A commission of the Turkish Parliament has agreed to consider a proposal to open the Hagia Sophia up to Muslims for worship and officially recognize it as a mosque. See this link for the story. http://communities.washingtontimes.com/neighborhood/looking-luke/2013/feb/5/turkish-parliament-considers-converting-hagia-soph/

We are conducting a survey to understand international sentiment on the issue. Take a minute to respond to the survey (only two questions). 
The article I wrote on Monday about Erdoğan's AKP government has drawn quite a bit of fire, especially on Twitter. Don't get me wrong; there was plenty of positive feedback as well. But, I was shocked at how some people viewed this article as a "hit piece" against Erdoğan. One person even asked how much I was paid to write this "hate-filled, malicious piece." Unfortunately, people tend to characterize "telling the truth" as hate speech whenever they disagree. Remember what Orwell said. "In times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act."

The other knee-jerk reaction has been for people to label me a "neocon" or an ultra right-winger. This is hilarious. Hürriyet, one of Turkey's biggest newspapers, fell into this same error. The political views attributed to neocons are diametrically opposed to my own. Of course, Hürriyet may have simply been attempting to distance the newspaper from the views I presented all the while making it available for their readers. In that case, I understand their tactic.

Then, there is the tried and true, "He's a Jew," line of attack. In their world, being a Jew is essentially a crime; it makes one less than human. On this point too I must disappoint them as I have not a drop of David's blood in my veins.

What I simply want to point out is that all of us should judge people based on their actions and their opinions, and we should be sure we have the facts before we start making the judgments.
Students of the New Testament know it best as Asia Minor, Paul's destination on his first missionary journeys to preach the Gospel to the Gentiles. The names of the Roman provinces through which Paul traveled preaching and teaching are still read every week in Sunday Schools across America.

The ancient names for the modern state of Turkey - Bithynia, Galatia, Pontus, Cappadocia, Phrygia, etc. are not all that unfamiliar to American believers.

Paul's preaching attracted converts but never failed to draw fierce opposition from the local population. On more than one occasion the natives, who might have been Greeks, Phrygians, Romans, Lycians, or any mixture of Assyrians, Hittites and Persians, tried to kill him and his companions for introducing to the Empire an unknown god, a new teaching of peace and love.

This has never been a popular message with Empire (think Darth Vader), but it eventually prevailed and all of Anatolia embraced the gospel. In fact, several of Paul's epistles were addressed to Anatolian congregations and all of the seven churches of Revelation are found in modern-day Turkey.

Now, two thousand years later, things have come full circle and those bearing Christ’s message of peace in Turkey find themselves facing opposition very similar to that encountered by the early apostles. In fact, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom claims that state persecution has become so serious that the very survival of Christian communities in Turkey is at stake.

The report released last week reclassified Turkey as a Country of Particular Concern (CPC).   
This article is Part II of a series on religious freedom in Turkey. The first article introduced the USCIRF report, touching on troubling issues related to its politicization and Turkey’s state control of religion.  

Even though the commission recommended Turkey be put in the same category as offenders like Saudi Arabia, the USCIRF report listed a number of positive developments in the country. Numerous articles have been written in the West about how Prime Minister Erdogan's "mildly Islamist" government heralds a changing of the tide and will knock Turkey out of NATO’s orbit and lead to more radical Islamic policies. Yet, the facts tell a slightly different story.

1) Erdogan has promised to replace the current constitution implemented by the military in 1982. This is particularly significant since much of the institutionalized “persecution” of religious groups in Turkey is connected with its peculiar view of secularism, which essentially makes the state the final arbiter in all religious affairs.

His opponents rightly understand this as an attempt to unshackle religion, thereby giving Islamists a greater voice. But, in all fairness, religious freedom cannot be guaranteed otherwise. Practically all religious minorities have welcomed the idea of a new constitution, proof that there is an urgent need.

2) In 2008, the Foundations Law was amended to facilitate the operations of religious foundations. Soon after it went into effect, 1,400 applications were received asking for the return of religious properties seized during the Republican era by the government. Over the next three years, 200 properties were, in fact, returned.

In 2011, Erdogan also passed an executive order that made it possible to obtain compensation for properties that had been previously seized by the state and could not be returned. Both of these steps are significant.

