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.
The Greek Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarchate continued to seek to reopen the Halki seminary as an institution for religious training. Several high-level government officials expressed support for reopening Halki seminary; however, by year’s end the government had not clarified the legal authority under which the seminary could reopen. In January the government returned 190,000 square meters (47 acres) of property surrounding the Halki Seminary to the Greek Orthodox Agia Triada Foundation, the entity holding title to the monastery and seminary.
The government brought blasphemy charges against individuals or organizations on several occasions. In April blasphemy charges were filed against blogger Sevan Nisanyan for “publicly vilifying the religious values accepted by a segment of the society” on his blog. Nisanyan wrote that “It is not a hate crime to ridicule an Arab leader who claimed to have contact with God and gained political, financial, and sexual benefits from this.” In May he was sentenced to 13 months and 15 days for insulting the Prophet Muhammad. Nisanyan’s sentence was not suspended as he had a previous 3-month conviction in another blasphemy case. The verdict remained on appeal at year’s end.
In May there was a second hearing in the case of Canan Arin, who had been charged in December 2011 with “insulting the Prophet and the president” after a speech she made at a conference organized by the Antalya Bar Association about child marriages. The prosecutor cited Arin’s speech, in which she said some wives of the Prophet, as well as the wife of Turkish President Gul, were minors when they married. The court suspended the proceedings in line with the judicial package passed in 2012, which postponed investigations and trials for opinions expressed publicly before December 31, 2012, provided the crime is not repeated for three years. Under the terms of the suspension, the case against Arin will be dismissed after that period so long as Arin is not charged with a similar crime.
In September the government convicted internationally-known concert pianist Fazil Say for “insulting religious values” and sentenced him to 10 months in prison. The sentence was suspended for five years, meaning that the pianist will not be sent to prison unless he is convicted of re-offending within that period. The substance of the charge was for “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.
On November 11, police arrested Protestant pastor Orhan Picaklar of the Samsun Agape Church on charges of involvement in prostitution and the human trafficking of refugees. The Alliance of Protestant Churches in Turkey characterized the charges as “a deliberate plot” by local media and city authorities who opposed the church’s existence. They noted local TV channels and newspapers repeatedly accused Picaklar and his congregation of “illegal missionary activities,” saying that the church used bribery and prostitution to deceive young people and convert them to Christianity. The church building was vandalized on several occasions. The pastor received death threats over the telephone and internet, and reportedly was previously kidnapped by men posing as plainclothes policemen.
In January police in Izmit charged 13 people with conspiracy to commit a large-scale assault against the Izmit Protestant Church and to assassinate its pastor. Police confiscated weapons and found evidence of prolonged, careful planning, including photographs of persons entering and leaving the church and diagrams of both the church and the pastor’s residence. The case continued at year’s end, with one suspect remaining in custody.
In March the Diyarbakir Military Court investigating the 2011 death of Armenian-Turkish soldier Sevag Balikci convicted another soldier of involuntary manslaughter. The court sentenced the defendant to 53 months imprisonment with credit for time served in pre-trial detention, leaving him approximately three years to continue serving in prison. Although Balikci had been killed on April 24 (Easter Sunday), which was also the anniversary of the start of the mass killing of Armenians in 1915, the court did not find Balikci to be the victim of intentional homicide or a hate crime. The Balikci family appealed the finding, and the case continued at year’s end. The government denied the Balikci family’s separate petition for the government to award their son the legal status of “martyr,” a status given to those killed while defending the country or during military service and affording survivors of the deceased government benefits. The family said that the government refused to grant Balikci “martyr” status because he was a Christian Armenian.
In May the Supreme Court of Appeals overturned the ruling in the January 2012 trial of those accused of involvement in the 2007 murder of Armenian-Turkish journalist Hrant Dink, a Christian. The Supreme Court of Appeals found the evidence insufficient to support charges of “belonging to a terrorist organization.” Beginning in September, the defendants were retried solely on the issue of whether they were involved in “organized crime.” The trial continued at year’s end.
In May police arrested a man in relation to an alleged plot to assassinate the Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch. State prosecutors had received an anonymous letter about a plan to assassinate the Ecumenical Patriarch on May 29, the anniversary of the Ottoman conquest of present-day Istanbul.
In June the Second Criminal Court of Iskenderun convicted Murat Altun of the 2006 murder of Roman Catholic priest Luigi Padovese, ruling that the murder was an individual act with no links to “cults or organizations.”
