Religious groups other than Sunni Muslims do not have schools to train clerics inside the country. The Greek Orthodox Halki Seminary on the island of Heybeli closed in 1971 in response to a law that required all private colleges to be affiliated with a state-run university and meet government requirements that did not permit the operation of a seminary within a monastic community. The Greek Orthodox community thereby lost the only educational institution in the country for training its religious leadership. Co-religionists from outside the country assume informal leadership positions in some cases, but according to a mandate from the İstanbul Governor's Office, leaders of the Greek Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic and Jewish communities must be citizens. Religious groups generally face administrative challenges when seeking to employ foreign religious personnel because there is no visa category for religious workers.

In general, the report said, members of religious groups that had formal recognition during the Ottoman period, including the Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox, Armenian Protestant and Jewish communities, reported they had freedom to practice their faiths.

The report noted that the Turkish government continued to return or provide compensation for property confiscated from religious community foundations in previous decades. The government did not clarify the legal authority under which the Greek Orthodox Halki Seminary could reopen after being closed for more than 40 years.

The report also criticized the ban on headscarves in government offices and public primary schools, but welcomed as the government did not enforce the ban in universities and in some workplaces.

The report said the Higher Education Board (YÖK) continued to refrain from enforcing the ban on headscarves in universities. This policy did not extend to primary and secondary schools, and the ban remained in force for civil servants in public buildings, although some government offices unofficially allowed employees to wear headscarves. On Nov. 27, the Ministry of Education announced new regulations, to take effect in 2013, abolishing school uniforms and permitting the wearing of headscarves by female students in elective Quran classes and at “imam-hatip” schools.

The report said some religious groups faced restrictions registering with the government, owning property and training their members and clergy. Although religious speech and conversions are legal, some Muslims, Christians and Bahais faced government restrictions, surveillance and occasional harassment for alleged proselytizing or providing religious instruction to children.

It included reports of societal abuse and discrimination based on religious affiliation, belief or practice. Christians, Baha'is, many non-Sunni Muslims, including the sizeable Alevi population, and members of other religious minority groups faced threats and societal suspicion. Jewish leaders reported some elements of society continued to express anti-Semitic sentiments.

The report added that the government continued to impose significant restrictions on religious expression, including Muslim expression, in government offices and state-run institutions for the stated reason of preserving the “secular state.” However, many state buildings, including universities, maintained mesjids (small mosques) in which Muslims could pray. The government denied a request from an Alevi member of Parliament to establish a small Alevi place of worship in the Parliament building, which had a mesjid.

It said mystical Sufi and other religious-social orders (tarikats) and lodges (cemaats), banned officially since 1925, remained active and widespread. The government did not enforce this ban.

(Cihan/Today's Zaman)

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