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Worse News for Christians as Turkey’s “Secular” State Turns East
by Peter Riddell
While Turkey has been a secular republic for almost a century, Turkish secularism has not automatically produced an environment of religious tolerance. Indeed, in recent years there have been a number of attacks on Christians.
Some have been directed against long-standing Christians, such as Fr. Andrea Santoro, a Catholic priest who was shot and killed by a 16-year-old youth in February 2006, or Hrant Dink, a Turkish-Armenian newspaper editor who was convicted of “insulting Turkishness” in 2005 and shot to death two years later.
Other attacks have been directed against former Muslims who converted to Christianity. These include Ugur Yuksel, a recent convert who, along with Necati Aydin and Tilmann Geske, was bound, tortured, and killed by young Muslim radicals at a Christian publishing house in Malatya in April 2007. In August 2009, another convert, Ismail Aydin, had a knife held to his throat by a Muslim man, Yasin Karasu, who denounced him as a “missionary dog” and threatened to kill him, according to a court charge. And in October 2006, charges were brought against converts Hakan Tastan and Turan Topal for slandering the Turkish nation and Muslim religion by engaging in evangelistic activities in Silivri in northwestern Turkey.
Turkey is being pulled in opposite directions by two powerful forces. On one side are the secularizing trends, which have led many Turks to look westwards towards Europe over the last 90 years. In 1928 the newly created Republic of Turkey, seeking to distance itself from its Ottoman Islamic past, which had come to be seen as backward by many, removed the constitutional clause that defined Islam as the state religion. This was followed by a series of steps designed to build closer relations with Europe. In 1952 Turkey joined NATO, and since 1963 it has been building closer economic ties with the European Economic Community (EEC) and its successor, the European Union (EU). EU membership negotiations were officially launched in 2005.
The EU, for its part, has been exerting pressure on Turkey to get the country to liberalize many of its political, social, and economic policies. Hence, in 2002 Turkish law ceased to officially regard men as the heads of their families, and in the following year the Turkish parliament passed laws easing restrictions on freedom of speech and reducing the political role of the military. The EU has also pressured Turkey to fully actualize religious freedom for all of its citizens as enshrined in the Turkish Constitution.
On the other side, Turkey’s historic orientation towards the Muslim Middle East, facilitated by its 99 percent Muslim population and grounded in its Ottoman past, has never faded away but has continued to provide a competing set of pressures, especially over the last two decades. In 1996, the secularist center-right coalition government fell, leading to the first pro-Islamic government in Turkey since 1923. In November 2002, the Islamist-based Justice and Development Party won a landslide election victory, leading to a cooling of interest among some Turks in the European connection and a reinforcing of ties with certain Muslim nations of the Middle East.
So a key question for all Turks today is: Where does Turkey’s future lie? With the secular EU to the west, or with the umma, the Muslim communities to the east?
Christians & the Government
Currently, the Turkish government officially recognizes only three minority religions: Greek Orthodox Christianity, Armenian Orthodox Christianity, and Judaism. This, notes Anthony O’Mahony of the University of London, poses a problem for the unregistered religious groups, as they “have no legal standing and can face greater harassment.” For example, unrecognized groups do not have the right to establish their own schools or institutes.
Turkish identity cards, prescribed by the government for each citizen, display the holder’s religious affiliation. The 2009 US State Department Report on Freedom of Religion (hereafter the 2009 Report) notes that “some non-Muslims maintained that listing religious affiliation on the cards exposed them to discrimination and harassment.”
Moreover, certain government policies tend to adversely affect the public perception of Christians. O’Mahony observes, “In some political forums the minorities, especially Armenian, Greek, [and] Syriac Christians, are seen as the reason for the collapse of the Ottoman Empire because they collaborated with foreign powers. This historical discourse is often emphasized to create a climate of suspicion.” Such suspicion also extends to converts. As Ziya Meral, a Turkish scholar and activist, wrote in a recent article, “To be a Turk is to be a Muslim; thus, to leave Islam is to betray the Turkish nation.”
Suspicion of Christians sometimes translates into outright discrimination: Human rights agencies report that religious minorities in Turkey may find themselves blocked from careers in state institutions because of their faith. The 2009 Report notes that “religious minorities reported difficulties opening, maintaining, and operating houses of worship,” and that “Christians engaged in religious advocacy were occasionally threatened or pressured by government and state officials.”
The secularizing tendency of many within Turkey’s political elite class does not help in this regard, for it tends to foster a negative attitude towards religious speech and activism per se. The 2009 Report states that “during the Malatya trial hearings . . . retired general Veli Kucuk testified that Christian missionary and Islamic extremist activities were treated the same by state institutions,” that is, as equally bad. Meral confirms this in his article, noting that, “in Turkey, Christian missionary activities are listed as a national threat, along with separatist Kurdish terror.”
Apart from subtle and not-so-subtle pressures from the government, religious minorities also experience various community-level pressures. O’Mahony reports, for example, that newspapers print inflated figures of conversion from Islam to Christianity, thereby triggering anxiety among some Muslims and exacerbating their suspicion of Christians. He also points to the use of historical factors: “After World War I Turkish identity was presented as a Muslim identity. . . . The Christian ‘otherness’ was perceived in terms of confrontation, and as a source of conflict that should be removed. This tendency has become stronger as Islam has occupied an increasing place in public life.”
School textbooks also play a role in hardening sectarian divides. O’Mahony mentions that secondary-school history books lead Turkish students to conclude that “Christians have been [their] enemies either from outside, such as the Crusaders and Europe or the West in general, or from inside, such as the Greeks and Armenians in the Ottoman Empire.”
Surveys of public opinion help gauge the extent of such sectarian tension. A 2009 survey in Turkey found that 59 percent of respondents thought that non-Muslims should not be allowed to hold open meetings where they could discuss their ideas, and 54 percent believed that non-Muslims should not be allowed to publish literature that describes their faith.
Such attitudes of hostility easily translate into discrimination and persecution. The 2009 Report notes that “threats against non-Muslims [have] created an atmosphere of pressure and diminished freedom for some non-Muslim communities,” adding that “persons wishing to convert from Islam [have] sometimes experienced social harassment and violence from relatives and neighbors.”
Some accounts of Christian converts experiencing harassment and violence from the local community have a historical twist. Jean-Christophe Ploquin, of the French newspaper La Croix, researched descendants of Armenians who had converted to Islam under duress during World War I. One such descendent interviewed by Ploquin, a man named Garabed, said that he had converted from Islam to Christianity in search of his roots, but upon returning to his native village from Istanbul, he found it a dangerous and lonely place without a supportive local Christian community. Garabed was aware of others who wished to embrace their ancestral Armenian Christian faith but feared losing their jobs or business clients if they did so.
A Hinge Point
Turkey is clearly at a hinge point in its history, with the next decade likely to reveal whether the country spends the twenty-first century closer to Western Europe or to the Muslim countries to the east. That decision will no doubt have a significant impact on Turkey’s Christian community. Can Turkish Christians look forward to increasing freedom in the practice and expression of their faith? Or will they continue to feel, at best, tolerated but not welcome? Time will soon tell.