According to Jehovah’s Witnesses officials, the group’s members faced prosecution and fines for their refusal to serve in the military forces. One objector, Baris Gormez, was acquitted by Isparta Military Court and released from prison in 2012, but the prosecutor appealed the decision, and the case was still before the Military Court of Appeals at the end of the year. Gormez also had a case stemming from his status as a conscientious objector pending before the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). Another objector, Inan Suver, was released from prison in 2012 after time served in pre-trial detention, but the imposition of another sentence for refusing to perform military service remained pending at the end of the year.
In June and July, in response to the Gezi Park anti-government protests, Prime Minister Erdogan and several senior government officials repeatedly and publicly blamed “shadowy” international groups for the unrest, including claimed involvement by an “international Jewish conspiracy,” the “interest-rate lobby,” and “the Rothschilds.” In July Deputy Prime Minister Besir Atalay blamed the “Jewish diaspora” for the unrest. These statements by senior political leaders were accompanied by anti-Semitic reports and commentaries in media outlets friendly to the government. The chief rabbi and the Jewish community lay board issued a joint press release condemning statements blaming Jewish groups for the unrest.
Following the September 30 release of the government’s democratization package, thousands of Alevis protested in Istanbul on November 3, calling for recognition of their houses of worship and the removal of compulsory religion courses at schools. Alevi leaders said the government failed to meet their demands for religious reforms and stated that Prime Minister Erdogan’s democratization package included few reforms for the Alevis, other than renaming a state university after a historical Alevi figure. Many Alevis complained of discrimination and violence.
In August local media reported that the government maintained a population registry with “ancestry codes” for Turkish citizens of Greek, Armenian, and Jewish ancestry, denoting their religion, name, and “sect.” In acknowledging the system, the interior ministry said the information about religious identity came from Ottoman records, which the ministry used to identify members of religious minorities eligible under the Lausanne Treaty of 1923 to attend minority schools. The government also said it no longer collected information about religious or racial identity.
The government did not implement the 2010 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, and there were reports of local officials refusing to permit changes. 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 impose significant restrictions on religious expression, including expression by Muslims, in government offices and state-run institutions for the stated reason of preserving the “secular state.” Many state buildings including universities, maintained mesjids (small mosques) in which Muslims could pray, however. The government continued to deny Alevis the right to establish small places of worship in government buildings.
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.
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. The government placed significant restrictions, however, on the administration of their churches and synagogues, such as the requirement that leaders of the Armenian Apostolic, Greek Orthodox, and Jewish communities be Turkish 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) that 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 university authorities or the students’ families.
The Armenian Apostolic Patriarchate and the Ecumenical Patriarchate continued to seek legal recognition. Their communities operated as conglomerations of individual religious foundations. Because the patriarchates did not have legal personality, associated foundations controlled by individual boards held all the property of the religious communities, and the patriarchates had no legal authority to direct the use of any assets or otherwise govern their communities. 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 government continued not to recognize the status of the Ecumenical Patriarchate as the leader of the world’s 300 million Orthodox Christians, consistent with its stance there was no legal obligation to do so. 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 Ecumenical Patriarchate’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. In 2011, the government announced it would grant citizenship to Greek Orthodox metropolitans who applied to become Turkish citizens under the terms of a stop-gap solution offered by the government to widen the pool from which to select the next Patriarch. At year’s end 24 of 26 applicants had been granted Turkish citizenship.
The government continued to implement the 2011 decree allowing religious minority foundations to apply for the return of, or compensation for, properties seized by the government in previous decades.
The GDF received 1,560 applications for the return of seized properties from the Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, Jewish, Syrian Orthodox, Bulgarian Orthodox, Georgian Orthodox, Chaldean, and Armenian Protestant communities. By year’s end the GDF had reviewed 1,298 of the applications and returned 307 properties to religious community foundations, made offers of compensation for 21 properties, declined 970 applications for lack of evidence or because they were found to be duplicative, or returned them for the correction of technical problems.
The GDF approved a reactivated foundation for the Greek Orthodox community on the island of Gokceada (known as Imvros in Greek), allowing the community to re-open a Greek school in September for the first time since 1964. Prior to the 2011 decree, the government had approved only one new religious community foundation since the founding of the republic: the Istanbul Protestant Church Foundation in 2003.
