Summary paragraph: Since the July 2016 coup attempt, the government dismissed or suspended from state institutions more than 100,000 government officials, including more than 4,000 Diyanet staff, for alleged links with the Gulen movement, which the government continued to hold responsible for the attempted coup. According to the Ministry of Interior, authorities arrested more than 50,000 individuals since the coup attempt on alleged terror-related grounds. The government also continued to detain some foreign citizens for what it stated were potential links to the Gulen movement. In August an Izmir judge added charges to the original December 2016 indictment of a U.S. citizen Protestant pastor detained since October 2016. The government continued to limit the rights of non-Muslim minorities, especially those it did not recognize as covered under the 1923 Lausanne Treaty. It continued to consider Alevism a heterodox Muslim group and continued not to recognize Alevi houses of worship (cemevis). As part of a broader shutdown by government decree of organizations for allegedly spreading terrorist propaganda, the government closed two Shia Jaferi-owned television stations in January. The decrees did not specify the nature of the “terrorist propaganda.” Alevis expressed concern about security and said the government failed to meet their demands for religious reforms. In July the Ministry of National Education implemented an extensive revision of the school curriculum, which secular individuals and other citizens said increased the Sunni Muslim content in the textbooks and undermined the country’s secular education system. Non-Sunni Muslims did not receive the same protections as recognized non-Muslim minorities, although both experienced difficulty operating or opening houses of worship, challenging land and other property claims, or obtaining exemptions from mandatory religion classes. The government continued to train Sunni Muslim clerics, while restricting other religious groups from training their clergy, and continued to fund the construction of Sunni mosques while restricting land use of other religious groups. Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of the Greek Orthodox Church continued to call on the government to allow the Halki Seminary to reopen as an independent institution to train Greek Orthodox clerics in the country.
Following the attempted July 2016 coup, the government declared a three-month state of emergency, which it renewed in October for the fifth time. The government ascribed responsibility for the coup attempt to self-exiled Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen and his movement, which identifies itself as an Islam-inspired civic, cultural and education movement, although the government considers it a terrorist organization. Since the coup attempt, police arrested more than 50,000 individuals, many for allegedly having ties to the Gulen movement. During the year the government suspended thousands of public officials, including more than 1,000 Diyanet employees. The government reinstated some public employees by state of emergency decree; several hundred were from the Diyanet.
Some foreign citizens, including several individuals with ties to Christian groups, faced detention, problems with residency permits, or denial of entry to the country under the state of emergency. Some Protestant community sources said they did not believe the government was specifically targeting foreign missionaries or those linked to Christian groups. In October the government added additional charges to the case of a U.S. citizen Protestant pastor, who at year’s end remained in pretrial detention in connection with charges including membership in the movement associated with Fethullah Gulen (labeled by the government as the “Fethullah Terrorist Organization” or “FETO”), espionage, and attempting to overthrow the government. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan publicly linked the pastor’s case to the extradition of Fethullah Gulen from the United States. The government asserted that it was not holding the pastor because of his religious work. Most observers in the country said the case was political in nature; some U.S.-based organizations said the pastor’s detention was related to his work as a Christian minister. The pastor’s was one of several cases of U.S. citizens detained under the state of emergency; the other cases did not involve religious leaders.
In May and October a court in Atasehir, a suburb of Istanbul, held hearings on the charge of “willful and malicious injury” for a man who attacked two Jehovah’s Witnesses with a baseball bat in December 2016, severely injuring a 17-year-old Witness. A judge postponed the case; the next hearing was scheduled for January 2018.
According to the Protestant community in Bursa, the government provided police protection for its place of worship in the city following reported threats from ISIS or associated groups.
In April police intervened to stop the Furkan Foundation’s celebration of the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday in Adana. According to police, the Furkan Foundation, a Sunni group that is self-described as a social and religious civil society group, lacked the required permits. Police used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse the crowd and detained more than 200 individuals.
The government continued to interpret the 1923 Lausanne Treaty, which refers broadly to “non-Muslim minorities,” as granting special legal minority status exclusively to three recognized groups: Armenian Apostolic Orthodox Christians, Jews, and Greek Orthodox Christians. The government did not recognize the leadership or administrative structures of non-Muslim minorities, such as the patriarchates and chief rabbinate, as legal entities, leaving them unable to buy or hold title to property or to press claims in court. These three groups, along with other minority religious communities, had to rely on independent foundations they previously organized, with separate governing boards, in order to hold and control individual religious properties. The foundations remained unable to hold elections to renew the membership of their governing boards because the government, despite promises to do so, had still not promulgated new regulations to replace those repealed in 2013 that would have allowed the election of foundation board members.
