12th April, 2012
Compass Direct News
Sentiment against Christians in Turkey has persisted long enough for a US religious rights monitor to recommend it as a “Country of Particular Concern,” and pastor Orhan Picaklar knows such anti-Christian hostility first-hand.
Picaklar, of Agape Church in Samsun, lives in the Black Sea region, a bastion of Turkey’s unique Islamic-imbued nationalism, where Christians live under increasing pressure. He has seen his building attacked and his family and congregation threatened.
The US Commission on International Religious Freedom report cited the government for “systematic and egregious limitations” on religious freedom, stating that Turkey, “in the name of secularism, has long imposed burdensome regulations and denied full legal status to religious groups, violating the religious freedom rights of all religious communities.”
“Just as it is difficult to belong to Jesus all over the world, unfortunately it is the same in Samsun, if not worse,” Picaklar said. “We have been here for 10 years, and people here still treat us like cursed enemies. Our families feel anxiety. On the hour my wife calls me and I have to say, ‘There’s no problem,’ as if to say, ‘I’m still alive.’”
Picaklar’s son received death threats on Facebook last September. A man in his early 20s caused minor damage to Picaklar’s church building last month, the latest in a series of aggressions that has led the church to file charges after long declining to do so.
Of the 50 members of his church, only a dozen have made the brave move to change the religion status on their identification cards from Muslim to Christian, or at least to leave it blank, Picaklar said.
Many in Turkey see Christians as corrupt elements of the West out to shake the integrity of Turkey and Islam; this portrayal has been propagated to some extent in media and literature, including school textbooks. Though constitutionally Turks are allowed to share their faith with others, the word “missionary” carries negative connotations, including the mistaken notion of undermining Turkish sovereignty. In recent years a series of assassinations of Christians in Turkey has brought to the fore deep-rooted prejudices against Christians.
Such indiscretions are one reason the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) last month recommended that Turkey be designated as a “Country of Particular Concern (CPC),” among Iran, Saudi Arabia and Sudan, for religious freedom violations.
The report cited the government for “systematic and egregious limitations” on religious freedom, stating that Turkey, “in the name of secularism, has long imposed burdensome regulations and denied full legal status to religious groups, violating the religious freedom rights of all religious communities.”
Restrictions that deny non-Muslim communities the rights to train clergy, offer religious education and own and maintain places of worship have led to their decline and in some cases their disappearance, the report stated. The Greek Orthodox community of Turkey has dwindled to around 2,500 from tens of thousands early in the 20th century.
The report called some of the positive steps the government has made in the area of property, education and religious dress as “ad hoc” that have not led to systematic constitutional and legal changes.
Religious restrictions in Turkey have not increased in the last year, but the report stated that continued legal discrimination against non-Muslim groups was a dangerous trend.
Turkish officials called USCIRF’s recommendation to the US Department of State “null and void.” Turkey’s parliament is in the process of drafting a new constitution, and a special parliamentary committee has met with members of Turkey’s non-Muslim communities to hear from them how the new constitution could better represent their communities.
A researcher on religious freedom in Turkey, Mine Yildirim of ABO Academy in Finland, told Compass that USCIRF’s portrayal of religious freedom in Turkey is correct but that the country did not deserve to be designated as a CPC.
“I think it was an unfair attestation, and though they wanted to give a strong message to Turkey, it backfired because the ministry said it was null and void and they wouldn’t take it into account at all,” said Yildirim, a Turkish Christian.
Yildirim acknowledged that religious freedom violations against Protestants had increased in 2011, noting that with few exceptions they are still unable to establish places of worship. Most of Turkey’s churches function as civil associations and can therefore meet in buildings.
Five years after the murder of Turkish Christians Necati Aydin, Ugur Yuksel and German Christian Tilmann Geske in Malatya, no verdict has been issued due to Turkey’s slow judiciary. This has not helped Turkey’s religious rights image.
The Malatya Third Criminal Court is making some progress in shedding light on a shadowy group that was allegedly behind the murders, experts said, but the process has been painfully slow. A new indictment due last month against the alleged “masterminds” of the murders is still not ready, prosecution lawyers said, setting back hopes for progress at hearings this week. The court decided to re-convene on 18th June..
Since 2008 there have not been similar bloody attacks against Protestants, but according to the Association of Turkish Protestant Churches, 2011 saw a spike in hate crimes against the association’s 4,500 members.
Commenting on the slow proceedings of the Malatya trial, researcher Yildirim of the ABO Academy said that the judiciary and Turkish “problems of rule and law” were partially to blame, but that the forthcoming new indictment would be a positive step.
“For Malatya, if you put aside the slowness, now finally a new indictment is being prepared to find the instigators,” she said. “So this is a positive effect. It’s not what we expect from justice, but even though it is slow, this is a positive outcome of the trial.”
This is an edited version of the CDN report, the full version of which can be found at www.compassdirect.org