In 2018, the state of religious freedom in Turkey remained deeply troubling, raising serious concerns that the country’s current trajectory will lead to the further deterioration of conditions in the year ahead, the US State Department said in its annual International Religious Freedom Report for 2019, released on Apr 29.
The state of human rights and civil liberties in Turkey continued to decline in the wake of the government response to the failed coup attempt of July 2016, the report noted adding: “Based on these conditions, in 2019 USCIRF again places Turkey on Tier 2 for engaging in or tolerating religious freedom violations that meet at least one of the elements of the “systematic, ongoing, egregious” standard for designation as a “country of particular concern,” or CPC, under the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA).”
What follow are the key findings of the US State Department about the state of the religious freedoms in Turkey.
“The lack of any meaningful progress on the part of the Turkish government to address longstanding religious freedom issues was continued cause for concern. Many serious limitations on the freedom of religion or belief continued, threatening the continued vitality and survival of minority religious communities in the country; in addition, increased demonization and a smear campaign by government entities and progovernment media contributed to a growing climate of fear among religious minority communities. The Turkish government continued to interfere in the internal affairs of religious communities, disallowing patriarchal elections for the Armenian Apostolic Church and maintaining its requirement that Greek Orthodox metropolitans obtain Turkish citizenship in order to participate in the church’s Holy Synod. Followers of U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gülen continued to be dismissed from public service, detained, and arrested in the tens of thousands for alleged complicity in the July 2016 failed coup attempt, or involvement in terrorist activity. The Turkish government has indiscriminately designated those affiliated with Gülen as part of a terrorist organization. Government officials also continued to engage in anti-Semitism in the form of public statements and comments made on social media platforms, while progovernment newspapers and media outlets propagated hate speech directed against both Christians and Jews. While the state proposed a budget increase of 36 percent for the government body charged with overseeing the exercise of Sunni Islam, other religious groups, including Alevis—whom the government views as a culture rather than a religion—do not receive equal funding. However, due to Turkey’s strict interpretation of secularism, no religious community—including Sunni Muslims—can obtain full legal status. Other longstanding religious freedom concerns remain, such as the return of expropriated religious properties and state-mandated religious education for primary and secondary students. Finally, the unjust detainment and trial of Protestant pastor Andrew Brunson, an ordeal that lasted for more than two years and gave way to a rise in hate speech against Christians, concluded in October 2018 with his conviction and immediate release, after significant pressure from the U.S. government. A USCIRF delegation attended Pastor Brunson’s hearings in Aliag˘ a, Turkey, in May, July, and October 2018.”
Meanwhile, the Turkish Foreign Ministry slammed the report on Wednesday saying: ““The mention of the Fetullah Terrorist Organization (FETÖ) as ‘Sunni Muslims’ that face persecution in the report, reveals from the very beginning how biased and detached from reality it is and how it was drawn up under the influence of certain sources of evil.”
Ankara accuses the movement of orchestrating the failed coup, although it strongly denies any involvement. FETÖ is a derogatory term coined by the Turkish government designating the movement as a terrorist organization.