The government continued not to recognize the ecumenical patriarch as the leader of the world’s 300 million Orthodox Christians, consistent with the government’s stance that there was no legal obligation for it 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 Turkish citizens to vote in the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s Holy Synod or be elected patriarch, but continued its practice of granting citizenship to Greek Orthodox metropolitans under the terms of the government’s 2011stopgap solution to widen the pool of candidates to become the next patriarch. The Istanbul Governorate, which represents the central government in Istanbul, continued to maintain that leaders of the Greek Orthodox (Ecumenical Patriarchate), Armenian Apostolic Orthodox, and Jewish communities must be Turkish citizens, although coreligionists from outside the country in some cases had assumed informal leadership positions in these groups.
The Armenian Apostolic Patriarchate and the Ecumenical Patriarchate continued to seek legal recognition, and 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.
In March the Istanbul governor’s office suspended a decision by the Spiritual Assembly of the Armenian Patriarchate to elect a trustee to start the process for the election of a new patriarch. Incumbent Patriarch Mesrob II remained unable to perform his duties because of his medical condition, and an acting patriarch continued to fill the position. Some members of the community criticized the governorship’s notification as interference in the internal affairs of the church. Patriarchate sources said the government later recognized the March election to elect a trustee. In July the elected trustee applied to the government to hold the patriarchal election in December. At year’s end, the community had not received a response from the government about how to proceed with the patriarchal election.
A majority of Protestant churches reported facing bureaucratic difficulties in registering as places of worship. Consequently, they continued to be registered as church associations and had to meet in unregistered locations for worship services. According to the Protestant community, there were five foundations (four existing before 1936), 36 associations, and more than 30 representative offices linked with these associations.
In January the government announced that female gendarmes would be allowed to wear headscarves under their hats and caps. In February the government extended the change to include all military units.
In January the government shut down two Shia Jaferi-owned television stations for allegedly spreading “terrorist propaganda.” The closure decrees did not specify the nature of the “terrorist propaganda.” Jaferi organizations, a member of parliament, and others publicly criticized the decision.
The trial of 13 individuals charged with conspiracy to commit a large-scale assault on an Izmit Protestant church and assassinate its pastor in 2013 continued throughout the year. In December a judge postponed the next hearing until May 2018 pending the result of an investigation of two local security officials allegedly involved in the plot. A judge had previously released all the suspects pending trial.
The state continued to provide training for Sunni Muslim clerics while restricting other religious groups from training clerics inside the country. The lack of monastic seminaries within the country meant that the Greek Orthodox and Armenian Orthodox Patriarchates were unable to train their clerics. Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, leader of the Greek Orthodox Church, repeatedly called on the government to allow the Halki Seminary to re-open as an independent institution to enable training of Greek Orthodox clerics in the country. A1971 Constitutional Court ruling prohibited the operation of private institutions of higher education and led to the seminary’s closure.
According to some Protestants, many prosecutors and police continued to regard certain public religious speech and religious activism with suspicion, including proselytism by evangelical Protestants. In April then-Deputy Prime Minister Veysi Kaynak said missionary activities should be prohibited and described proselytization as an activity against the country’s unity. Proselytization remained legal at year’s end.
In May 2016 the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled that Turkey had violated the religious freedom of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Izmir and Mersin by refusing to provide them appropriate places of worship, a ruling the government did not implement during the year.
According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, 29 different municipalities denied 91 requests made by Jehovah’s Witnesses to obtain a religious facility location on municipal zoning maps. Local governments did not permit zoning for any Kingdom Halls in the country.
According to Protestant groups, many local officials continued to impose zoning standards on churches, such as minimum space requirements, that they did not impose on mosques. Local officials required Protestant groups to purchase 2,500 square meters of land (27,000 square feet) to construct churches, even for small congregations. Officials did not apply this requirement to Sunni Muslim congregations, whom they permitted to build small mosques in malls, airports, and other spaces. The Protestant groups said they had not applied for permits to build any new churches during the year, in part because of the zoning requirements.
