There were reports of abuses of religious freedom, including the imprisonment of a conscientious objector for refusing to serve in the military due to his religious beliefs. The government imposed numerous restrictions that affected members of religious groups. Local government officials did not enforce constitutional guarantees on freedom of religion for members of minority religious groups.
Conscientious objectors to military service continued to experience difficulties. According to Jehovah’s Witnesses officials, members faced prosecution and fines for their refusal to serve in the military forces. One objector, Baris Gormez, had been charged 13 times for “disobedience of orders” since 2007. In February Gormez was acquitted by Isparta Military Court and released from prison. The prosecutor appealed the decision, and at year’s end the case was before the Military Court of Appeals. Gormez also had a case stemming from his status as a conscientious objector pending before the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). In January another Jehovah’s Witness, Fethi Demirtas, won a decision in the ECHR against the government for violating the right to a fair trial and freedom of religion, conscience, and thought. In May the United Nations Human Rights Committee, upon application by two other Jehovah’s Witnesses, Cenk Atasoy and Arda Sarkut, found that the government had violated Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights by denying them conscientious objector status. In May Turkish national Ugur Bilkay requested asylum in Italy based on his religious objection to military service.
The government continued to impose significant restrictions on religious expression, including Muslim expression, in government offices and state-run institutions for the stated reason of preserving the “secular state.” However, many state buildings, including universities, maintained mesjids (small mosques) in which Muslims could pray. The government denied a request from an Alevi member of parliament to establish a small Alevi place of worship in the parliament building, which had a mesjid.
Mystical Sufi and other religious-social orders (tarikats) and lodges (cemaats), banned officially since 1925, remained active and widespread. The government did not enforce this ban.
Some religious groups reported difficulties opening, maintaining, and operating houses of worship. Although a 2003 amendment to the law permits cultural associations as well as foundations to establish legal places of worship, authorities have approved only one new Christian church as a place of worship since the founding of the republic in 1923.
The majority of Protestants met in unregistered places of worship. The government reportedly recognized only 15 Protestant churches as official places of worship throughout the country, including several chapels run by foreign diplomatic missions. Protestant groups reportedly used approximately 40 rented buildings and more than 100 residences for unregistered worship services. Several Protestant churches reported difficulties obtaining permission to modify rented space and to use public space for community activities, as other civil groups were allowed to do. Jehovah’s Witnesses reported that by year’s end they had made 46 unsuccessful attempts in 27 different municipalities to register Kingdom Halls as places of worship. On occasion, police broke up worship services in unregistered locations. Some lay leaders reported multiple arrests.
Many local officials continued to impose zoning standards on churches, such as minimum space requirements, that they did not impose on mosques. In numerous instances, local officials required Protestant groups to purchase 27,000 square feet of land (approximately 0.6 acres) to construct churches, even for very small congregations. Officials did not apply this requirement to Sunni Muslims, who were permitted to build smaller mesjids in malls, airports, and other spaces.
The Syrian Orthodox community continued to seek a second church in Istanbul to accommodate its growing population. The community had one church in Istanbul to serve an estimated local population of 17,000 to 20,000. In 2011, President Gul and Prime Minister Erdogan publicly endorsed a second church. While the Syrian Orthodox community did not request government funding for construction as mosques receive, it did request that the municipality provide free land upon which to build, as was provided for mosques. At year’s end, the municipality had not designated land on which to build.
Non-Sunni Muslims faced difficulty obtaining exemptions from compulsory religious instruction in primary and secondary schools, particularly if their identification cards listed “Muslim.” Members of other minority religious groups, including members of the Syrian Orthodox community and Protestants, also had difficulty obtaining exemptions. The government claimed the compulsory instruction covered the range of world religions, but religious groups asserted that the courses largely reflected Hanafi Sunni Islamic doctrine and contained negative and sometimes incorrect information about other religious groups.
Many Alevis alleged discrimination in the government’s failure to include any of their distinct doctrines or beliefs in the compulsory religious education curriculum for Muslim students. A 2007 ECHR decision allowed an Alevi parent to request that his daughter be exempted from her school’s compulsory religious instruction, but Alevis reported that school officials routinely ignored this right. Alevis had more than 20 unresolved discrimination cases against the Ministry of Education pending in court. Authorities added material on Alevism to the religious course curriculum after the ECHR decision, but many Alevis stated that this material was inadequate and, in some cases, incorrect. Alevi leaders reported that teachers sometimes slapped children attempting to opt out of classes or singled them out for mistreatment by other students.