3) The Associations Law passed in 2004 and amended in 2007 makes it possible for all religious organizations to hold religious services and determine their own religious curriculum. This too was progress made by Erdogan’s government, yet one cannot help but wonder why it took “modern”, “democratic” Turkey so long to provide some legal underpinning for such a basic right.

Celebration of victory regarding this important civil liberty could be premature, for associations may not own property and their status may be revoked by local governors.

4) Erdogan’s AKP government has also granted unprecedented permission for minority religious services as well as building and restoration projects (e.g. the Armenian Akdamar church and Sümela Orthodox Monastery), indicating a new era of openness. The government has even been severely criticized by nationalists for its “leniency” with minority religious groups.

5) Although anti-Semitism has spread throughout the Middle East like a malignant tumor and Erdogan’s unprecedented popularity with Arabs is due almost entirely to his pro-Palestinian positions and criticisms of Israel, Jews in Turkey continue to enjoy rights seldom given to them in other Muslim countries.

In fact, Prime Minister Erdogan once called Turkey Israel’s most important friend in the region, and said that anti-Semitism was a “crime against humanity,” statements one can hardly imagine coming from most Arab states. Furthermore, on January 29, 2012, Turkey became the first majority Muslim country to broadcast the 9-hour documentary Shoah on state television to commemorate International Holocaust Remembrance Day!

This is only a summary of the AKP’s progress regarding religious freedom, progress unparalleled in the history of the Republic of Turkey, progress which has been affirmed by every religious minority in the country, and progress the USCIRF report dismisses as ad hoc.

Why are these impressive reforms being dismissed? Why is the AKP not being congratulated in the West for taking steps to promote religious freedom that no other government in the history of Turkey has been able to achieve?

It’s a simple question with a simple answer hidden in a phrase used several times in the report – ad hoc.

In other words, the commission believes that none of these efforts address the institutionalized injustice that places onerous restrictions on religious freedom in Turkey. All of these reforms could be reversed tomorrow because no real protections have been afforded these communities.

At the end of the report, the commissioners offered this jarring explanation for their surprising recommendation to have Turkey downgraded from the “Watch” list to a Country of Particular Concern:

“After past genocide, and other violence, and current, suffocating legal restrictions, Turkey's Christian communities are barely hanging on.

Every year that passes without substantial religious reform places these minorities in greater peril and helps seal their fate. In the Arab Spring, Turkey holds itself out to be an Islamist model. But it is no model for religious freedom. We have waited for ten years for the AKP to make a real difference in the Christians’ fate. We can no longer sit by and just “Watch.”

Let’s look at the restrictions faced by Christians, Jews and religious minorities in Turkey.

Restrictions related to property. Since its founding, the Republic of Turkey has seized thousands of properties such as schools, businesses, hospitals, orphanages and cemeteries from religious minority congregations. The government’s right to confiscate such property is still in effect, putting the ownership of any religious minority in jeopardy and insuring “submission” to the powers that be.

Turkey does not recognize the corporate legal status of any religious minority. Instead, it has drafted a byzantine labyrinth of laws to control property ownership, transfer and operations. It not only restricts the flow of funds from a congregation in one part of the country to sister congregations in another part of the country, but only Armenian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox and Jewish communities may refer to their buildings as churches or synagogues. All other groups are merely “cultural centers” or “community centers.”

One of the most striking examples of the state’s draconian control is the Turkish government's confiscation of the 1,600-year-old Mor Gabriel Monastery, which served as the headquarters of the Syriac Church from 1160 to 1932. This seizure was realized with a ruling from the Turkish Supreme Court overturning the ruling of a lower court and granting a significant portion of the property to the Treasury.

Restrictions on Training Clergy The only center for Greek Orthodox theological education, the Halki Seminary on the island of Heybeli, has been closed since 1971. As a result, there is no way for the church to train new leaders in Turkey. Of course, the Greek Orthodox population of Istanbul has shrunk from approximately 100,000 to 4,000 since the 1955 pogrom executed to force Greeks out of the country.

The government has indicated a willingness to reopen the seminary, but maybe that is only because the congregation has dwindled to the point that its extinction is all but certain. Whatever the case, 41 years later, the seminary remains closed and there is disagreement over the school's official status.

Other religious minorities are in the same boat. The country's largest non-Muslim religious minority, the Armenian Orthodox church, also has no seminary for theological education and currently has only 26 priests serving population of approximately 65,000.

