4 December 2012
A survey by the Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation (TESEV) has found that change in Turkish society is ongoing and there is a certain willingness to see constitutional changes that would protect freedom of religion or belief, Forum 18 News Service notes. Indeed, society seems to be to some degree ahead of the AKP government in its willingness to implement human rights obligations. 74.9 per cent of respondents said that the new Constitution should be compatible with international human rights obligations. But there are inconsistencies in social attitudes which are most apparent in concrete cases, such as attitudes concerning the Diyanet, compulsory Religious Culture and Knowledge of Ethics lessons, and conscientious objection to military service, society does not seem to be ready to accept the implications of human rights treaties. But society's evolving conceptions of Turkish secularism, and the role of the state in relation to freedom of religion or belief, are indications of a willingness to advance democracy and the protection of human rights.
22 August 2012
Turkey's Constitutional Reconciliation Commission (AUK) has begun the drafting a new Constitution. But the political parties represented on the AUK have not reached a consensus on freedom of religion or belief, Forum 18 News Service notes. What are the implications of the new Constitution's possible omission of parts of Turkey's international religious freedom commitments, affecting for example religious education, conscientious objection, and the neutrality of the state? The scope of constitutional guarantees of religious freedom in Turkey should not be limited by the boundaries of the AKP government. Constitutional provisions must reflect the provisions on religious freedom in Turkey's international human rights commitments.
13 June 2012
Turkey's Constitutional Reconciliation Commission (AUK) has started writing the new draft Constitution, starting with the section on fundamental rights. It remains unclear whether the new Constitution will ensure a neutral state and an effective protection of the right to freedom of thought, religion or belief for all. Many religious groups have presented their views to the AUK, which addressed longstanding problems they have encountered exercising freedom of religion or belief. Yet some recent government decisions, and the way they have been taken, appear to contradict hopes for a democratic state that respects fundamental human rights. The AKP's recent policies fail to show a determination to take the bold steps needed to address the realities of Turkey's pluralistic society, and resolve the problems faced by all religious or belief groups.
1 May 2012
Two recent Turkish military court decisions concerning conscientious objection claims have shown recognition of the right to conscientious objection to military service as a human right but a selective application. These come amid contradictory Turkish government responses to Council of Europe pressure backing European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) judgments requiring Turkey to bring its laws into line with international human rights standards. The military court judgments should be read carefully, as they show the limits of the right to conscientious objection currently recognised in Turkey, Forum 18 News Service notes. In particular, the courts suggest that ECtHR judgments on conscientious objection uphold the right to conscientious objection only of objectors who are members of groups that object to military service on intellectual, religious or political grounds. The courts also use selective theological judgments to back this, and appear to question the right to change one's convictions in relation to conscientious objection. The need for a comprehensive legal framework remains urgent. As Muslim conscientious objector Muhammed Serdar Delice stated, "regardless of one's religion, conscientious objection is everyone's right".
15 February 2012
The prosecutions of - among others - a cartoonist, a contributor to a website, and the publisher of a diary have raised concerns about how the complementary human rights of freedom of expression and freedom of religion or belief can be exercised in Turkey, including the religious freedom right not to believe. All the prosecutions relate to questioning or criticism of all religions, or Islam specifically, from an atheist perspective. Article 216 (3) of the Criminal Code ("Denigrating the religious values of a group") is the legal basis of the prosecutions. The manner in which Article 216 (3) is applied is of great importance in enabling Turkey to implement its international human rights obligations, Forum 18 News Service notes. Restrictions must not be applied "recklessly", as human rights lawyer Orhan Kemal Cengiz puts it. For this silences critics of religions or beliefs, and the right to make such criticism is an integral part of the right to freedom of religion or belief.
30 November 2011
Turkey's new Constitution drafting process offers many possibilities for the protection of freedom of religion or belief. Forum 18 News Service notes that the constitutional legal framework will determine how far religious freedom will be protected. Questions that remain to be answered include: Will the Diyanet, or Presidency of Religious Affairs under the Prime Minister, continue to be identified as a constitutional body? Will manifestations of religion or belief in worship, practice, teaching and observance be explicitly protected? Will "laiklik", often perhaps misleadingly translated as "secularism", be maintained in the new Constitution? Will Article 174 ("Preservation of Reform Laws") of the current 1982 Constitution be deleted or re-interpreted? Recent developments on conscientious objection and ongoing problems resulting from legislation and practice suggest that, unless these issues are addressed, there may not be significant improvement in the constitutional protection of freedom of religion or belief for all.
6 October 2011
Following the announcement by Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of a Decree allowing non-Muslim community foundations to apply to regain or receive compensation for property the state confiscated from them, Regulations to implement this were published on 1 October. But what does the Decree actually mean? The Decree is best seen as a further step in the process of trying to solve the property problems of non-Muslim community foundations. Yet Forum 18 News Service notes that its scope is narrow, excluding some important categories of confscated property. The Decree relates only to non-Muslim community foundations and does not address property loss of for example, Muslim and Catholic religious communities. Among other deficiencies, the state body that was mainly responsible for confiscations – the Directorate-General of Foundations – has been given control of restitution as well as being given oversight of any compensation to be paid. The absence of an independent valuation and review process to judge compensation increases the possibility that fair compensation may not be paid.
