Freedom of religion in Turkey
Turkey is a secular country per Article 24 of the Constitution of Turkey. Secularism in Turkey originates from Mustafa Kemal Atatürk's Six Arrows of republicanism, populism, laïcité, reformism, nationalism, and statism. The Turkish government imposes some restrictions on Muslim and other religious groups and on Muslim religious expression in government offices and state-run institutions, including universities.
According to the Turkish government, 90% of the population is Muslim, the majority of which is Sunni. According to the The World Factbook, 98.2% of Turkey's population is Muslim. The government officially recognizes only three minority religious communities: Greek Orthodox Christians, Armenian Apostolic Christians, and Jews, although other non-Muslim communities exist. The 2006 report of the U.S. Department of State listed the following numbers of religious minorities in Turkey:
|Armenian Apostolic Christians||65,000|
|Greek Orthodox Christians||6,500|
|Syrian Orthodox (Syriac) Christians||15,000|
These figures were repeated in the 2009 report of the U.S. Department of State. with the difference in figures of up to 3,000 Greek Orthodox Christians and an additional 3,000 Chaldean Christians. The number of Syriac Christians and Yazidis in the southeast was once high; however, under pressure from government authorities and later under the impact of the war against the terrorist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), many Syriacs migrated to Istanbul, Western Europe, or North and South America. According to the Turkish sociologist Ahmet Taşğın the Yazidis in Turkey numbered 22,632 in 1985. Until 2000 the population had dropped to 423. The same academic said that 23,546 Syriacs were living in Turkey in 1985. Their number dropped to 2,010 in the year 2001.
Theoretically, Turkey, through the Treaty of Lausanne (1923), recognizes the civil, political and cultural rights of non-Muslim minorities.
In practice, Turkey only recognizes Greek, Armenian and Jewish religious minorities without granting them all the rights mentioned in the Treaty of Lausanne.
Alevi-Bektashi and Câferî Muslims, Latin Catholics and Protestants are not recognized officially.
|Official recognition through the Constitution or international treaties||Government Financing of places of worship and religious staff|
|Sunni Islam||70 to 85% (52 to 64 millions)||No||Yes, through the Diyanet mentioned in the Constitution (Article 136)||Yes, through the Diyanet|
|Twelver Islam - Bektasi||15 to 25% (11 to 19 millions)||Yes||No. In 1826 with the abolition of the Janissary corps, the Bektashi tekke (dervish convent) were closed · ||No|
|Twelver Islam - Alevi||No. In the early 15th century, due to the unsustainable Ottoman oppression, Alevi supported shah Ismail I who had Turkmen origins. Shah Ismail I's supporters, who wear a red cap with twelve folds in reference to the 12 Imams were called Qizilbash. Ottomans who were Arabized and Persanized considered [Qizilbash (Alevi) as enemies because of their Turkmen origins. Today, cemevi, places of worship of Alevi Bektashi have no official recognition.|
|Twelver Islam - Câferî||4% (3 millions)||No||No|
|Twelver Islam - Alawite||300,000 to 350,000||No||No|
|Judaism||20,000||Yes||Yes, through the Treaty of Lausanne (1923)||No|
|Christian - Protestant||5,000||No||No|
|Christian – Latin Catholics||No||No|
|Christian – Greek Catholics||Yes||Yes, through the Treaty of Lausanne (1923)||No|
|Christian - Orthodox - Greek (Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople)||Yes||Yes, through the Treaty of Lausanne (1923)||No|
|Christian - Orthodox - Armenian (Armenian Patriarchate of Constantinople)||57,000||Yes||Yes, through the Treaty of Lausanne (1923)||No|
|Christian - Catholics Chaldean Christians (Armenian)||3,000||Yes||Yes, through the Treaty of Lausanne (1923)||No|
|Christian - Syriac Orthodox and Catholics Churches||15,000||Yes||No||No|
Status of religious freedom
Legal and policy framework
The 1982 Constitution establishes the country as a secular state and provides for freedom of belief, freedom of worship, and the private dissemination of religious ideas. However, other constitutional provisions regarding the integrity and existence of the secular state restrict these rights. The Constitution prohibits discrimination on religious grounds.
The two main Islamic streams in Turkey are Sunni and Alevi. In Turkey, Alevi are the minority, estimated at 17% of the Muslim population. In the late 1970s, many violent clashes were based on the conflict between the two Islamic orientations. In December 1978 militants in Kahramanmaras stirred up feelings amongst the Sunni population against the Alevi inhabitants of the town, resulting in the killing of more than 100 citizens. On 2 July 1993, Alevi intellectuals were attacked in Sivas. The Sivas massacre resulted in the death of 37 people.