Because non-Turkish citizens may not receive degrees from licensed community schools, many Armenian immigrant parents remained reluctant to enroll their children in these schools and opted instead for unlicensed “basement” schools organized on the same model as schools in Armenia and whose degrees were accepted upon transfer back to Armenia. The government tolerated, but did not approve, these schools.
In general, members of religious groups formally recognized during the Ottoman period, including the Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox, Armenian Protestant, and Jewish communities, reported they had freedom to practice their faith. However, the government placed significant restrictions on the administration of their churches and synagogues, such as the requirement that leaders of the Armenian Apostolic, Greek Orthodox, and Jewish communities be citizens.
Many prosecutors and police continued to regard religious speech and religious activism with suspicion. Protestant evangelical churches and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), which engaged in proselytizing, reported significant government interference, including surveillance and arbitrary police action. Anti-missionary rhetoric remained in required school textbooks, and police occasionally reported students who met with Christian missionaries to their families or to university authorities.
Many foreign Protestants, Mormons, and religious workers from other minority religious groups reported they were unable to obtain or renew residence permits. Some religious workers whose residence permits were not renewed, including individuals who had lived in the country for years, were forced to leave. In response to inquiries, government officials stated that a religious worker residence permit existed, but could not explain how one could be obtained.
The government brought blasphemy charges against individuals or organizations on several occasions. In June prosecutors charged concert pianist Fazil Say with insulting religious values and fomenting hatred and enmity among the public for sending tweets on his Twitter account referring to a poem by 11th-century Persian poet Omar Khayyam and describing “heaven’s promise of rivers of wine” as a tavern and comparing the poem’s promise of virgins in the afterlife to a brothel. Say also tweeted about a muezzin who recited the evening call for prayer in 22 seconds, questioning whether he was in a rush to reunite with his lover or go drink raki. The charges carry a penalty of up to 18 months in prison.
The Higher Education Council continued to refrain from enforcing the ban on headscarves in universities. This policy did not extend to primary and secondary schools, and the ban remained in force for civil servants in public buildings, although some government offices unofficially allowed employees to wear headscarves. On November 27, the Ministry of Education announced new regulations, to take effect in 2013, abolishing school uniforms and permitting the wearing of headscarves by female students in elective Quran classes and at “imam-hatip” schools.
Alevis stated they often faced obstacles when attempting to establish cemevis (places of worship). Those constructed had no legal status as places of worship and received no financial support from the Diyanet. Alevi leaders reported there were approximately 2,500 to 3,000 cemevis in the country, an insufficient number to meet their needs; they stated that if their communities had the same number of cemevis per capita as Sunni Muslims had mosques, there would be more than 40,000 cemevis in the country.
At year’s end, the second appeal of a lower court’s dismissal of a complaint to shut down the Cankaya Cemevi Building Association awaited a final verdict by the country’s highest court, the General Assembly of the Court of Cassation. The Ankara Governor’s Office Provincial Directorate in charge of associations had filed a complaint against the building association for refusing to remove a description from its charter referring to cemevis as houses of worship. In November 2011 the lower court found, pursuant to the constitution’s guarantee of freedom of religion and precedents from the ECHR, that Alevis were entitled to designate their own houses of worship. However, in July the Supreme Court of Appeals overturned the lower court’s decision, ruling that no places other than mosques and mesjids could be considered places of worship under the law, which allows only “mosques or mesjids” approved by the Diyanet to be classified as legitimate places of worship. Following that decision, the Supreme Court of Appeals sent the case back to the lower court to act on the original complaint, requesting that the Cankaya Cemevi Building Association be closed. In November the lower court reaffirmed its original verdict; the judge’s decision stated that for hundreds of years cemevis had been known as places of worship for Alevis and that the charter’s reference to cemevis as places of worship was not in contravention of the constitution or prohibited by law. The prosecutor appealed the lower court’s decision.
In January, following municipalities’ denial of requests by some Alevi foundations that they pay utility bills for cemevis as they do for mosques, the Alevi Cem Foundation filed a petition with the ECHR seeking legal recognition of cemevis as houses of worship entitled to equal treatment under the law. The suit was pending at year’s end.
The Armenian Orthodox and Ecumenical Greek Orthodox communities continued to seek legal recognition of their patriarchates, which operated as conglomerations of religious community foundations. Without legal personality, the patriarchates did not have the right to own and transfer property; associated foundations held property on their behalf. Because of Higher Education Board requirements, the Greek Orthodox and Armenian Orthodox patriarchates were unable to train their clerics in monastic seminaries within the country.