23 August 2011
When children begin school on 19 September, they should have new official textbooks for the compulsory Religious Culture and Knowledge of Ethics course, for which exemption is highly limited. For the first time the books are due to include teaching not just of Sunni Islam but of Alevi and Caferi traditions, both widely shared movements within Islam in Turkey, Forum 18 News Service notes. This year also saw a slight easing to allow exemption of Jehovah's Witness children in families who have left the religious section of their official records blank. Yet such changes fail to tackle the fundamental religious freedom problems over the course: the subject remains compulsory, the function of the course – whether it is about religions or the narrow teaching of one faith only (Islam) - is not clarified, exemptions remain limited and require parents to declare their religious or philosophical views, and there is a risk that exempted children suffer bullying from other children and lowered grades from teachers in other subjects. To ensure respect for freedom of religion and belief for all in education, Turkey should consider approaching the matter in a holistic manner.
26 July 2011
The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) has unequivocally declared that conscientious objection to military service is protected under Article 9 ("Freedom of thought, conscience and religion") of the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. Derek Brett of Conscience and Peace Tax International http://www.cpti.ws/ argues, in this personal commentary for Forum 18 News Service, that the ECtHR judgment in favour of Vahan Bayatyan, an Armenian Jehovah's Witness jailed for conscientious objection to compulsory military service has implications far beyond Armenia. He notes that the judgment also has implications for Azerbaijan and Turkey within the Council of Europe, and for states outside the organisation such as Belarus. He suggests that the ECtHR may develop its thinking to directly address the problem of coercion to change a belief such as conscientious objection, as well as to follow the UN Human Rights Committee in strengthening the protection of conscientious objection.
7 July 2011
ARMENIA: European Court finds conscientious objector was wrongfully convicted and jailed – but what will government do?
The European Court of Human Rights has today (7 July) published a Grand Chamber judgment finding that Armenia violated Vahan Bayatyan's right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. Bayatyan, an Armenian Jehovah's Witness, was imprisoned from September 2002 to July 2003 for refusal on grounds of conscience to perform compulsory military service. Armenia currently has 69 prisoners of conscience – all Jehovah's Witnesses – in jail for refusing conscription. Armenian officials gave only cautious responses to the verdict to Forum 18 News Service, but Jehovah's Witnesses noted to Forum 18 that it should both lead to the prisoners of conscience being freed, and "help our fellow believers who are facing the same issue in Azerbaijan and Turkey". Armenia claims amendments to the Alternative Service Law now in Parliament will take the current alternative service out of the control of the military. But the wording of the amendments is unclear and does not unambiguously state this. Lieutenant Colonel Sasun Simonyan, who was involved in preparing the amendments, told Forum 18 that – as at present - anyone doing alternative service who violated their terms of service would be dealt with by the Military Prosecutor's Office.
27 June 2011
Following the AKP's general election victory, political attention in Turkey has turned to the long-awaited new Constitution, Forum 18 News Service notes. It appears that a consensus may exist among Turkey's liberals, leading civil society organisations, religious minorities, legal academics, and the main opposition party, the CHP, that the new Constitution should uphold the right to freedom of religion or belief. Many would not object to this as an ideal, but attention to the detail of the proposals is essential. The AKP's past record would suggest that any predictions of its response should be cautious. Indeed, it is unclear what the AKP itself would propose. It is vital that the new Constitution enshrines full guarantees of freedom of religion or belief for all, fully in line with Turkey's international human rights obligations. But on its own - without good laws, regulations and state actions - a Constitution can only have a limited impact in generating practical change in the daily lives of people belonging to minority religious and belief communities.
14 June 2011
"Rather than being a celebration of a thing of worth, the approach currently adopted by the international political community to religious freedom is dominated by the language of special pleading, disadvantage, hostility, and hate. This must change", argued Professor Malcolm Evans in a lecture hosted by the Archbishop of Canterbury and published in abbreviated form by Forum 18.
Agendas such as "defamation of religions, incitement to religious hatred, combating antisemitism, Islamophobia, Christianophobia, Discrimination against Christians, etc." risk, Professor Evans notes, being "self-defeating by being self-serving". "The predominant interest which faith communities show in the rights of their own" forms a barrier. "Unless and until that barrier is overcome, the ability of the international community to engage effectively with the protection of the freedom of religion or belief as a human right will be diminished".
Calling for work to re-start on a UN Convention, Professor Evans observes of some approaches: "The question which continually gets lost in these twists and turns is simple, but important: 'Why not start with the idea of the freedom of religion or belief for everyone?'" For, states are the source "in reality, [of] most of the restrictions placed on the freedom of religion or belief - and, therefore, much of the hostility and violence which believers face".
Professor Evans identifies the need to "roll back the essentially negative approaches of recent years and champion a more positive vision of what religious freedom has to offer". He ends by noting signs of positive change, and calling on Christians and those of other faiths and none to "champion the freedoms of others as well as of ourselves".