Report: Religious Freedom Takes Hit In Post-Coup Turkey

emergency rule, religious freedom, Turkey
Members of Istanbul Greek Orthodox Patriarchate.

Religious freedom has been curbed significantly under the state of emergency imposed in Turkey in the aftermath of the failed 2016 coup, an annual report by the U.S. State Department revealed.

The 2016 Annual Report on International Religious Freedom, an annual study by the State Department that tracks the state of religious freedom across the world, emphasized problems stemming form the government purge, as well as unchanged and worsening treatment of religious minorities under the state of emergency that has been in place more than a year.

In general, the Islamic State is singled out in the report as one of the biggest global threats to religious freedom. The extremist group is “clearly responsible for genocide against Yazidis, Christians and Shia Muslims in areas it controlled,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson wrote in the preface to the study.

“ISIS is also responsible for crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing directed at these same groups, and in some cases against Sunni Muslims, Kurds, and other minorities,” he added.

With regard to international governments, Mr. Tillerson said some of them “used discriminatory laws to deny their citizen freedom of religion or belief.”

Turkey, a U.S. ally and EU candidate, found itself among countries likes China, Saudi Arabia and Kenya for denying religious freedom to non-Muslim groups and religious minorities.

Ankara has long been facing international umbrage over its treatment of non-Sunni and Christian communities, but what separates the current report from previous ones is its detailed documentation of the escalating crackdown on minorities and critical religious groups in the aftermath of the coup.

The main target of government crackdown was faith-based Gulen movement and its adherents. “The government suspended over 3,600 alleged Gulenists from the Diyanet,” the report said after noting that 41,000 people have been formally arrested over alleged ties to the Gulen movement.

Diyanet is the official religious body that regulates religious affairs, mosque staff and financial budget of the office.

Alevis, who identify themselves with a heterodox and non-Sunni version of Islam, and non-Muslim groups, such as Christians, and Jews, also faced significant restrictions and discrimination as well as an increasingly xenophobic and anti-minority media discourse.

“On October 7, authorities detained a Protestant pastor and his wife, who had led a Protestant church in Izmir and worked in the country for more than 20 years,” the report noted. While Turkish officials released the pastor’s wife, he remains in custody in pre-trial detention. He is being accused of being “member of a terrorist organization,” a charge is vehemently denied by his family and the U.S. authorities.

Additionally, the Turkish authorities also accuse him of being a member of the Gulen movement, which is a Muslim organization.

The issue remains a sore point in bilateral relations between the U.S. and Turkey. President Donald J. Trump’s personal plea from his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan during the latter’s visit to Washington, D.C., in mid-May, went nowhere.

Christian missionaries, the report notes, have found themselves at government crosshair and mounting public frenzy against the West as relations between Turkey and EU soured. The report said several Christian missionaries were either deported or faced detentions without any notice.

Despite calls, Turkey refuses to recognize “the Ecumenical Patriarchate as the leader of the world’s 300 million Orthodox Christians, consistent with the government’s stance that there was no obligation to do so,” the report underlined. Ankara has an unwavering contention regarding the issue, and continues to see “ecumenical patriarch not as ecumenical, but only the religious leader of the country’s Greek Orthodox minority population.”

Another contentious issue was the status of properties of religious minorities. During the year, the government did not return any properties that it had seized in previous decades.

“Since 2011, the General Directorate of Foundations (GDF) had received 1,560 applications from religious minority foundations, which had applied for compensation for seized properties,” the report said. “They had returned 333 properties and paid compensation for 21 additional properties,” it added.

The GDF is a government agency under the Office of Prime Ministry that regulates the activities and affiliated property of all charitable foundations.