In October Prime Minister Erdogan announced that the government would return disputed land to the Mor Gabriel Syriac Orthodox Monastery. The General Directorate for Foundations subsequently ruled that the Mor Gabriel Foundation owned the disputed property and could petition for deeds to be issued from the local deed registry. On December 6, representatives from the General Directorate of Land Registry and Cadastre visited the site and met with foundation members. The foundation subsequently submitted the petition, which remained pending at year’s end. The parcels of land inside and outside the monastery walls had been the subject of legal battles since 2008, when the Undersecretariat of the Treasury, the Department of Forestry, and nearby villages initiated a series of court cases against the monastery.
Some religious groups reported difficulties opening, maintaining, and operating houses of worship. Although a 2003 amendment to the law allowed cultural associations as well as foundations to establish legal places of worship, authorities have approved only one new Christian church as a legal 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. According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, the government did not approve a single place of worship for their religious group, in spite of 46 registration attempts in 27 different municipalities. They reported that as a result they ceased applying to register official places of worship.
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 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 Muslim communities received government funding for construction of places of worship, the Syrian Orthodox community did not request similar government funding. Instead, the community requested that the municipality provide free land for the construction of a place of worship, just as the municipality had provided for mosques. At year’s end the municipality had not designated land on which to build.
Alevis continued to face obstacles when attempting to establish cemevis. 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. Some Alevi foundations argued the Diyanet should be reformed so that support would be available to all religious groups or, alternatively, that it be funded in such a way that allowed non-Sunni Muslims to opt out of supporting the Diyanet. Other Alevis argued that the Diyanet should be abolished altogether.
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.
Alevis continued to petition the courts to have cemevis legally recognized as places of worship. While the lower court had determined, in November 2011, that Alevis were entitled to designate their own houses of worship, the Supreme Court of Appeals overturned that decision in July 2012, ruling that no places other than mosques and mesjids could be considered Muslim places of worship under the law. The Supreme Court of Appeals returned the case to the lower court, which reaffirmed its original verdict in November 2012. 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 refusal to change its decision to the Supreme Court of Appeals, and the case remained pending at year’s end.
The Alevi Cem Foundation appealed to the ECHR for legal recognition of cemevis as houses of worship entitled to equal treatment under the law. Filed in January 2012, the petition was still pending at year’s end.
Foundations reported they were frequently rebuffed in efforts to acquire and restore ruined churches, especially if restoration would return a 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 eight 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 regional board that must grant permission for the restoration of cultural assets considered “ancient” failed to act on the Protestant Church of Istanbul’s petition to restore and use the chapel.
The government continued to permit annual and other commemorative 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 September the government declined a request by the Ecumenical Patriarchate for permission to conduct a religious service at the restored Taxiarchis Church museum in Ayvalik.
The government initiated plans in several municipalities around the country 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.
Certain Islamic groups continued to advocate transforming some former Orthodox churches into mosques. In a case that attracted widespread international media coverage, the Hagia Sophia of Trabzon, a 12th century Byzantine church which had been operating as a museum for the past 50 years, was converted into a mosque in July, following a court decision to transfer it from the Ministry of Culture to the Directorate for Foundations.
Religious groups faced administrative challenges when seeking to employ foreign religious personnel because the government generally did not approve visas and residence permits for religious workers.
Many foreign Mormons, other Protestants 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.
Non-Sunni Muslims faced difficulty obtaining exemptions from compulsory religious instruction in primary and secondary schools, particularly if their identification cards listed their religion as “Muslim.” Members of other minority religious groups, including members of the Syrian Orthodox community and Protestants, also had difficulty obtaining exemptions. The government said that 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 incorrect information about other religious groups. With the 2012 changes to the education system, the government allowed non-Muslims to select other electives to fulfill their required coursework for graduation. Non-Sunnis reported, however, they often were only allowed to choose from electives concerning different aspects of Sunni Islam.
Alevis reported the government did not 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 school officials routinely ignored this right. Alevis had many 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 this material was inadequate and, in some cases, incorrect. Alevi leaders reported teachers sometimes physically mistreated children attempting to opt out of classes or singled them out for mistreatment by other students.
Based on complaints from the Syriac Orthodox Community, the Ministry of Education agreed to remove negative stereotypes of the Syriac Christian community from the tenth grade history curriculum.
In September the Ankara 13th Administrative Appeals Court ruled that the Syriac community could open a pre-school in Istanbul. Per the ruling of the court, the Syriac community should be recognized as a “Lausanne minority” and allowed to open schools to serve its community, with some instruction permissible in the native neo-Aramaic language of the community. In October the Syriac community petitioned the Ministry of Education to open a primary school for its community in the Mardin area. At year’s end there had been no ruling on the petition for the Mardin school.
Because non-Turkish citizens could 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.