Religious education is compulsory in primary and secondary education (Article 24 of the Constitution). Mainly Sunni theology is taught. Many Alevis alleged discrimination in the government's failure to include any of their doctrines or beliefs in religion courses. In October 2007 the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled in favor of an Alevi parent who in 2004 filed a suit claiming the mandatory religion courses violated religious freedom. Since then, the government added 10 pages of an overview of the Alevi belief system to the textbook for the final year of religious and moral instruction.
In December 2008 the Minister of Culture participated in the opening of the first Alevi Institute and apologised to the Alevis for past sufferings caused by the State. In January 2009 the Prime Minister attended an Alevi fast-breaking ceremony for the second consecutive year. The government held workshops aimed at discussing openly problems and expectations of the Alevis.
The government oversees Muslim religious facilities and education through its Directorate of Religious Affairs, which is under the authority of the Prime Ministry. The Directory regulates the operation of the country's 77,777 registered mosques and employs local and provincial imams, who are civil servants. Sunni imams are nominated and paid by the state. The Alevis pray in cemevis. "Cemevleri" (places of gathering) have no legal status as places of worship in the state. However, Kuşadası and Tunceli municipalities ruled in 2008 that Alevi cemevleri are considered places of worship. Three municipal councils recognised Cem houses as places of worship and granted them the same financial advantages as mosques. Administrative courts in Antalya, Ankara and Istanbul ruled that Alevi students should be exempted from attending the mandatory religion and ethics course. A similar ruling by the Izmir administrative court was confirmed by the Council of State. In 2009, the state's TV channel, TRT, announced its plan to air programs reflecting the interests of the Alevi minority.
A separate government agency, the General Directorate for Foundations (GDF), regulates activities of non-Muslim religious groups and their affiliated churches, monasteries, synagogues, and related religious property. The GDF recognizes 161 "minority foundations," including Greek Orthodox foundations with approximately 61 sites, Armenian Orthodox foundations with approximately 50 sites, and Jewish foundations with 20 sites, as well as Syriac Christian, Chaldean, Bulgarian Orthodox, Georgian, and Maronite foundations. The GDF also regulates Muslim charitable religious foundations, including schools, hospitals, and orphanages. The GDF assesses whether the foundations are operating within the stated objectives of their organizational statute.
In 1936 the Government required all foundations to declare their sources of income. In 1974 amid political tensions over Cyprus, the High Court of Appeals ruled that the minority foundations had no right to acquire properties beyond those listed in the 1936 declarations. The court's ruling launched a process, under which the state seized control of properties acquired after 1936.
Minority religious groups, particularly the Greek and Armenian Orthodox communities, have lost numerous properties to the state in the past. In many cases, the Government has expropriated property on the grounds that it is not being utilized. At least two appeals were filed in this regard: the Fener Boys School and the Buyukada Orphanage (the latter closed in 1964). These cases are often appealed to the Council of State ("Danıştay") and, if unsuccessful there, to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). On July 8, 2008, the ECHR ruled that the country had violated the Ecumenical Patriarchate's property rights to the orphanage on Buyukada Island. In compliance with this ruling, the deed to the building was returned to the Ecumenical Patriarchate on November 29, 2010.
The law restricting religious property rights was amended in 2002 to permit minority foundations to acquire property; however, the Government continued to apply an article which allows it to expropriate properties in areas where the local non-Muslim population drops significantly or where the foundation is deemed to no longer perform the function for which it was created. There is no specific minimum threshold concerning such a population drop, rather it is left to the discretion of GDF. This is particularly problematic for communities with smaller populations, such as the Greek Orthodox community.
Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, and Jewish religious groups may operate schools under the supervision of the Education Ministry. The curricula of these schools include information unique to the cultures of the three groups. The Ministry reportedly verifies if the child's father or mother is from that minority community before the child may enroll. Other non-Muslim minorities do not have schools of their own.
The Caferis, the country's principal Shi'a community, numbering between 500 thousand and 1 million (concentrated mostly in eastern Turkey and Istanbul), do not face restrictions on their religious freedoms. They build and operate their own mosques and appoint their own imams; however, as with the Alevis, their places of worship have no legal status and receive no support from the Diyanet.
Churches operating in the country generally face administrative challenges to employ foreign church personnel, apart from the Catholic Church and congregations linked to the diplomatic community. These administrative challenges, plus restrictions on training religious leaders and difficulties getting visas, have led to decreases in the Christian communities. In December 2008, however, the Government provided year-long work permits to non-Turkish clerics working at the Ecumenical Greek Patriarchate. Non-citizen clerics had previously used tourist visas, requiring them to depart the country every three months.
Restrictions on religious freedom
Government policy and practice contributed to the generally free practice of religion; however, state policy imposes some restrictions on religious groups and on religious expression in government offices and state-run institutions, including universities.
