In Turkey, religious minorities still struggle for equality

When people think of Turkey, they think of a westernized Islamic democracy where the rights of all of its citizens are respected, including religious minorities. Unfortunately, the sad reality is that Turkey treats members of religious minority communities - including Alevi Muslims, Catholics, Protestants, Syriacs, Jews and Orthodox Christians - as second-class citizens.

The problems they face are numerous and multi-faceted. For example, minority religious institutions lack legal personality, and as result, they cannot own property and do not have other rights typically accorded to others by law. It is as if these minority religious institutions do not exist. Other problems include confiscation of properties without compensation, interference in the election of religious leaders, restrictions on the training of clergy and frequent discrimination and numerous obstacles in establishing or continuing to use places of worship. The symbol of this mistreatment is the Orthodox School of Theology on the Island of Halki where for years Orthodox priests were trained to serve the Ecumenical Patriarchate. That theological school was closed by the government of Turkey in 1971 and has remained closed ever since. As a result, the Ecumenical Patriarchate cannot train priests necessary for its continued existence.

A group of Orthodox lay people known as the Order of Saint Andrew, Archons of the Ecumenical Patriarchate has engaged in a systematic campaign to correct the wrongs inflicted on religious minorities. In November 2010, the Archons sponsored an historic religious freedom conference which took place in the European Parliament in Brussels. That conference was titled “Religious Freedom: Turkey’s Bridge to the European Union.” It focused not only on the religious freedom of Orthodox Christians, but also that of other religious minorities, including Alevi Muslims, Armenians, Catholics, Protestants, Jews and Syriacs. This conference was an historic event because it was the first time an international conference focused on the rights of religious minorities in Turkey that brought together all major constituencies - politicians, members of minority communities, diplomats, religious leaders, human rights lawyers and advocates, scholars, journalists and political commentators. It also produced an historic result. Because of the conference, members of minority communities for the first time began to meet regularly and work together to address common problems. That had never happened before.

On December 4 and 5, 2013, the Archons will be sponsoring a Second International Religious Freedom Conference in Berlin, Germany. It will be entitled “Tearing Down Walls: Achieving Religious Equality in Turkey.” It will focus on two main subject areas: (1) the concepts of equality, pluralism and state neutrality as they relate to religious freedom; and (2) the status of religious freedom under the current constitution and the proposed new constitution.

It is my deep hope that Turkish politicians will listen to what is said at this conference and then take steps to assure that members of minority communities have the same rights as other Turkish citizens.