Religious Freedom in Turkey

HRAA General Secretary Salih Efe spoke about religious minorities rights in Turkey at a conference held at the EU Parliament on 03 July 2013 in Strasbourg, France. He was invited to be speaker at the conference by the European Centre for Law and Justice (ECLJ) and Mr. Peter Van Dalen, Member of the European Parliament for the Netherlands.

The final stage of the Ottoman era was an unmitigated disaster for everyone in the empire. As a matter of fact, the end of the nineteenth century and first half of the twentieth century were a virtual “living hell” for minorities. The same dark period experienced in Turkey during this time was also happening across the world. When the new Republic of Turkey was formed, the Armenians, Greeks, Arameans, the Jewish people, and other non-Muslims (those who had managed to survive) all dreamed of a fresh beginning. This was because, after all, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and his men all asserted that they were forming a modern, secular, and democratic new nation, and received the praise of the world in so doing.

While minorities maintained this vision for the newly arising country, the facts did not bear out such claims in practice. A new nation was formed upon an ideology that rejected the very people who constituted the nation. Serious mistakes made and wrong policies adopted during the formation of the Turkish Republic still deeply affect the policies prevailing today. With the bureaucracy of the state being entrusted to the hands of a new class in Turkey in 1921, particularly after the 1924 Constitution, everyone was required to be a Turk and to embrace the identity accorded them by the state. Then, “the feelings of guilt” from the 1915 Armenian massacre (which to some clearly constituted genocide) during the last years of the Ottoman period “transformed into hatred for Armenians and other minorities” in the new, strongly secular Republic[1]. After the 1938 massacre in Tunceli (Dersim at the time) against Alevi Kurds, no further large massacres could be carried out, but the minorities could be “brought to their knees” economically by the state’s constant harassment[2].

Although Mustafa Kemal Atatürk “asserted that he was forming a people’s republic”, the truth was that he really was forming a republic that belonged to a privileged Turkish class[3]. Religious minorities were fleeing Turkey due to economic harassment and to incidents such as those which took place in Thrace in 1934 and to the events that took place in Taksim on 6–7 September 1956 in Istanbul[4]. During the Second World War, minorities experienced a great shock in the form of the controversial Wealth Tax (Varlık Vergisi). The Turkish government imposed huge taxes on its non-Muslim citizens. In 1942, a Wealth Tax was imposed on Armenians, Greeks, and Jews within Turkey. Commissions, which dealt with this matter, were formed entirely of Muslims, Turkish businessmen, bureaucrats, and politicians. These commissions were authorised to determine who would pay what amount of tax. There existed no right whatsoever to challenge a commission’s decision. Once the taxation was determined, the “tax payer” had fifteen days in which to pay it. As a result, members of minorities were forced to sell their business premises, their homes, and sometimes everything that belonged to them. A significant number of these people who could not afford to pay these taxes were sent to “work camps”. During this period, 30,000 Jews left Turkey. Of course these developments were serving the policy of “Turkifying” the nation, a process which began in the 1930’s with Atatürk[5].

How interesting it was then that the Lausanne Treaty, seen as the sacred forming text of the [R]epublic, was being so regularly violated by the Turkish state itself. And in the meantime, a new state religion was created, one that only appeared to be Muslim, but which had been purged of spirituality and was quite secular and used the Sunni belief system as the center. It was actually a new religion. Yes, the Kemalists had created this religion and to spread it, they formed the Ministry of Religious Affairs. Homilies designated by the state were read in all the mosques of the country, with religion being used as a tool to promote the state’s ideology.

. . .

As for the West, for as long as Turkey stayed within the parameters of the West club, it didn’t matter what sorts of violations of human rights [the Turkish government was carrying] out[6].

Devout Muslims were also persecuted in various ways after the establishment of the new republic.

But it appeared that the Kurds were going to be a big problem. There were so many of them, and they were generally quite religious. In fact, some of the most important religious figures that were preventing this new state-created religion from taking root throughout the region were Kurds like Said Nursi. It appeared the Kurds were both racially and religiously speaking resisting assimilation. In the 1924 Sheikh Said rebellion, the 1930 Ağrı rebellion and the 1937-1938 Dersim “uprising,” the state rained down great tyranny on the people, later trying to sell these incidents as serious uprisings that needed to be quelled. What was really going on though was a serious resistance to the founding principles of the regime, as well as to societal engineering. And, as occurred in Dersim, state violence led to more protests, and more protests led to thousands of deaths.

There is a general sort of hypocrisy that exists in Turkey. The above-described stories were always treated as though they had occurred in different eras and different countries. Atatürk was kept separate from any nasty business, with mistakes that he made only thrown into the public arena after his death. As it was told, everything was just fine until 1938, but Atatürk’s immoral successors ruined everything that had been going so well. In fact, everything that went wrong was blamed on İsmet İnönü, while Atatürk was kept clean. And when really pressed, those holding to this argument point to the “conditions of the era.” Some even claim, “With the Jewish Holocaust going on in Europe, what took place in Turkey could even be seen as democracy.” As though the entire world was populated solely by Nazis at the time, or that there were no examples of democratic countries[7].

