Turkey: Growing Religious Intolerance is Undermining Constitutional Commitments

American Pastor Andrew Brunson and his wife have been living in Turkey for 23 years running a church in Izmir with the full knowledge of the Turkish authorities.

However, on the 7 October 2016, they were summoned by the local police and accused for being a “threat to the national security”, with no further details supplied. While his wife was eventually released, Pastor Brunson was held in an immigration detention facility, where he was denied family visits and access to a bible. After two months in solitary confinement he was transferred to a high security prison in Izmir, before being brought before a court on 9 December, where he was informed he would be imprisoned due to his alleged links to the Gulen movement, the organisation deemed responsible for the attempted military coup in July 2016. The court did not reveal the source of this accusation. An appeal against the pastor’s imprisonment was turned down on 29 December, and a fresh appeal is expected to be launched at a higher court.

Deterioration in Human Rights and Rise in Ultra-nationalism

Pastor Brunson’s case is illustrative of the significant deterioration in human rights situation that occurred in the aftermath of the foiled military coup. Thousands of journalists, academics, activists, writers, teachers, judges and thinkers have been arrested since July 2016, accused of being “traitors and collaborators against national interests”, while others have been forced to adopt lower profiles and live in anticipation of being arrested.

“Thousands of journalists, academics, activists, writers, teachers, judges and thinkers have been arrested since July 2016, accused of being “traitors and collaborators against national interests”, while others have been forced to adopt lower profiles and live in anticipation of being arrested.  ” 

The worsening human rights climate has occurred against the backdrop of mounting terrorist violence and increasing direct military engagement in the Syria crisis.  It is also occurring at a time of growing concern at the direction in which the government is taking the country. In a nation governed by a secular constitution narratives articulating religious and national prejudice appear to have been tolerated and even promoted by pro-government media and by officials from ruling Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi, AKP), and are eroding free speech and threatening pluralism and coexistence.

“Although Turkey is officially a secular state, the lead up to the New Year Eve’s terror attack was characterised by a profusion of sectarian protests and rhetoric from non-state and state actors.”

Although Turkey is officially a secular state, the lead up to the New Year Eve’s terror attack was characterised by a profusion of sectarian protests and rhetoric from non-state and state actors. For example, ultra-nationalist and Islamist groups are reported to have distributed leaflets stating “Muslims do not celebrate Christmas”, while extremists in Aydin staged an anti-Christian play, and anti-Christian demonstrations reportedly occurred in Van and Istanbul.  In addition, during a Friday sermon that was broadcast in thousands of mosques across the country shortly before the 2016 New Year’s Eve attack, the Diyanet (the Presidency/Directorate of Religious Affairs) described New Year celebrations as “illegitimate”.

Thus even though Turkey is currently a country where a person can face arrest simply for telling a joke about President Erdoğan or his government, as one commentator observed, “what is puzzling is how, in a country where anyone who writes anything critical about the government can be instantly sued, and possibly even arrested and put on trial, such religious or nationalist hatemongers rarely have action taken against them.”

Rise in Religious Intolerance

In this prevailing atmosphere religious minorities are becoming increasingly vulnerable, despite the existence of comprehensive legislation that protects the right to freedom of religion or belief (FoRB). Instead of upholding the secular constitution and implementing these laws, the government has publicly endorsed a move towards a Sunni identity for Turkey, and has used a variety of means to propagate the view among the wider society that to be Turkish is to be Sunni Muslim, conflating the two identities, including by showing partiality towards Sunni Islam within the policy of the Diyanet.

The promotion of Turkish ultra-nationalism has contributed to a rise in discrimination and in hate speech that incites violence towards those who do not adhere to Sunni Islam. Such incitement is visible in a variety of sectors ranging from education, the workplace, the media and religious practice, to day-to-day administrative procedures.

“The promotion of Turkish ultra-nationalism has contributed to a rise in discrimination and in hate speech that incites violence towards those who do not adhere to Sunni Islam.”

Following the July 2016 coup, Christians were routinely demonised and verbally attacked during officially-sanctioned rallies and in pro-government media, along with the West, which is generally deemed to represent Christianity. There has also been a surge in anti-Christian sentiments in pro-government media. Pro-government newspapers libelled the Greek-Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch, accusing him of “plotting” the coup with the United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and even published a fabricated Vatican passport in an attempted to prove that a Catholic cardinal was involved in the coup. As a result, Protestant and Catholic churches and Armenian schools were targeted by vigilantes during the wave of violence that broke out after the coup.

According to Aykan Erdemir, a former Turkish Opposition Member of Parliament (MP) and Senior Fellow at Foundation for Defense of Democracies, churches in the Black Sea city of Trabzon, and the Anatolian city of Malatya – scenes of lethal attacks on Christians a decade ago – were the first to be targeted when the coup failed. Later, an Armenian high school in Istanbul was vandalised. An Alevi worship hall and homes in Malatya were next to be targeted, and many Christian tourists reported incidents of harassment in Gaziantep.

Many local Christians have reported cases of verbal and physical abuse and intimidation by the public and by government officials. A Protestant Church in Antakya province was closed down for holding “unauthorised bible studies”, and many foreign church workers have been expelled from the country following baseless claims. Thus Pastor Brunson’s arrest can be seen as the latest incident in a litany of repressive actions targetting Turkey’s indigenous and expatriate Christian communities at a time of increasing repression and intolerance.

In order to fulfil the promise of democracy and stability made to the Turkish people after the 2015 elections, the ruling party must take concrete steps to uphold the stipulations of the secular constitution and to address the increasing social polarization and erosion of democratic principles and fundamental freedoms. In particular, the authorities must make strenuous efforts to strengthen pluralism by countering and containing sectarian and ultra-nationalist narratives that are destroying the social fabric of the country. They should also ensure that cases involving religious freedom are addressed without prejudice in order to send a clear message that the targeting of religious minorities will no longer be tolerated.

By CSW’s Turkey Advocacy Officer

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