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Turkey’s Christian and other religious minorities face discrimination and rights violations

28 November 2006

Increasing religious extremism and discriminatory laws in Turkey are stifling the rights of Christians and other religious minorities, an international human rights group says.

As Pope Benedict XVI pays a landmark visit to Turkey Minority Rights Group International warns that the plight of Christians and other religious minorities must not be swept aside amidst populist concerns over Muslim-Christian relations.

“The Pope’s visit to Turkey is a rare opportunity to bring to the forefront the tremendous difficulties faced by Christians and other religious minorities in Turkey,” says Nurcan Kaya, MRG’s Turkey Programmes Officer.

Turkey is a majority Muslim country but constitutionally a secular state that guarantees substantial rights to religious minorities. However discriminatory laws and gaps in practice remain. Christians in Turkey face several impediments on issues of property and education rights. Amidst EU pressure over Turkey’s accession bid, a new law was recently passed, which now finally enables Christian and other non-Muslim groups to set up foundations permitting them to own land. However the law makes no attempt to return lands snatched by the state from Christian religious establishments in the past. Christians also face restrictions in opening theological learning centres and have limited opportunities to train priests and seminaries.

Christians have borne the brunt of rising religious intolerance. One example is the murder of a Catholic priest, Father Andrea Santoro, in early 2006, during the Danish Cartoons saga. His death in Trabzon was linked to rumours that he had been successful at recruiting converts from Islam.

Turkey’s little known Assyrian population, a Christian orthodox community and part of the country’s near one-million displaced population, also face considerable rights violations. Displaced in recent fighting between Kurdish militants and government forces, most Assyrians fled to Germany and Sweden and hence have been stripped of their Turkish citizenship preventing them from claiming back their homes lost in the conflict.

“Unlike other Christian communities the Assyrians aren’t recognised as a religious minority and don’t even benefit from the basic rights accorded to religious minorities. Similarly there are Muslim groups too that don’t get the recognition and hence don’t get the rights,” Kaya says.

Turkey has some 60,000 Armenian Orthodox Christians, 20,000 Jews and 2-3000 Greek Orthodox Christians. These are the only groups recognised as ‘non-Muslims’. There are also 15,000-20,000 Syriac Orthodox Christians and 5,000-7,000 Yazidis. Additionally, there are Muslim religious minorities, in particular the large Alevi community, a Muslim sect different to the majority Sunnis, whose population is estimated at 12-15 million.

“Turkey sees the Alevi no different from majority Sunni Muslims they do not recognise their separate religious needs and Alevis are forced to learn the Sunni version of Islam,” says Kaya.

“The EU has flagged religious freedoms as an important criteria Turkey has to meet as part of its accession bid and Turkey needs to speed up its reform process,” Kaya says.

For more information or to arrange interviews, please contact the MRG Press Office on [email protected].