Orhan Kemal Cengiz
Why are my sons going to be Christians?
I have two young sons, both of whom are primary school students at the moment. When I got their identity cards issued, I requested the officer to leave the “religion part” empty. I said “they have no religion now, they may wish to put something there when they reach the age of consent if they wish to do so.”
I am a non-religious person; this is one of the reasons why I acted like that. The second one was a kind of precaution, and as I subsequently discovered, it was ineffective. I was trying to rescue them from mandatory religion lessons.
All Turkish citizens, starting in elementary school, are required to take religious instruction if they are not listed as Christians or Jews at the Birth Registration Office (Nüfus Müdürlüğü).
This obligation was introduced to the system after the 1980 coup, when I was a high school student. It was, of course, a unique paradox that soldiers, the self-appointed guardians of secularism, initiated this system. They must have thought that religion would tame Turkish society; back then Soviet Russia was viewed as a threat by the Turkish state.
When this lesson was first introduced it was possible to be exempted from it if your parents petitioned for this purpose. And my family did this at my request and I was exempted from religion lessons. There was of course a kind of silent social condemnation from other students when I was leaving the classroom during religion lesson hours. But I realized that two other young boys were leaving the classroom with me too when the religion lesson started. They were exempted from this lesson too. This was the first time in my life when I became aware that there were people in Turkey known as Alevis. We became very good friends, and I also learned a lot about them and the social prejudice towards them. Therefore exemption from religion lessons enriched me in so many ways that were unforeseeable at the time.
Today, however, it is not simply possible to get exempted from religion classes if you are someone coming from a Sunni family like me, no matter how liberal your family is in this matter. When a family delivers a petition to get their child exempted from mandatory religion lessons, the authorities ask what religion they belong to. They do not care if you are an atheist, if you are non-religious, Alevi, or any other thing. They say you can be exempted if you are a Christian or Jewish, but for other beliefs, they do not recognize this right.
Turkey has so far been condemned by two judgments of the European Court of Human Rights because of the mandatory religion classes and for individuals not being able to be exempted from them. These were the cases of Hasan and Eylem Zengin (2007) and Mansur Yalçın and Others (2014) that were introduced by Alevi citizens who were unable to have their children exempt from mandatory religion classes despite all their efforts. After the first condemnation in 2007 Turkey changed its religion curriculum adding some information about Alevism and other religious beliefs. However, in its 2014 decision, the ECtHR scanned this new curriculum and decided that the bulk of the curriculum remained unchanged in its focus on Islam as practiced and interpreted by the majority of the Turkish population.
After these strong decisions, Turkey’s defiance to implement them continues, and so does the suffering of Alevis and others who are not Sunni or non-religious. If a family wishes to exempt their child from this lesson they have to prove that they are Christian or Jewish. If they cannot prove that they are belong to “other recognized religions,” they have to go to the administrative court to get this exemption. In some corners of Turkey, administrative courts accept this demand and decide in accordance with the decisions of the ECtHR. But in some other parts they simply refuse these cases. Whatever the outcome, it is psychological torture for these families to have to go to court to be able to exercise basic human rights.
My children continue their education in private school and I do not see them citing religious verses, yet. I do not know what the future holds. If my children are subjected to mandatory religion lessons, I will go to court. If I cannot get any results, I do not know what to do. I do not want my children to “become” anything before they reach the age where they can make their own choices. As a lawyer, I have clients from different religions, and this thought, of presenting my children as Christians to the authorities, crossed my mind. When states impose things on their citizens they also force them to find ways out of desperation.
I hope that Turkey will implement these decisions of the ECtHR one day; Alevis, non-religious people, and some other people who believe different things will have a choice that reflects their beliefs and thoughts.
Otherwise, it is not possible to argue that there is religious freedom in Turkey, where some beliefs are forced onto people with the almighty forces of the state and its institutions.