Religious communities continued to challenge the government’s 2016 expropriation of their properties damaged in clashes between government security forces and the terrorist group Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK). The government expropriated those properties for their stated goal of “post-conflict reconstruction.” By the end of the year, the government had not returned or completed repairs on any of the properties, including the historic and ancient Sur District of Diyarbakir Province, Kursunlu Mosque, Hasirli Mosque, Surp Giragos Armenian Church, Mar Petyun Chaldean Church, Syriac Protestant Church, and the Armenian Catholic Church. In April the Council of State, the top administrative court, issued an interim decision to suspend the expropriation of Surp Giragos Armenian Church. The church remained closed and these cases continued at year’s end. Additionally, at year’s end the government had not paid restitution and compensation to the religious groups for the expropriation of property damaged in fighting with the PKK. In September 2016 the GDF began restoring the expropriated Armenian Catholic Church; by the end of the year, the restoration was not complete, and the church was not accessible for public use. The government said the Ministry of Culture would coordinate the restoration of some properties, and the GDF would restore properties it owned; however, no restorations occurred by the end of the year.
The government did not return any additional properties it had seized in previous decades by year’s end. Since 2011 the GDF received 1,560 applications from religious minority foundations that had applied for compensation for seized properties. The GDF returned 333 properties and paid compensation for 21 additional properties. The GDF rejected the other applications pending from 2011; it said the applications did not meet the criteria as outlined in the 2011 compensation law. The period for submitting compensation applications expired in 2013, and therefore no religious foundations submitted new applications during the year. The Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, Jewish, Syrian Orthodox, Bulgarian Orthodox, Georgian Orthodox, Chaldean, and Armenian Protestant communities, which had previously submitted applications for the return of properties, continued to say these unresolved claims were an issue for their communities. Recognized religious foundations were able to receive compensation for their seized properties, but religious institutions and communities without legally recognized foundations were not.
In June a Mardin court denied appeals from the Syriac Mor Gabriel Foundation regarding the Treasury’s ownership of expropriated Syriac community properties, including churches, graveyards, and village homes not registered to a Syriac foundation. Current law does not allow the Syriac community to transfer such community-owned (unregistered) properties from the Treasury to a religious foundation. The government offered to transfer the religious properties to the GDF and to give the Syriac community long-term leases, but the community rejected the proposal and was seeking a legal framework that would give it full ownership. A Syriac member of parliament in July called for the government to adopt policies to protect citizens of different faiths.
Citing zoning law violations, the municipal government in the Sultangazi District of Istanbul announced in April it would demolish a cemevi because it had not been registered properly as a place of worship in the district’s zoning plans. Two days later, however, the Ministry of Interior cancelled the decision.
The government continued to provide land for the construction of Sunni mosques and fund their construction through municipalities. According to the Diyanet, the number of mosques increased from 87,381 in 2016 to more than 90,000 during the year. Although Alevi groups were able to build new cemevis, the government continued to decline to provide financial support for their construction. In August President Erdogan presided over the official opening of Istanbul’s historic mosque of Hamidiye after its restoration by the GDF.
Throughout the month of Ramadan, for the third year the government’s religious television channel, Diyanet TV, broadcast a daily recitation of Quranic verses from the Hagia Sophia, which was secularized and transformed into a museum in 1935. In June then-Head of the Diyanet Mehmet Gormez gave a special interview from the Hagia Sophia while the Muslim call to prayer was broadcast from its minarets.
The government continued to permit annual and other commemorative religious worship services at religiously significant sites previously converted to state museums, such as St. Peter’s Church in Antakya, St. Nicholas’ Church near Demre, St. Paul Church near Isparta, and the House of the Virgin Mary near Selcuk. The Ecumenical Patriarchate again cancelled an annual service at Sumela Monastery near Trabzon because of its continuing restoration and held the ceremony at an alternative site.
In December the Constitutional Court rejected an objection by a local court to a provision of the law banning political activities and statements by imams. The court ruled that imams, muftis, and other Diyanet personnel remain prohibited from engaging in political activities, including praising or criticizing a political party.
In March a local court ruling in Antalya granted the daughter of an atheist family an exemption from compulsory religion classes after the family filed an objection.
In December the Ministry of National Education signed a three-year protocol with the Islamist Hizmet Foundation to provide “moral values” education during regular school hours. A teacher’s union, Egitim-Sen, stated that holding such programs during school hours would force students to attend and criticized the ministry for allegedly devolving its duties to an organization with links to a religious tarikat. The union applied to the Council of State for cancellation of the protocol.
