Religious freedom in the Turkish Republic
The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) published a new study titled “Examination of Threats to Religious Sites in Turkey” on Monday, November 13, 2023. The study looks at existing threats to non-Muslim religious sites in Turkey, highlighting the current predicament of religious minorities. Though violent terrorist attacks on non-Muslim religious sites in Turkey have declined in the last decade, other attacks such as vandalism, destruction of property, intimidation, and even “treasure hunting” for artifacts at sites of ethnic heritage have increased in frequency.
The 1923 Treaty of Lausanne ended the Greco-Turkish War and established specific enumerated rights to protect religious minorities in the Turkish Republic — generally interpreted to be the large minorities of Greek Orthodox Christians, Armenian Christians, and Jews. Among these rights are freedom of worship and recognition of religious sites as houses of worship. Despite Turkey’s treaty obligation to protect these minorities, they — and their sites — have been targeted with threats and attacks, while the government has historically limited their religious freedoms in a number of ways. One such issue, repeatedly raised as a point of concern by USCIRF are property rights.
According to the USCIRF report, the number of attacks on religious minorities has risen steadily over the last 20 years. The majority of these attacks have been directed toward Alevis (a Shia muslim sect) and Protestants. Still, a sizable proportion of the attacks have been against Greek Orthodox Christians, Armenians, Jews, Catholics, and Arab Christians. Two thirds of assailants in these attacks go unidentified. The media has not reported on the judicial outcomes of nearly half of these attacks, and when they have reported on them, as many assailants are penalized as are not. From this data, it is clear that though justice is sometimes carried out, this is more of an exception than a rule, and the penalties for attacks against religious minorities in Turkey seem to underestimate the crimes drastically.
Tuğba Tanyeri-Erdemir says “religious minorities are canaries in a coal mine, [and] attacks on them reflect on the state of equal citizenship and democracy in a given country, whether or not they have the same rights and protections as every other citizen in that country.”
The big picture
USCIRF defines religious freedom as “the right to believe or not believe as one’s conscience leads, and to live out one’s beliefs openly, peacefully, and without fear” and describes it as “an expansive right that includes the freedoms of thought, conscience, expression, association, and assembly.” Recent attacks on these religious sites make clear that religious minorities in Turkey do not have a practical right to religious freedom. Even nonviolent attacks on religious sites drain time and resources away from religious communities, and since they cannot depend on the courts for justice, religious minorities in Turkey cannot live out their beliefs without fear.