According to the human rights organization Mazlumder, the military charged individuals with lack of discipline for activities that included performing Muslim prayers or being married to women who wore headscarves. In December 2008 the General Staff issued 24 dismissals, five of which pertained to alleged Islamic fundamentalism. In November 2006, the government reported 37 military dismissals of which it claimed 2 were associated with religious extremism. An additional 17 were reportedly expelled in August 2006 for unspecified disciplinary reasons. In August 2008 the government reported no military dismissals, while in its December 2008 session it issued 24 dismissals, five of which pertained to alleged Islamic fundamentalism.
In July 2007, the Jehovah's Witnesses received a letter of certification confirming their official registration as the "Association for the Support of Jehovah's Witnesses." In 2007, Police arrested 25-year-old member Feti Demirtas and sent him to prison on 9 occasions for conscientiously objecting to military service, as his religion requires. At the end of June 2009, two members of the faith remained in prison for conscientious objection. One of the objectors, Baris Gormez, had been charged six times for "disobedience of orders" and had been in prison since 2007. According to Jehovah's Witness officials, harassment of their members included arrests, court hearings, verbal and physical abuse, and psychiatric evaluations.
Article 219 of the penal code prohibits imams, priests, rabbis, or other religious leaders from "reproaching or vilifying" the government or the laws of the state while performing their duties. Violations are punishable by prison terms of 1 month to 1 year, or 3 months to 2 years if the crime involves inciting others to disobey the law.
In 2009, the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Istanbul continued to seek to reopen the Halki seminary on the island of Heybeli in the Sea of Marmara. The seminary was closed in 1971 after the Patriarchate, to avoid the seminary being administered by the state, refused a demand by the Turkish state to nationalize. In March 2007, the Yedikule Surp Pirgic Armenian Hospital Foundation in Istanbul dropped an ECHR claim when the government agreed to return two properties and pay approximately $20,000 (15,000 Euro) compensation for court expenses to the foundation.
No law explicitly prohibits proselytizing or religious conversions; however, many prosecutors and police regarded proselytizing and religious activism with suspicion. Police occasionally prevented Christians from handing out religious literature. The government reported 157 conversions, including 92 to Islam and 63 from Islam to a different religion. Proselytizing is often considered socially unacceptable; Christians performing missionary work were occasionally beaten and insulted. If the proselytizers are foreigners, they may be deported, but generally they are able to reenter the country. Police officers may report students who meet with Christian missionaries to their families or to university authorities.
Members of Turkish parliament were prevented from accessing the website of Diyarbakir Church, alleged pornography was cited and other Protestant church websites were also banned. There are complaints the real reason for the ban was anti Christian feeling. 
In 2007, authorities continued to enforce a long-term ban on the wearing of headscarves by students at universities and by civil servants in public buildings. The Constitutional Court has interpreted secularism in a way that doesn't allow for a person to wear religious symbols (e.g. a head scarf or a cross) in governmental and public institutions, and particularly while attending public schools and state universities. A ruling of 5 June 2008 stated that the parliament had violated the constitutional principle of secularism when it passed amendments (supported by the AKP and the MHP) to lift the headscarf ban on university campuses.
Nevertheless, in its decision on November 10, 2005 in Leyla Şahin v. Turkey, the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights ruled that such a ban was "legitimate" to prevent the influence of religion in state affairs. Human Rights Watch, however, supported "lifting the current restrictions on headscarves in university on the grounds that the prohibition is an unwarranted infringement on the right to religious practice. Moreover, this restriction of dress, which only applies to women, is discriminatory and violates their right to education, freedom of thought, conscience, religion, and privacy."
Religious affiliation is listed on national identity cards, despite 1982 Constitutional Article 24 which provides that no one shall be compelled to reveal religious beliefs. A few religious groups, such as the Bahá'í, are unable to state their religious affiliation on their cards because they are not included among the options; they have made their concerns known to the government. Despite a 2006 regulation allowing persons to leave the religion section of their identity cards blank or change the religious designation by written application, the government continued to restrict applicants' choice of religion. Applicants must choose Muslim, Greek Orthodox, Christian, Jew, Hindu, Zoroastrian, Confucian, Taoist, Buddhist, Religionless, Other, or Unknown as their religious affiliation.
According to the country report of the U.S. Department of State for 2007 and 2008, there were no reports of religious prisoners or detainees in the country. On 24 July 2009, Turkish police arrested almost 200 people suspected of being members of Hizb ut-Tahrir. In November 2007, five members of this non-violent group had been detained in Adana and in June 2008, eight alleged members had been detained in Erzurum.
Abuses of religious freedom
After the April 18, 2007, killings in Malatya of three Christians, Turkish victim Ugur Yuksel was denied a Christian burial and given an Islamic/Alevi burial instead. Turkish victim Necati Aydin was buried in a Protestant churchyard in Izmir. The governor of Malatya was initially hesitant to permit the burial of the German victim in Malatya. He told the German victim's widow that no Christian should be buried in Turkish soil. However, after negotiations between German government and Turkish government officials, the victim was buried in a private Armenian cemetery in Malatya.
