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The right to change one’s belief or religion
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COMMENTARY: The European Court of Human Rights - Out of step on conscientious objection

The European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg (ECtHR) has recently made a very dangerous judgement for freedom of religion or belief in the Bayatyan v. Armenia case which puts it out of step with the international standards on conscientious objection to military service and with the Council of Europe's own human rights agenda, notes Derek Brett of Conscience and Peace Tax International http://www.cpti.ws in a commentary for Forum 18 News Service http://www.forum18.org. The Court, apparently unaware of the recent parallel jurisprudence under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, found no violation of the freedom of thought, conscience and religion in the imprisonment of a Jehovah's Witness for his refusal on grounds of conscientious objection to perform military service, or the subsequent increase in the sentence, which had been partly justified by his reasons for refusal. Brett argues that it is vital that the Grand Chamber of the ECtHR agrees to hear the appeal in the Bayatyan case, as it alone can overturn the precedent which this will otherwise set for future ECtHR cases.

TURKEY: No progress on religious property in 2009

Turkish religious communities as diverse as the Alevi Muslims, Catholics, the Greek Orthodox, Protestants, and the Syriac Orthodox Church have seen no significant progress in 2009 in resolving long-standing property problems, Otmar Oehring of the German Catholic charity Missio notes in a commentary for Forum 18. Hopes were high, following meetings with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and US President Barack Obama's address to the Turkish Parliament, that some progress on this aspect of freedom of religion and belief would be made. But there has been, for example, no progress on recognising Alevi Muslim cem houses and continuing legal cases against the Mor Gabriel Syriac Orthodox Monastery, while two recent victories in the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) have not led to the recovery of confiscated property. Dr Oehring observes that the ECtHR appears to be the only realistic hope of resolving individual property cases – provided its judgments are implemented.

TURKEY: Hopes for 2009 disappointed

Hopes for improvements in the rights of religious communities in Turkey in 2009 have once more come to nothing, notes Otmar Oehring of the German Catholic charity Missio in a commentary for Forum 18. Alevi Muslims broke off formal talks with the government over denial of their rights. A high-profile lunch with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in August 2009, attended by five religious minority leaders, including Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, was followed by a visit to two Greek Orthodox sites. But no concrete improvements ensued. Intolerance promoted by Turkey's mainstream media has markedly reduced, but local and ultranationalist newspapers and websites still promote such intolerance. No verdict was reached in 2009 in the long-running trial over the 2007 murder of three Protestants in Malatya, or over the long-running attempts to prosecute two Protestants accused of "defaming Islam". Dr Oehring argues for a fundamental change in the attitudes of both society and the government.

TURKEY: Turkish nationalism, Ergenekon, and denial of religious freedom

A trial has begun in Turkey of influential people alleged to be part of an ultra-nationalist group, Ergenekon. Otmar Oehring of the German Catholic charity Missio notes, in a commentary for Forum 18, that opposition to religious freedom is widespread. Ergenekon members are alleged to have maintained deathlists of people, including Christians with a missionary background. The Malatya murder trial is revealing plausible links between Ergenekon, the "deep state" and the murders. But local officials – who are almost certainly not in an Ergenekon-type group – are also hostile to religious freedom. The Ergenekon case is part of a power-struggle between the "deep state" and the AKP government, but it is unclear whether the current trials will advance freedom of religion and belief. Given the threats to the day-to-day security and religious freedom of non-nationalist Turks, whether the government effectively addresses the roots of these threats will be crucial.

TURKEY: One year after Malatya murders, time to address the causes

Turkey's Protestants are this week commemorating the first anniversary of the murders of three Protestants - Necati Aydin, Tillman Geske and Ugur Yüksel – in Malatya. Güzide Ceyhan, a Turkish Protestant, in a personal commentary for Forum 18, notes that Turkey's Alliance of Protestant Churches described 2007 as a "dark year" for their community. She says little has changed to give greater protection for the religious freedom of small religious communities, with some hiring private security companies or locking their doors during worship services. Ceyhan argues that dialogue with all religious communities and non-believers must begin so that the State's claim of being "equally close to all religions" becomes a reality; long-term educational efforts must be initiated to foster pluralism and the equality of all citizens; and the state must urgently take steps to remove imminent threats of attacks on smaller communities, as well as punish those who have committed attacks. If Turkey does not do this, she argues, "we will not have started to genuinely address the causes of the three murders."

TURKEY: What difference does the latest Foundations Law make?

Turkey has passed the long-promised new Foundations Law. However, it does not allow Muslim or non-Muslim religious communities to legally exist as themselves, Otmar Oehring of the German Catholic charity Missio notes in a commentary for Forum 18. Bizarrely, religious communities are therefore not themselves allowed to own their own places of worship. For most non-Muslim communities, these are owned by community foundations. This leads to serious problems. For example, only the state can legally make even basic building repairs. As Dilek Kurban of the Turkish TESEV Foundation noted, the Law is "incompatible with the principle of freedom of association, which is guaranteed by the European Convention on Human Rights, the Constitution and the [1923] Treaty of Lausanne". Dr Oehring argues that the way to guarantee freedom of thought, conscience and belief is to make the European Convention on Human Rights' commitments a concrete reality in Turkey.