At year’s end the government continued not to comply with a 2013 ruling by the ECHR that found the government’s compulsory religion courses in public schools violated educational freedom. The ECHR had denied the government’s appeal of the ruling in 2015 and upheld the Alevi community’s legal claim that the government-mandated courses promoted Sunni Islam and were contrary to its religious convictions. Authorities added material on Alevism to the religious course curriculum in 2011 after the ECHR decision, but many Alevis stated the material was inadequate and, in some cases, incorrect. Construction began in March 2015 on an Alevi school in Istanbul’s Kucukcekmece district. Then- Minister of National Education Nabi Avci said the government would build the school in cooperation with the nongovernmental organization Helping Hands Foundation as a venue for teaching Alevi-Bektashi beliefs. According to the government, construction of the school’s main and annex buildings continued at year’s end.
In July the Ministry of National Education implemented an extensive revision of the school curriculum, which some secular individuals, Alevis and other citizens widely criticized for increasing the Sunni Muslim content in the textbooks while cutting some material on reforms enacted by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the secularist founder of the Republic of Turkey. The new curriculum included the Islamic concept of jihad in textbooks and omitted the theory of evolution, among other changes. Details on the early implementation of the new curriculum were limited. In September Alevi groups and secularists protested the new education curriculum in various cities and called for a “scientific” and secular education system. Alevis criticized the new curriculum as more sectarian than the previous one.
In September the Diyanet announced a plan to expand and make permanent a pilot program launched in 2016 to assign Diyanet employees, including imams, to university dormitories operated by the government in every province. The Diyanet stated the officials would provide “moral guidance” to address the “moral values” problems in the dorms, and would answer to the Diyanet’s provincial mufti, with performance reviews every six months. Many self-described secular citizens criticized the plan, saying that it gave religion greater influence over the education system.
Non-Sunni Muslims said they continued to face difficulty obtaining exemptions from compulsory religious instruction in primary and secondary schools and often had to choose from electives concerning different aspects of Sunni Islam, particularly if their identification cards listed their religion as “Muslim.” The government said the compulsory instruction covered a range of world religions, but some religious groups including Alevis and members of the Syriac Orthodox community, stated the courses largely reflected Hanafi Sunni Islamic doctrine and contained negative and incorrect information about other religious groups. Some Alevis stated that schools taught Alevi students incorrect information about their own faith, which parents had to correct at home.
In September an Alevi foundation issued a public statement criticizing a second-grade textbook that described an Alevi religious ritual as a “folk dance.”
Members of other minority religious groups, including Protestants, also said they had difficulty obtaining exemptions from religion classes. Some sources said that because schools provided no alternative for students exempted from the compulsory religious instruction, those students stood out and as a result could face additional social stigma.
The government continued to permit the Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, and Jewish religious community foundations to operate schools under the supervision of the Ministry of National Education. Children of undocumented Armenian migrants and Armenian refugees from Syria could also attend. Because the government legally classified migrant and refugee children as “visitors,” however, they were ineligible to receive a diploma from these schools. The curricula of these schools included information unique to the cultures of the three groups and teachable in the minority groups’ languages. The three communities continued to finance most of the cost of these schools; the government financed classes taught in Turkish. The Syriac Orthodox community, which has operated a preschool since 2014, was still unable to open additional schools. The government did not permit other religious groups to operate schools.
The government limited the number of students admitted to public secondary schools and assigned tens of thousands of students to state-run “imam hatip” religious schools based on their entrance exam scores or proximity. The government continued to convert many nonreligious public schools to imam hatip schools, citing demand, and students reported this created a geographic hurdle for those who preferred to attend secular public schools. Enrollment in the imam hatip schools increased to 1.2 million students, up from approximately one million in 2015. Since the 2016 coup attempt, the government has closed at least 1,284 private schools, many affiliated with the movement led by Fethullah Gulen, on “antiterror” grounds. The government converted some of these private schools to imam hatip schools.
Some school textbooks continued to contain language critical of missionaries. One recommended eighth-grade textbook entitled History of the Turkish Republic Reforms and Ataturkism listed missionary activities in a section titled “National Threats.” According to a 2015 poll, 66 percent of respondents held a negative view of missionaries and missionary activity of any kind.
Many public buildings, including universities, maintained small mosques in which Muslims could pray. In June the Ministry of National Education issued a new regulation requiring every new school to have a mescit, an Islamic prayer room. The government continued to deny Alevis the right to establish similar places of worship in government buildings that did not contain places of worship for non-Sunnis. Alevi leaders reported there was an insufficient number of cemevis in the country to meet demand, stating that approximately 2,500 to 3,000 existed. The government continued to state that Diyanet-funded mosques were available to Alevis and all Muslims, regardless of their school of religious thought.
