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".
4 May 2011
The Diyanet, or Presidency of Religious Affairs, is a state institution reporting to the Prime Minster's Office and exerts a very large influence on the extent to which freedom of religion or belief can be enjoyed in Turkey, Forum 18 News Service notes. Massive state financial and institutional support of the Diyanet along with its activities - including its biases against Muslim and non-Muslim beliefs it dislikes - make it difficult for people inside and outside the Diyanet's structures to exercise freedom of religion or belief. This has been reinforced by the latest law governing the Diyanet, which increases its influence without addressing its current incompatibility with Turkey's human rights obligations. For a political party to propose removing the Diyanet from the state's structures would render that party liable to be closed down under Turkish law. Despite the need for change in the Diyanet-state relationship, civil society proposals for change have been described by the government as "unjust" and "too assertive for such a sensitive issue".
2 March 2011
The right to establish, own, and maintain places of worship is set out in the international human rights standards Turkey is a party to. Yet religious communities face serious obstacles – both formal and informal – preventing this, Forum 18 News Service notes. Only the state-run Diyanet can open mosques and administer them. The largest community demanding to have its own places of worship is the Alevi community, which is around one third of the population. But despite government promises of a solution, none has yet appeared. Indeed, the state is currently attempting to close down an Alevi association because its statute describes its cemevi as a place of worship. Communities, such as Protestants and Jehovah's Witnesses, face serious obstacles in establishing places of worship, while Catholics, Greek and Syriac Orthodox and other communities face serious problems in maintaining places of worship. The right of all to establish places of worship is trapped in political inaction and the arbitrary decisions of public administrators. To implement human rights obligations this right must be freed from this trap.
7 February 2011
Turkey should allow full legal status for all religious and belief communities, Otmar Oehring of the German Catholic charity Missio, argues in a commentary for Forum 18. No community independently exists or has ever existed in Turkish law – whether Muslim, Jewish, Armenian Apostolic, Greek Orthodox, Syriac Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant, Baha'i, Jehovah's Witness, or any other. This leads to bizarre situations, such as communities being unable to prove they are liable for the taxes they already pay. It also raises the question of whether Turkey really is – as officials repeatedly claim – a secular state. Achieving legal status for all would not solve all problems, but the changes in official and social attitudes necessary would help resolve the other problems. To achieve this, both the Constitution and the Civil Code must be changed. Anything less than directly resolving the fundamental problem - independent legal status - will fail to meet Turkey's human rights obligations and aspirations.
5 January 2011
Many in Turkey see an urgent need to reform primary and secondary school education to facilitate freedom of religion or belief. This is because, Forum 18 News Service notes, aspects of the school system play a role in fuelling a type of nationalism behind intolerant attitudes, violent attacks and possibly even murders experienced by vulnerable groups. Key problems identified by members of various religious communities and atheists include compulsory Religious Culture and Knowledge of Ethics (RCKE) school classes, strict limits on exemption from such classes, discrimination against those seeking exemption, and misleading information in textbooks on the History of Turkish Republican Reforms and Atatürkism. An overdue first step would be to implement an October 2007 European Court of Human Rights judgment to legally enable all parents to exempt their children from RCKE classes. Implementing respect for everyone's freedom of religion or belief in school education will contribute to Turkey flourishing as a truly pluralistic democratic society.
9 November 2010
Turkey's Mor Gabriel Syriac Orthodox Monastery in the Midyat (Tur Abdin) district faces five separate lawsuits contesting its right to its own property. Some of these cases are being brought by the government, and the state's actions suggest it wishes that the Monastery no longer existed. Otmar Oehring of the German Catholic charity Missio , in a commentary for Forum 18, argues that as long as the international community shows an interest in the fate of the Syriac Orthodox community, nothing drastic will happen it. But this will not prevent the lawsuits dragging on, leaving the Monastery and the community insecure and emotionally and financially drained. Should international interest fade, the state and local tribal leaders will do what they have long sought to do: take over the Christian-owned land. The fate of the Syriac Orthodox is important not just for that community, but for the signal it sends to other minority religious communities – and indeed to all who want full equality for everyone in Turkey.
8 October 2010
The compulsory recording of people's religious affiliation is the subject of debate within Turkey, Forum 18 News Service notes. Citizens must either declare one of a limited number of religions – atheism is not a possible choice - or leave the religion part of ID Cards and the Public Registry blank. This makes people vulnerable to discrimination, because of both the very many situations in which identification must be shown, and the many people who can access this information. Under the international human rights treaties to which Turkey is a party, individuals cannot be forced to declare their religion, belief or non-belief. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs told the then UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief in 1999 "that Turkey is preparing to suppress mention of religion on identity cards", but there has been no apparent progress. A recent European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) judgment on an Alevi who wanted this designation recorded on his records and ID Card found against Turkey, but along with other ECtHR judgments it has not been executed. Substantial structural and mentality changes are required for change to occur.