Religious Education Religious education is constitutionally mandated in Turkish primary and secondary schools and the curriculum is determined by the Ministry of Education’s Department of Religious Instruction. Although non-Muslim children are not, by law, forced to attend, some schools have refused to allow the exemption.

Moreover, the curriculum’s description of minority beliefs is biased, factually incorrect and encourages societal discrimination because of the insulting language employed. For example, Christian missionaries are referred to as criminals and children are taught that the Bible has been changed.

The only minority schools allowed by law are for communities covered by the Lausanne Treaty – the Armenian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox and Jewish minorities. But regulations make is difficult for minority children to register even in these schools and there are no schools for minorities such as Catholics, Protestants, Alevis, Syriacs or Jehovah’s Witnesses.

In short, the policies of the Turkish government seem to be designed to ensure that the influence and growth of minority religions is strictly controlled, even over their own children. The purpose of these policies seems obvious: to force assimilation and thwart diversity.

The accuracy of the Commission on International Religious Freedom was confirmed by a conversation with Turkish pastor Ibrahim Deveci. Here are the highlights of that interview:

“It is a difficult place for a Christian to live. It's hard to find a job, get married or even express my views in public. It is difficult to work in certain organizations or obtain a security clearance.

“It is really hard for children. In Diyarbakır, one child was pressured to repeat the Islamic confession of faith and when he refused, he was slapped by the teacher. From that time forward, the other children treated him as an enemy.

“Sometimes, people are afraid of persecution so they don’t change the religion on their ID cards and are forced to take the mandatory religion (Sunni) classes.

“The biggest threat we face is the threat to our lives. There have been more martyrs during the last few years than at any other time in modern history. Two Catholic priests have been killed and three brothers in Malatya.”

When asked how Christianity was perceived in Turkey, he said, “I'm afraid we are viewed very negatively and it has gotten steadily worse over the last 18 years.”

In response to a question about whether the AKP was turning Turkey away from the West and towards the world of Islam, Mr. Deveci said, “I don’t get that involved in politics. But, this government (AKP) is clearly more strategic and more determined to spread Islam. Ironically, it was more difficult under previous governments. This is the easiest time in modern history for the Turkish church. We don't know what will happen in future, but we seem to have more freedom now.

“This is because we are a very small minority - around 4000 believers. So they don't take us seriously. Yet, at the same time, we are viewed as a threat. It seems that some rights have been given back due to the EU. Some foundations are being returned to ethnic minorities, some churches are being repaired and restored. It is good but inadequate. A little make-up on a few churches is not enough. Christians need to be recognized as legitimate citizens of the State.” 

Mr. Deveci clearly feels like Christians in Turkey are viewed as turncoats or traitors.

When the conversation turned to the fact that 20% of Turkey was Christian when the Ottoman Empire collapsed and yet today Christians make up a mere 0.1% of the population, Mr Deveci said:

“There are many reasons for this. Essentially, it is an ‘evaporation’ policy, an anihilation policy. Most Christians have immigrated to other countries to escape persecution. The AKP thinks the new generation is a bit luke-warm when it comes to Islam. They want to see a religious revival. I will be happy with my country when I see that Christians are granted the same rights as Muslims.

“There was and is an effort to unify the nation in terms of both language and religion. They say, ‘Every Turk is born a Muslim.’ Actually there is incredible diversity here, but people have not been free to express this. Turkey has suffered greatly due to the loss of cultural diversity.

“They talk about tolerance. Yes, there is tolerance – that is, until Christians become a bit more informed and start sharing their faith. That's where tolerance ends.”

Mr. Deveci’s perspective certainly seems to corroborate the 2012 US International Religious Freedom Report. In fact, anyone who knows anything about Turkey has known about the severe restrictions on religious freedom for years.

Consider the following US diplomatic cable published by Wikileaks regarding an anti-missionary sermon sent to every mosque in the country by the Directorate of Religious Affairs, proof that American officials have long been aware of Turkey’s infractions.

