The Turkish education system’s mandatory religion classes are not fair to students who do not follow the country’s majority Sunni Islam and must amend its policies, according to a recent verdict of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).
As Turkey is a signatory of the European Convention on Human Rights, the ECHR decision is binding.
Religion classes, starting in elementary schools, are, according to the Turkish Constitution to be neutral lessons on religion, but critics say they impose Sunni Muslim rituals in class that many Turks - including non-Sunni Muslims, Christians, Jews and atheists - don’t espouse.
Turkey is a secular Muslim state, with almost 97% of the population nominally Muslim.
While Sunni Muslims represent about 70-80%, about 15-25% of the 75 million population are Alevi, a mystical school of Shia Islamic theology. This makes them the country’s largest religious minority, though they are not recognized as such.
Turkey insists that their differences are cultural, and thus does not grant them exemption from religion classes.
However, in September the ECHR ordered Turkey to allow students to be exempt from classes when their parents request it, without them having to disclose their religious beliefs.
Then on Oct. 9 the Education Minister Nabi Avci announced that Turkish schools will soon offer an elective in Christianity. However, currently Christians and Jews are in fact exempt from the compulsory courses offered from fourth grade, age 9, and throughout high school. By conservative estimates there are under 100,000 Christians in Turkey.
Religious freedoms expert, Mine Yildirim, of the Norwegian Helsinki Committee (NHC) for Human Rights says that this announcement, though a welcome move towards diversity and inclusion, seems to entirely miss the point of the European Court’s verdict.
"Adding Christianity as an optional course does not address any of the outstanding and important freedom of religion or belief problems in the education system," Yildirim told World Watch Monitor. Yildirim is the project head of the NHC Freedom of Belief Initiative for Turkey.
On Oct. 10, the NHC sent an open letter to Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, urging him to take measures to revise the policies on Turkey’s mandatory religious instruction book and to bring its content in line with international human rights requirements.
Specifically the European Court of Human Rights had already ordered Turkey to lift the "mandatory" status of the courses and emphasized the State’s duty of neutrality and impartiality in regulating matters of religion.
"These lessons are not an objective lesson about religion, but religious instruction in a particular religion. In the present situation, Alevi, Bahai, atheists and Sunni Muslims who do not find the Islamic education provided by the state to be in line with their beliefs still must attend the classes."
The issue of the country’s compulsory religious classes was brought up in court in 2011 by 14 Alevi Turks. In 2007 the Alevi community won a similar court case at the ECHR, but Turkey took no steps then to amend the curriculum.
Dogan Bermek, Vice President for the Federation of Alevi Foundations told WWM he thought the decision to offer a course in Christianity was a smokescreen to appease and get "the Europeans off their case."
"When there is a problem or a decision like this here, the government’s first statement is that ‘here in Turkey we live as brothers, so why are you doing this to us?’ Bermek said, "but this is just brotherhood for show, not for the sake of real brotherhood. They are saying ‘we give opportunities to Christians and other minorities, but don’t mess with our Muslim issues."
Bermek estimates that there are about 5 million Alevi children faced with the problem of mandatory religion classes in Turkey, in contrast with the estimated few thousands of Christian and Jewish children. Armenians, Greeks, and Jews have their own elementary and secondary "minority schools" recognized by the Ministry of Education, though not all parents choose to send their children to them.
Minority schools provide education from pre-school to high-school and already offer religious instruction courses in their respective faiths.
The course in Christianity
The new curriculum has been authored in a unique collaboration between Christian leaders in Istanbul representing different communities. The authoring committee is made up of nine clergy members of Greek, Armenian and Syriac Orthodox backgrounds as well as Catholics and Protestants.
One, Pastor Behnan Konutgan of the Bible House in Istanbul, said that the Ministry of Education gave the authoring committee the green light to continue developing the Christian religion curriculum this month.
The committee has prepared text books for children in fourth and fifth grade, aged nine to eleven - the drafts for which they submitted to the Turkish Ministry of Education last year. The committee plans to next write text books for students in eighth and ninth grade.
Hurdles to its implementation
Yet the new curriculum raises many questions about its implementation such as how and where the classes will be taught.
"There are more questions than answers," Yildirim said.
"If the Ministry of Education is not willing and ready to become flexible, such courses will be only a possibility in theory and never in practice."
Flexible would mean collecting students from different schools to fulfill the required number of students needed to offer an elective course, which is 12. Yildirim said the Ministry of Education could also consider opening the class to fewer students, or else the curriculum won’t address the needs of the Christian community.
World Watch Monitor spoke with a Syriac Orthodox Christian in his twenties who asked to remain anonymous. His entire primary and secondary education took place in Istanbul’s public schools. He said that in his classes there were usually up to three Christians and during religion class they sat in the school canteen.
He said he thought the proposed Christianity elective is currently practically impossible to offer in Turkish private and public schools.
An administrator at Turkish Armenian schools, Garo Paylan said that while he found the proposed course "positive" he asked "who will teach the course [in public schools]?" in his interview with a human rights online publication Bianet.
It is not clear whether non-Christian students would be allowed to take the class in Christianity, or whether students would first have to prove they are Christians.
Islamic religion classes defended
Though the decision of the ECHR is binding on Turkey, its top leaders brushed off the court ruling, provoking criticism and protests. Prime Minister Davutoglu defended the Islamic religion curriculum saying "it is a requirement for an atheist to know about religious culture, just like I should know about Marxism even though I’m not a Marxist," Turkish newspaper Today’s Zaman reported.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan criticized the ECHR ruling calling it wrong and saying drug use, violence and racism will spread if the classes on religion are put to an end. "If compulsory courses on religion are challenged, why do they complain about drugs or terrorism?" he said, according to Today’s Zaman.