The Greek Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarchate continued to seek to reopen the Halki seminary as an institution for religious training. Several high-level officials expressed support for reopening Halki, including Diyanet President Mehmet Gormez in his first meeting with the Ecumenical Patriarch in July. However, by year’s end, the government had not clarified the legal authority under which the seminary could reopen.
The government continued not to recognize the status of the Ecumenical Patriarchate as the leader of the world’s 300 million Orthodox Christians. The government’s position remained that the Ecumenical Patriarch was not “ecumenical,” but only the religious leader of the country’s Greek Orthodox minority population. The government continued to permit only citizens to vote in the Church’s Holy Synod or be elected Patriarch. Because of significant decline in the Greek Orthodox population, there were only a handful of candidates eligible to become the next Ecumenical Patriarch. The government eventually granted citizenship to 20 of the 26 Greek Orthodox metropolitans who applied to become Turkish citizens under the terms of a stop-gap 2011 solution offered by the government to widen the pool from which to select the next patriarch. At year’s end, it was unclear whether the remaining candidates would be reconsidered for citizenship or whether the government would agree to offer the same process in the future.
In November the General Assembly of the Court of Cassation ruled against Mor Gabriel, a 1,600-year-old Syriac monastery in Midyat, in a case challenging the monastery’s ownership of parcels of land inside and outside the monastery walls. Beginning in 2008, the Undersecretariat of the Treasury, the Department of Forestry, and nearby villages initiated a series of court cases against the monastery. Local courts decided in favor of the monastery in two cases and against it in a third. A fourth case remained pending. When the Department of Forestry appealed the cases that the monastery had won, evidence favorable to the foundation’s claim of ownership was reportedly lost in the transfer of the case. In June the Court of Cassation ruled against Mor Gabriel, and in November the General Assembly of the Court of Cassation rejected the monastery’s appeal. The monastery has the option of applying to the Constitutional Court and ultimately to the ECHR.
Foundations reported they were frequently rebuffed in efforts to acquire and restore ruined churches, especially if restoration would restore the building to use as a church as opposed to a museum or cultural center. The Protestant Church of Istanbul reported it had been attempting for seven years to obtain permission to restore and use a former Roman Catholic chapel that was seized by the Treasury Department after the chapel’s foundation became inactive. The authorities continued to decline permission to restore the chapel. Authorities enforced regulations specifying that restoration or construction carried out on buildings and monuments considered “ancient” could take place only with authorization of the regional board for the protection of cultural and national wealth.
The government did not implement the 2011 ECHR ruling that suggested omitting reference to religion on national identity cards. The ruling was in response to a case brought by an Alevi man who wished to list “Alevi” as his religion. Some local officials reportedly harassed persons who converted from Islam to another religion when they sought to amend their identity cards. Some non-Muslims maintained that listing their religious affiliation on the cards exposed them to discrimination and harassment. Many religious groups complained that by not including a religious identity or listing an identity other than Muslim, individuals were precluded from obtaining jobs in the state bureaucracy or government and discriminated against in the private sector.
The government continued to permit annual religious worship services at religiously significant sites previously converted to state museums, such as the Sumela Monastery near Trabzon, Akdamar Church near Van, St. Peter’s Church in Antakya, St. Nicholas’ Church near Demre, and the House of the Virgin Mary near Selcuk. Some municipal and minority religious group leaders called for these sites to be opened to worship without restrictions, and for other sites to be considered for religious services as well.
In July President Abdullah Gul hosted the leaders of minority religious foundations in Istanbul. Greek, Syriac, Armenian, Jewish, and Bulgarian foundation representatives attended.
In September high-level government officials participated in a conference held in Istanbul titled “Arab Awakening and Peace in the Middle East: Muslim and Christian Perspectives.” Conference organizers acknowledged that Jews were not invited or welcome to participate.
The municipality of Diyarbakir contributed a third of the funding for the renovation of St. Giragos Church, at one time the largest Armenian Orthodox church in the country, which was abandoned and partially destroyed in 1915. Following completion of the restoration, a mass was held at the church in November for the first time in 97 years. Several municipalities around the country initiated plans to convert former churches, which had been abandoned or used as commercial venues, to cultural centers or museums with an emphasis on the religious significance of the building.