“Turks tend to be profoundly hypocritical on issues relating to Islam and Christianity. Hypersensitive to any perceived Western slights or misconceptions about Islam, they routinely spread misinformation about Christianity and sow fear about missionaries. Gormez, like other pious Turks, considers conversion to Islam a natural progression, but is deeply resentful of Muslims who convert to Christianity. It is important to remember that this insidiously anti-Christian sermon was prepared not by a private Islamic group but by one of the largest branches of the GOT (Government of Turkey) bureaucracy.”

However, NATO membership and a strategic partnership with the US have their advantages, one of the most important of which is special treatment when it comes to violations of basic human rights.

Maybe this report signals an end to these days of privilege and the beginning of genuine pressure on Turkey to change. Unfortunately, even if it does come, it will be too little and too late for the thousands of religious minorities who have immigrated or been absorbed. As the commission stated so well, it is time for America to stop being a bystander when it comes to the violation of individual civil liberties.

Being a "strategic partner" must not be a Get-Out-Of-Jail-Free card.  

The sign reads - End tyranny - free the headcovering...

For those who take the time to examine Turkey's relationship with the West, it can be confusing. Like lots of relationships today, ‘it's complicated.’

Last week, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) released its 2012 report, which among other things, designated Turkey a “Country of Particular Concern.” This puts it in the same category as such tyrannical regimes as Saudi Arabia, Iran and Pakistan. It is hard to imagine anything that would have insulted Turkey’s neo-Ottoman sensibilities more.

To be lumped in with Wahhabi-led Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran. Oh, the injustice! For indeed Turkey is far freer, far more modern, far more tolerant than those countries. The Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs expressed its displeasure by saying,

“No impartial observer could take seriously the allegations in this report, which             intentionally turns a blind eye to the advances and the political will that has          constituted the basis for reforms. This report is null and void for us.”

Apparently, not all of the Commission members thought it was the right decision either. Four of the nine commissioners wrote dissenting opinions.

Does Turkey deserve to be classified as a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC)? Anyone who reads the facts of the report would have to agree it does.  The problem is that putting Turkey in the same category as Sudan or Pakistan is patently unfair. The solution? A new category that would suit regimes like Saudi Arabia. We could call this new designation Hypocritical Extremist Loathers of Liberty (HELL).

Is this new category likely to be created? No. The reason is simple. Politics and pandering. Case in point – again Saudi Arabia.

This is the same country that refuses to acknowledge diversity of any kind when it comes to religion and prohibits any non-Muslim worship; yet, it was not even classified as a Country of Particular Concern until 2004, fully six years after the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 became law.  The worst violator on the planet managed to keep its name off the list for six years! This taints the objective value of the report considerably.

Ratings like this should be based on objective criteria and the facts on the ground not politics. Yet, after this year’s report was released, it came to light that Don Argue, one of the five commissioners who recommended the CPC classification for Turkey, tried to change his mind at the last minute. The reason for his sudden change of heart? A visit from Assistant Secretary of State Michael Posner.

This unacceptable State Department intrusion into the affairs of an “independent commission” apparently occurred after one of the commissioners informed State about the results of the deliberations. This news was not well received, but it was too late to change the designation because business and debate had already been concluded in accordance with the commission’s duly accepted procedural timetable.

The Obama administration has, like the Bush administration, maintained close ties with the government of Prime Minister Erdoğan, an outspoken Muslim whose religious values have wide appeal in the Middle East. But the administration's last-minute attempt to keep its NATO ally from being embarrassed left it with egg on its face. It is a veritable scandal.

Back to the report. A casual reader of this detailed description of obstacles to religious freedom in Turkey will be surprised to find the following assertion (emphasis my own):

“The state’s strict control of religion in the public sphere significantly restricts religious freedom, especially for non-Muslim religious minority communities – including the Greek, Armenian, and Syriac Orthodox Churches, the Roman Catholic and Protestant Churches, and the Jewish community – as well as for the majority Sunni Muslim community and the country’s largest minority, the Alevis.”

Apparently, there is no religious group in Turkey that isn’t persecuted! And strangely enough there is some truth to this. I say “some” truth because, well, it’s complicated, which is why restricted religious freedom even for the majority Sunni Muslims is, for Americans, counter-intuitive.

First of all, the Republic of Turkey is a secular state as defined by its 1923 constitution, a fact reiterated in the 1982 constitution. What outsiders don’t understand is that “secularism” is the state religion; a fact our readers will see shortly.