In October 2006, a prosecutor pressed criminal charges against Hakan Taştan and Turan Topal, two (Muslim) converts to Christianity for violating Article 301 ("insulting Turkishness"), inciting hatred against Islam, and secretly compiling data on private citizens for a Bible correspondence course. If convicted, the men could be sentenced to six months to three years in prison. On the basis of reports that defendants were approaching grade and high school students in Silivri and attempting to convert them to Christianity, police searched one man's home, then went to the men's office and confiscated two computers, as well as books and papers. The three plaintiffs claimed that the Christians called Islam a "primitive and fabricated religion" and described Turks as a "cursed people." The accused denied all charges.
On May 28, 2009, court proceedings continued in the 2006 case against two Muslim converts to Christianity charged with "insulting Turkishness," in violation of Article 301 of the Penal Code, inciting hatred against Islam, and secretly compiling data on private citizens for a Bible correspondence course. The court called five witnesses to appear at the next hearing, set for October 15, 2009. During this hearing some witnesses testified to the effect that they did not know the defendants. The court in Silivri adjourned the hearing to 28 January 2010 to listen to three more witnesses.
Societal abuses and discrimination
There were reports of societal abuses or discrimination based on religious belief or practice. Religious pluralism was widely viewed as a threat to Islam and to "national unity." A few non-Sunni Muslims, Christians, Bahá'ís, and members of other religious communities faced societal suspicion and mistrust. Anti-missionary and anti-Christian rhetoric appears to have continued among government officials and national media sources such as Hurriyet and Milliyet. Government ministers, such as Mehmet Aydin, Minister of State in charge of religious affairs, called missionaries "separatist and destructive."
In recent years religiously motivated attacks on persons were reported. Best known are the killings of three Christians in Malatya on 18 April 2007 and the assassination of Armenian journalist Hrant Dink in Istanbul on 19 January 2007. Details on religiously motivated attacks on persons can be found in the annual reports of the U.S. Department of State, like the ones for 2007, 2008 and 2009.
- Secularism in Turkey
- Human rights in Turkey
- Headscarf controversy in Turkey
- List of mosques in Turkey
- List of synagogues in Turkey
- Turkey: International Religious Freedom Report 2007. United States Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor.
- International Religious Freedom Reports of the US Department of State, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor quoted from the 2006 report, but included in more annual reports
- CIA Information on Turkey; accessed on 11 October 2009
- Turkey: International Religious Freedom Report 2009, United States Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, released on 26 October 2009, accessed on 10 November 2009
- See the article Yezidilerin soyu tükeniyor (Yazidis close to extinction) (Turkish); published on 13 August 2005 and accessed on 11 October 2009
- Quoted according to an undated article in the journal Chronicle; (Turkish); accessed on 11 October 2009
- The World of the Alevis: Issues of Culture and Identity, Gloria L. Clarke
- Rapport Minority Rights Group Bir eşitlik arayışı: Türkiye’de azınlıklar Uluslararası Azınlık Hakları Grubu 2007 Dilek Kurban
- See the Amnesty International report: Prosecution of Religious Activists, published in November 1987 (AI INDEX: EUR 44/74/87) reproduced in a private Wiki, accessed on 21 September 2009
- Turkey commemorates 15th anniversary of Sivas massacre, undated article in Hürriyet, accessed on 10 November 2009
- See the 2008 Human Rights Report of the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor (US State Department) of 25 February 2009; accessed on 21 September 2009
- Turkey 2009 Progress Report by the European Commission for Enlargement, dated 14 October; accessed on 10 November 2009
- "TRT to air programs for Alevis during Muharram". Today's Zaman. 2008-12-30. Retrieved 2008-12-30.
- "Turkey gives orphanage to Ecumenical Patriarchate". Fox News Channel. 29 November 2010. Retrieved 1 January 2014.
- Church website blocked as 'porn' by Turkish parliament
- Turkey: Constitutional Court Ruling Upholds Headscarf Ban - Religion and Expression Rights Denied, Broader Reform Agenda Endangered, Human Rights Watch, June 7, 2008 (English) This ruling was criticised by those promoting women education in the country.
- Leyla Şahin v. Turkey, European Court of Human Rights
- Turkish police arrest 'Islamists', BBC News, 24 July 2009.
- Country report for Swiss Refugee Aid organization on Turkey 2008 (German); accessed on 11 October 2009
- Pelit, Mikail (2007-04-18). "Malatya'da yayınevine kanlı baskın: 3 ölü". Dogan News Agency (in Turkish) (Milliyet). Retrieved 2008-09-12.
- Article in German by Peter Schmid, dated 21 October 2009; accessed on 22 November 2009