At year’s end the government still had not legally recognized cemevis as places of worship. The Supreme Court of Appeals had affirmed a lower court’s decision in August 2015 that cemevis are places of worship and should receive the same benefits that Sunni mosques receive, such as being exempt from paying utility bills. Most municipalities continued to waive utility bills only for Sunni Muslim mosques. Several municipalities led by the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) and Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), however, recognized cemevis and waived utility bills. Alevis issued public statements calling on the government to comply with the Supreme Court ruling. In June the ECHR fined the government 54,000 euros ($64,800) for refusing to pay the utility bills of a cemevi in Istanbul. In July the Council of State ruled in favor of another cemevi in Istanbul, compelling the Diyanet to pay its electricity bills. The government did not implement this ruling nationwide by year’s end.
Responding to a question by opposition parliamentarians, Minister of National Education Ismet Yilmaz announced in June that an academic suspended from his university for insulting and threatening Alevis on his social media accounts was reinstated and reassigned to a different public university.
In November the government passed a law authorizing provincial and district-level muftis and their designees to register and officiate at marriages on behalf of the state. The government stated the new law would make the marriage and marriage registration process more efficient, and supporters said the legislation would reduce illegal unregistered religious marriages. Secularists said the law violated the constitution’s principle of secularism, while women’s organizations stated it would increase child marriages. The law did not give the same authority to clerics of other religions, leading some critics to argue that the law ignored the needs of other religious groups by solely addressing the demands of some within the Sunni Muslim majority.
The Diyanet regulated the operation of all registered mosques. It paid the salaries of 112,725 religious personnel at the end of 2016, the last year for which data was available, compared with 117,378 in 2015. The government did not pay the salaries of religious leaders, instructors, or other staff belonging to other religious groups. In January 2016 the Ombudsman Institution responded to an appeal by the Boyacikoy Surp Yerits Mangants Armenian Church Foundation, issuing an advisory opinion that the Diyanet should pay priests’ salaries. The chief ombudsman said he supported “eliminating unjust treatment by amending relevant regulations.” By year’s end there had been no action on this issue.
As of August, 68 Jehovah’s Witnesses faced prosecution as conscientious objectors to military service. Jehovah’s Witnesses officials stated the government subjected Witness conscientious objectors “to unending call-ups for military duty, repeated fines, and threats of imprisonment.”
Some non-Muslims stated that listing their religious affiliation on national identity cards exposed them to discrimination and harassment. Members of many religious groups continued to assert they were precluded from obtaining government jobs and faced discrimination in the private sector for either not listing a religious affiliation or listing a non-Muslim religion on their identity cards.
In February the government started to distribute new national identity cards that recorded the religious affiliation of an individual in a chip in the card, visible only when scanned by a computer. In February 2016 then-Interior Minister Efkan Ala announced that recording religious affiliation in the chip would be optional.
In Nusaybin, the Syriac community restored three of the seven Syriac churches damaged or destroyed over several years during government clashes with the PKK. Two of the seven churches were completely destroyed during the clashes; renovation work on the two others continued at year’s end. In November Deputy Prime Minister Hakan Cavusoglu stated the government was working on a plan to transfer Syriac churches to the Syriac foundations in the Taskoy (Arbo) village of Mardin, noting the law would also facilitate the transfer of properties under the Mor Gabriel Foundation in Mardin. The churches in Taskoy, Mardin include Mor Dimet, Mor Salito, Meryem Ana, Mor Gevargis, Mor Batlo, Mor Simuni, and Mor Semun.
In April then-Deputy Prime Minister Veysi Kaynak announced government funds would renovate a church in Bursa, and the building would reopen for religious services. German Catholic, Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Turkish Protestant congregations have shared the building, which the General Directorate of Foundations has owned for more than 10 years.
Ankara University hosted an event to commemorate Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 27. Then-Deputy Prime Minister Tugrul Turkes attended. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs also issued a written statement commemorating the event. In February the government again commemorated the nearly 800 Jewish refugees who died aboard the Struma when it sank off the coast of Istanbul in 1942. The Governor of Istanbul attended the commemoration, and the spokesperson of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs expressed condolences.
Muslim, Jewish, and Christian religious leaders joined representatives from various municipalities in Istanbul for a public interfaith iftar in June.
In November Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew presided over the reopening ceremony of the Aya Yorgi Greek Orthodox Church in Istanbul’s Edirnekapi district following the church’s three years of restoration by the GDF. Istanbul Governor Vasip Sahin and GDF Director General Adnan Ertem attended the reopening ceremony.