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The right to believe, to worship and witness
The right to change one’s belief or religion
The right to join together and express one’s belief

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.

TURKEY: Pope Benedict XVI's visit and religious freedom

Pope Benedict XVI's visit to Turkey spotlights religious freedom, notes Otmar Oehring of the German Catholic charity Missio . Some are optimistic that the new Foundations Law will resolve property problems for the organisations allowed to non-Muslim communities, but this has yet to be seen. Astonishingly, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Abdullah Gul may not meet Pope Benedict. Officials fear that the Pope may discuss the problems facing Catholics and other religious minorities, including Muslim minorities. In this personal commentary for Forum 18, Dr Oehring maintains that – despite hopeful signs such as several Protestant churches gaining association status – there has been little overall progress this year in religious freedom. For example, minorities such as the Syriac Orthodox do not have the legal right to undertake activities essential for a functioning peaceful religious community.

TURKEY: Little progress on religious freedom

Despite hopes, there has been little progress in achieving true religious freedom in Turkey, argues Otmar Oehring of the German Catholic charity Missio. Delays in changing the Foundations Law; declining official interest in acting on EU and Council of Europe advice; the lack of concrete impact of limited changes in the way the state records individual religious affiliation; "massive nationalistic indoctrination" in schools; and continuing systematic discrimination against Muslim and non-Muslim minorities contribute to Turkey's religious freedom deficit. In this personal commentary for Forum 18, Dr Oehring maintains that the Turkish government no longer seems willing to improve the religious freedom and human rights situation. Many think that EU accession negotiations may fail, and he suggests that this is likely to end any progress towards religious freedom.