Freedom of belief for Christians in Turkey

Religious persecution in Turkey takes many forms; minorities struggle to survive

Turkey, which forms a bridge between Europe, the South Caucasus, and the Middle East, has had a diverse geography throughout its history, both in religious and cultural terms. Before the establishment of the Turkish Republic in 1923, there were 13 million Muslims in the Ottoman-ruled territories according to the last census in 1914, while the number of Christians was just under three million. According to official figures, the bulk of this three million consisted of 1,173,422 Armenians and 1,564,939 Greeks.

The prohibitions imposed on Christians, such as the ban on horseback riding and carrying weapons, and the increasingly repressive regime of the Ottoman Sultan Abdulhamid II caused growing numbers of them to change their religion from 1880 onward in order to escape repression.

The exact number of those who became Muslims in order to survive in this way is unknown. While the percentage of Christians in Turkey was 20-25 percent in 1914, it declined to 3-5 percent by 1927 and today it has declined to 0.3-0.4 percent. These repressive measures did not end with the establishment of the Turkish Republic in 1923.

With the purpose of creating a Muslim, Sunni and Turkish population, the Turkish authorities have often taken various discriminatory measures to dissolve the Christian population throughout the history of the republic. Some of them are the following; 1924 Population exchange between Turkey and Greece: Under this agreement, signed in addition to the peace treaty of Lausanne (1923), the citizens of the Republic of Turkey and the Kingdom of Greece were subjected to deportation and forced migration on religious grounds.

The Greek Christian population of Turkey was forced to leave the country by selling their property to the Turks at no cost. Under the regulations in effect, they were forced to leave for Greece with a maximum amount of 20 US dollars and a suitcase weighting 20 kilos. Many Christian Greek citizens of the Turkish Republic had to convert to Islam in order to be able to remain in their homeland. Compulsory Conscription (1942) and Wealth Tax (1944): Using the ongoing World War II as a pretext, Armenian, Greek and Jewish men between the ages of 27 and 40 were drafted into a labor battalion in April 1941.

They did not receive any armed training, but were assigned to construction work. Three and a half months after the discharge of non-Muslim conscripts from the army, a one-time wealth tax went into effect that imposed an additional tax on all citizens based on their total wealth. Contrary to the 1924 Constitution, which recognizes its citizens as equal Turkish citizens regardless of language, religion or race, when Christian citizens discharged from the army began to return home after 1942, they faced taxation up to ten times higher than their Muslim neighbors.

Pera Pogrom of 6-7 September 1955: The final blow dealt to the minorities in the process of the Turkification of the country's largest city was the vandalization and plundering of minority properties, which resulted in a significant number of non-Muslims in Istanbul leaving the country after the pogroms orchestrated by the Turkish government on September 6 and 7, 1955. Such politically sanctioned repressive measures, which were numerous in the first 30 years of the Republic's history, continued in the following years. There are various estimates of the number of Christians in Turkey today, as unfortunately no official records are kept by any institution, including the patriarchates, whose figures are based solely on the registered number of baptisms, marriages and deaths. However, the number of Christians living outside the major cities such as Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir is difficult to incorporate into these figures. Congregations without a church are not taken into account in these figures and are doomed to extinction.

The figures below were obtained from interviews with church officials. At present, there are estimated to be just over a thousand Greek Orthodox, between 35,000 and 40,000 Armenian Oriental Orthodox, 28,000 Catholics, 18,000 Antiochian Orthodox, 512 Mormons, and 8,000 Protestants. Freedom of religion and belief before the law Article 24 of the Constitution of the Turkish Republic covers freedom of religion and conscience.

Accordingly, every person has freedom of conscience, religious beliefs and convictions. No one shall be compelled to participate in religious worship, rites and ceremonies, or to reveal his religious beliefs and convictions; he shall not be condemned or blamed for his religious beliefs and convictions.

However, policies such as the registration of religious affiliation on Turkish identity cards, a practice that has only recently been abandoned, and the record-keeping of family trees of certain religious minorities in an official institution, which was only surfaced by a recent scandal, show that non-Muslims are deprived of this constitutional right. In 2015, it was revealed that Armenians, Greeks, and Jews were given an ancestry code for the purpose of identifying students who are eligible to enroll in non-Muslim schools when lawyer Ismail Cem Halavurt sought to register an Armenian student in a school.

It became evident after the court case that minority students receive codes in accordance with their religious denomination. Responding to HDP deputy Garo Paylan's motion and appeal to the Turkish Grand National Assembly, Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu issued a circular in 2016 announcing the termination of the practice of tracking ancestry. However, it is not yet known whether the practice has been officially cancelled.

The state monitors and oversees the religious and moral education offered in the country. Religious culture and moral education are part of the compulsory subjects in the curricula of primary and secondary schools. Apart from a number of such courses as part of formal education, religious education and training for non-Muslims can be provided only at the request of individuals and the legal representative of minors.

According to Article 10 of the Turkish constitution, all people are equal before the law, without any discrimination on the basis of language, race, color, sex, political opinion, ideological conviction, religion, sect or similar grounds, and state authorities shall require equal treatment in accordance with the principles towards all citizens in all operations related to administrative authorities and public services.

Moreover, Article 90 of the Constitution, which establishes the status of international conventions vis-à-vis national law, stipulates that international conventions to which Turkey is a party take precedence over national legislation. A human rights project called the Freedom of Belief Initiative (FoBI), which is run by the Oslo-based human rights organization Norwegian Helsinki Committee since 2013, has regularly reported on violations of freedom of belief in Turkey since that year. In its report, "The Right to Freedom of Expression with Concerns over Denigrating Religious Values," which was released in April 2021, the Freedom of Belief Initiative observes that the concept of freedom of religion, constitutionally recognized in Turkey, can be abused and that "freedom of religion" or "religious expression" is protected in Turkey only when it concerns Islam.

The report stresses that the issue should be put on the agenda. According to a FoBI report for 2020, eight of the 14 crimes committed in Turkey on the basis of religion and belief were committed against Alevis, five against Christians and one against a Muslim. Vandalism against places of worship The abovementioned report includes some attacks on places of worship among the religiously motivated crimes in Turkey. However, in most cases, the number of these attacks cannot even be indicated because they are not reported.

The reason is that Christians who lived throughout the territory of Turkey a hundred years ago are now only found in certain cities, and places of worship in other cities are no longer in use. According to a list compiled by writer Zakarya Mildanoglu for an article in the Agos newspaper, there were more than 2200 Armenian apostolic churches in the Ottoman territories by 1915, of which 30 are preserved in Istanbul and four in Anatolia. Other church buildings were often used by villagers as barns, as prisons and, in some places, even as gendarmerie firing ranges.

They were looted by fortune hunters or their stones or bricks were reused in buildings erected in the same village. Many of them were also converted into mosques. The Greek church in downtown Erzurum now serves as the Fatih Mosque, while the Protestant Armenian Church of the Virgin Mary in Antep was converted into the Kurtulus Mosque after serving as a prison in the 1980s, to name just a few examples. Although the frescoes in most of these buildings are covered with whitewash and their floors are carpeted, and they are no longer recognizable as churches today, but archival documents show the truth and locals know of their true origins.

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