Second, the openly Islamic Justice and Development Party (AKP) led by Prime Minister Erdoğan has ruled the country since 2002, sparking a wide-ranging debate about how Turkey was moving out of the West’s orbit and towards an axis that displayed more solidarity with the Muslim world.

Thirdly, according to government statistics, Turkey is 99.8% Muslim (Alevis are included here). If this figure is adjusted for “atheist” or “agnostic” Muslims, then the number is probably more like 95%. Ninety-five percent is still an overwhelming majority by any definition, so how is the religious freedom of Muslims restricted in a majority Muslim population?  

It is at this point that Americans find themselves in a realm that defies description by all modern paradigms. To illustrate this, consider that 1) until 2007 the Turkish Department of Religious Affairs determined the content of all Friday sermons.

Imagining a United States of America where Southern Baptist preachers and TV evangelists utilize outlines they receive from Washington bureaucrats to provide weekly spiritual nourishment for their flocks is almost as hard as imagining a US Department of Religious Affairs in the first place.

2) The salaries of all the Sunni Muslim clerics in the country are paid by the government and mosques are generally built by the state, not individual congregations, a fact that is extremely unpopular with tax payers such as atheists, Alevis, and other minority religious groups who do not benefit from this state largesse.

When the French courageously passed a law banning the burqa, it was hotly contested in the West as an infringement of Muslim rights and only a decade of the fear and tension arising from the War on Terror actually gave the ban any chance at all. So, my American friends are always shocked to learn that, until very recently, 3) women in Turkey were not allowed to attend any university classes or work in government buildings if they wore a head-covering.  

Though restrictions on the freedom of religious expression have improved for Sunnis in the last five years, the report still finds this "progress" unacceptable:

“The government officially does not permit the individual or communal practice of Islam   outside of government-regulated institutions. The majority Sunni Muslim community is       under the control of the Diyanet, or Presidency of Religious Affairs, which reports directly to the Prime Minister.”

Anyone can see that such restrictions on religious expression are antithetical to a free society. The Turkish state controls religion even if there has been some relaxing of this control since the Islamist AKP came to power in 2002. The military coups in 1960, 1971 and 1980 were in part justified by referring to a "threat to the secular order", and pious Turkish Muslims have long complained of state persecution.

This sort of “government interference” in the affairs of religious communities is simply inconceivable in America. The Turkish tradition of exercising state control over religious leaders is not, however, new. It was common practice in the Ottoman Empire, but in the Republic of Turkey, secularism was a deceptively innocent term that served as a disguise for the social engineering the survivors of WWI felt was necessary for Turkey to survive as a nation.

It did not mean freedom of religion in the sense that the state is neutral. The state is anything but neutral. After all, the Hanafi school of Sunni Islam is the defacto doctrine of the state and freedom of religion is not the primary concern. Control is. (The third part in this series entitled "The Backside of Empire” will address this issue in detail).

To be fair, some modern Turkish secularists have insisted that without such state control, the majority Muslim population would naturally revert to a governmental system based on sharia law and that the only way to ensure the “secular” country envisioned by the great reformer Mustafa Kemal Atatürk is to keep a tight rein on the expression of religious zeal in order to counteract the various religious groups that still want to restore the Caliphate and sharia law.

This approach could be described as ensuring not “freedom of religion” but “freedom from religion” as there is no compulsion about matters of faith in Turkey. The freedom guaranteed is essentially the freedom to not practice their faith. The importance of this freedom cannot be overlooked in a region where countries like Saudi Arabia actually have “religious police” to ensure that the population is ‘walking the straight and narrow’.

In summary, it’s complicated…

In our next post, we will look at state control over minority religious groups – the real reason for the new rating given by the USCIRF.

This is part one in a series on “Understanding Freedom in Turkey”

This last week, four Turkish journalists were released from prison after being held for over a year. This should be cause for celebration, but the fact that dozens more remain behind bars dampens the mood somewhat. Maybe, this move by the government was merely an attempt to placate public outrage over the fact that the statute of limitations had run out on the Islamic fascists who burned Alevis and Turkish intellectuals alive in a hotel in Sivas in 1993. Whatever the case, we can be sure that it is not a sincere attempt to uphold justice by the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Turkey. See the following link for the full story. http://communities.washingtontimes.com/neighborhood/looking-luke/2012/mar/17/playing-fire-journalism-turkey/