RUSSIA: Fresh raids on moderate Turkish Muslim theologian readers

Officials from regional public prosecutors' offices and the FSB security service searched homes of Said Nursi readers across Russia over the weekend of 8-9 December, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. The raids follow a ban on some works by the moderate Turkish Muslim theologian. The flat of Marat Tamimdarov, Russian translator of a number of Nursi's works, was one place searched. The search warrant claimed that Nurdzhular (a russification of the Turkish for "Nursi followers") is an organisation banned in Turkey and not registered in Russia. Tamimdarov denied this, insisting to Forum 18 that there is no such organisation and that "it isn't true that there's a ban in Turkey – there was even a symposium on Nursi there recently, attended by international scholars. There isn't a drop of extremism in his works." Akhmed Makhmedov of the Volga Spiritual Directorate of Muslims told Forum 18 that "we don't approve of the practice of having secular academics label theological works extremist – that can be done with any holy book." As a "bad precedent" he singled out a petition calling for a ban on all Jewish religious and national organisations in Russia, on the basis of allegedly extremist sentiments in a sixteenth-century Jewish law code. Makhmedov also criticised the ban on Said Nursi's works as "against common sense".

TURKEY: What causes intolerance and violence?

The trial in Malatya of those accused of murdering three Protestants has drawn attention again to the question of what causes such intolerance and violence. Güzide Ceyhan, a Turkish Protestant, in a personal commentary for Forum 18, identifies three trends behind the murders: disinformation by public figures and the mass media; the rise of Turkish nationalism; and the marginalisation of smaller groups from Turkish society. All three trends feed off each other, and all of Turkey's smaller religious communities – those within Islam and Christianity, as well as Baha'is and Jehovah's Witnesses - are affected by them in various ways. Many Turkish people – of all religions and none - are committed to furthering democracy and human rights, while civil society is growing stronger. But for the fundamental right of all Turkish citizens to freedom of thought, conscience and belief to be truly protected, a human rights-based approach is indispensable.

TURKEY: Dangerous consequences of intolerance of religious minorities

The Turkish government has long failed to tackle deep-rooted discrimination against religious minorities – by refusing to guarantee their position in law or to crack down on intolerance from officials, the media and in school curricula. This has left religious minorities dangerously exposed, argues Otmar Oehring of the German Catholic charity Missio. For, as Dr Oehring observes in this personal commentary for Forum 18, hostility to religious minorities is stoked by widespread xenophobia. Following the brutal murder of three Protestants in Malatya in April, attacks on and threats against religious minorities have only increased. Official "protection" for religious minority leaders and places of worship seems designed as much to control as to protect them.

TURKEY: What chance for religious freedom in Turkey's elections?

Turkey is due to hold parliamentary elections on 22 July, which will have a crucial impact on the presidential election due in autumn. Both elections will strongly influence the chances of greater freedom of thought, conscience and belief, Otmar Oehring of the German Catholic charity Missio notes. Turkish religious minorities Forum 18 News Service has spoken to are highly concerned about the outcome of the elections. For, as Dr Oehring observes in this personal commentary for Forum 18, Turks who want to see genuine freedom of thought, conscience and religion have little expectation that either the parliamentary or presidential election will bring any improvement. No political party with any chance of gaining real power wants either to tackle the dangerous media intolerance of religious minorities or to take the dramatic changes necessary to usher in genuine religious freedom.

RUSSIA: Said Nursi ban brands moderate Muslims as extremist

Muslims popularising the work of Said Nursi, a Turkish Muslim theologian, may be at risk of criminal prosecution as extremists, Forum 18 News Service has been told. If an appeal – which may be heard in August - against a Moscow court ban on translations of Nursi's works fails, "anyone in Russia who publishes or distributes the banned publications of Said Nursi will be liable to criminal prosecution," Valeri Kuzmin of Tatarstan's Public Prosecutor's Office told Forum 18. Sergei Sychev, a lawyer who is contesting the ban, estimates that millions of copies of Nursi's work Risale-i Nur - a popular missionary text – are currently in circulation in Russia. Kuzmin has stated that legal action was initiated in response to complaints from relatives "concerned by what was happening to those lured into the Nursi community." Its approximately 200 members in Tatarstan, Kuzmin estimated, "try to sever social ties" in just the same way as "totalitarian sects such as the Jehovah's Witnesses." The ban relies solely upon analysis of the work by psychologists and linguists of the Russian Academy of Sciences. Russia's Ombudsman for Human Rights, Vladimir Lukin, and a wide range of Russia's Muslim leaders and scholars has condemned the ban.

TURKEY: Religious freedom via Strasbourg, not Ankara or Brussels?

There are now two major questions in the struggle for full religious freedom in Turkey, Otmar Oehring of the German Catholic charity Missio notes. Firstly, will the controversial Foundations Law be adopted, and if so in what form? Secondly, will the Turkish authorities move towards full religious freedom after a recent momentous ruling by the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) in Strasbourg? The ECtHR did not accept the Turkish state's argumentation over the seizure of non-Muslim minorities' property, and even the Turkish judge at the Court had no objections to the ruling. In this personal commentary for Forum 18, Dr Oehring suggests that, as Turkish accession negotiations with the European Union have gone quiet, the ECtHR may now be the best route for Turkey's religious minorities to assert their rights.