Orhan Kemal Cengiz
Religious sects, child abuse and the state’s duty
Religious sects are closed structures with unique hierarchies and internal rules members must obey. While freedom of religion requires that sects be allowed autonomy and that state interference should be kept at a minimum, their isolation from the outside world, their hierarchies, and the unquestionable authority of religious figures creates fertile ground for abuse and the violation of basic human rights.
Recall the sexual abuse scandals of the Catholic Church which revealed that priests abused thousands of children in a period spanning years with no concern of being held accountable.
Turkey is experiencing similar dilemmas. Before the AKP (Justice and Development Party) government, the “ultra-secular state” had been exercising disproportionate control over religious sects and congregations. Turkey has been flung from one extreme to the other with the rise of the AKP regime in which religious sects enjoy all sorts of privileges and exist as autonomous structures without any external control as long as they do not act against the government.
There are notable exceptions to this privileged status most Islamic sects enjoy today. Take, for example, the Furkan Foundation. Headed by Alpaslan Kuytul, both the foundation and its members are routinely targeted by police operations and assaulted by law enforcement during peaceful demonstrations. Kuytul himself is a regular fixture at Turkish prison facilities. He is in prison on and off. The only reason the Furkan Foundation does not enjoy the same privileges as other sects is due to its staunch opposition to the government—notably, its criticism of Turkey’s cross-border operations and strong objection to other policies.
On the other hand, Islamic sects which support the government enjoy enormous privileges. Their members easily find their places within state structures; they are appointed as state servants; as members of the judiciary and so on. These sects get serious financial aid from the government. Most of these sects have dormitories in which children of poor families meet with religious doctrines and join the rank of these sects. There are rumors that the government does not open enough dormitories for students to leave these “private” dormitories more space to find more willing students to stay in them.
Such dormitories are opened very easily, reach students everywhere and operate freely with minimum bureaucratic requirements. They enjoy an ease of operation and little regulatory oversight which combine to cause serious problems and human suffering. An article in BirGun Daily* recently listed just a few of the tragedies that have taken place in these sect-controlled dormitories and within the sect structures. Some of the incidents dating back to recent years are as follows:
- In the fire that broke out in the dormitory of the Suleymanci sect in Adana's Aladag district, 12 people, 11 of them children, lost their lives.
- A student named Enes Kara committed suicide because of the pressure he faced while staying in student housing belonging to a sect. No investigation was opened about the congregation which ran the housing facility.
- In Karaman, 46 children were sexually abused at an Ensar Foundation dormitory. The perpetrator, Muharrem Buyukturk, was sentenced to prison only after the incident aroused indignation in the country. However, no official action was taken against the foundation.
- Faruki sect sheikh Suleyman Isik who sexually abused seven children over a long period of time in Konya was sentenced to 62 years in prison. However, the Court of Cassation overturned Isik’s sentence on the basis that "children can consent."
- Ushaki sect sheikh Fatih Nurullah was arrested for the sexual abuse of a 12-year-old girl in Sakarya's Akyazi district.
In addition to these deeply disturbing events, journalist Timur Soykan covered other inconceivable abuses in a similar column for BirGun. Soykan reports that H.K.G, a minor, filed an appeal with the public prosecutor. She claimed that her father Yusuf Ziya Gumusel, founder of the Hiranur Foundation associated with the Ismailaga sect, had married her off when she was only six years old and that she had been sexually abused for years. The husband, a 29-year-old, was a member of the same congregation. I will spare the reader the disturbing details of the case.
What this girl suffered and what countless other children, both male and female, have been subjected to in such congregation affiliated dormitories can only be classified as torture under international human rights law. There is no doubt that states are under a serious obligation to prevent torture and ill-treatment, no matter who the perpetrators are.
As I said in the beginning, Turkey has come from a place of oppressive control over religious activities to one in which they lack any kind of oversight; from one extreme to another. Freedom of religion requires the autonomous existence of religious congregations in democratic societies, but it does not mean that they will enjoy unjustified financial aid, that their members will be promoted everywhere within the state, or that their activities will never be regulated.
Turkey is not only required to punish those who abuse children and youth, but it must also recognize that it has a positive obligation to prevent any such abuse from occurring in the first place. Congregations are free in their activities so long as they do not abuse children, do not commit human rights violations, and are accountable for any crimes that take place within their structures. Any freedom beyond this is not freedom of religion, but rather the state’s complicity in abuse and torture.
*BirGun is a daily left-wing publication based in Istanbul, Turkey.