Turkey has experienced four military coups. During the coup of 1960, Prime Minister Adnan Menderes had been hung, along with two other ministers, and clashes between rightists and leftists led to the deaths of thousands of youths, which triggered yet another military coup in 1980[8]. “It was always the Kemalist guardian authority that emerged in an advantageous position from these incidents”[9].

By this time, “the number of minorities in Turkey had shrunk to one thousandth of their previous numbers” and, reacting to the events of the past, had “turned inwards”[10]. “The Alevis were paralyzed as a result of the false ‘Sunni’ danger” and their own ranks splintering[11]. Meanwhile, let us add that some citizens, in fact, voluntarily did support the state-rooted provocations, as in the Maraş, Çorum and Sıvas attacks in which Alevis were targeted and hundreds of them were killed brutally[12]. “There is still a widespread antipathy towards Alevis throughout Turkey, and this is a factor which has always worked out very well for the deep state”, with its vile policies[13].

The State Special Warfare Department has implicated itself in many bloody provocations in Turkey in the past, including the pogroms of 6-7 September 1955, targeting non-Muslims in Istanbul. We also have learned that another special branch, TUSHAD, was established in 1993 within the Turkish military by a four-star general and the secretary-general of the General Staff at the time. Its purpose was to engage with Christians. In 2007 it became clear that the Turkish deep state created a state of paranoia in order to manipulate Turkish society into becoming more nationalist, thus to prepare the ground work for the ensuing murders of Christians in order to create sufficient chaos to topple the government.

In the wake of the Feb. 28, 1997 post modern coup, a respectful uprising against Necmettin Erbakan took place in the ranks of the reformist cadres of the overturned Welfare Party (RP), after which the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) was formed. The founders of this new party . . . carried out a serious set of self-criticisms, in light of lessons learned from the 1997 coup process. What was emerging was an Anatolian Muslim voter threshold more at peace with the West, taking more of a leadership role in democracy, and open to change as well as to reform. Millions of people kept at arm’s length from power throughout the history of the republic thus far suddenly had a voice, without having to turn to violence, and without losing their patience. In its first election, the AK Party took power on Nov. 3, 2002, picking up huge levels of support from Kurds as well as secular democrats. A silent revolution had thus begun in Turkey. The revolution that had begun was one to rely not on violence and upheaval, but on democratic methods and parliamentary representation[14].

After having forty-nine percent of the vote in the general election of 2011, the AK Party is now headed into its fourth general election. Including referendums and local elections, it has won seven consecutive elections. At the moment, the AK Party has taken a “great risk”, launching a historical Kurdish and democratization initiative, dealing with “the greatest weapons possessed by the guardian authority”, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), and the Kurdish problem[15].

The AK Party holds to the ideology of conservative democracy. The AK Party has been in power for the last eleven years and it has achieved much in terms of democratisation of Turkey. However, for the last few years, it has shown all the signs of slowing down in democratising the country. The EU process and, most importantly, the EU reforms, despite the rhetoric, are not seriously on the agenda. The Kemalist oligarchy that is against all kinds of democratisation is still almost intact. The government seems to have arrived at an understanding with the Kemalist elites and the bureaucracy. To give only one example, the Uludere (Roboski) incident (in which thirty-four Kurdish civilians were mistakenly bombed in an air raid on the southeast border and a Turkish journalist of Armenian origin, Hrant Dink, was murdered) have not been investigated properly. The AK Party has undertaken no military reforms, which are urgent and essential. The AK Party has not abolished the dual justice system, which includes military judicial organs within it. To hold the intelligence agency accountable before the courts or before parliamentary committees is almost impossible. Thus, as people, we cannot know what actually has transpired in many important events.

Legal/Policy Framework for Minority Issues

 Religious minorities long have been suffering from various problems. I shall try to explain briefly the difficulties and obstacles that religious minorities have had and still face in Turkey.

Turkey has a population of 75 million. The government estimates that ninety-nine percent of the population is Muslim, the majority of which is Sunni. On the other hand, Alevi leaders state their numbers at between 20-25 million. According to the government, other religious groups, mostly concentrated in Istanbul and other large cities, together constitute less than one percent of the population.

The 1982 Constitution and other laws and policies generally protect religious freedom. The Constitution defines the country as a secular state and provides for freedom of belief, worship, and the private expression of religious ideas. The Constitution prohibits discrimination on religious grounds. On the other hand, some laws, policies, constitutional provisions, as well as government practices, indeed restrict religious freedom. The problems and sufferings of minorities are not only limited to their foundations and to property issues. In truth, the minorities’ problems begin with the definition itself. According to Turkey’s official self-description there are no minorities in Turkey, with the exception of those who were mentioned in the Lausanne Treaty of 1923, which established the new Turkish Republic internationally. These, namely, are the Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, and the Jews[16].

However, if one examines the text of the Lausanne Treaty, there is no specific mention of any national origin such as Turkey suggests. In the Treaty, there is a reference only to non-Muslims. Turkey’s definition of the concept of “minority” is, therefore, extremely arbitrary and has no legal basis whatsoever. As a result of this narrow definition, Assyrians (Suryani), Catholics, and Turkish Protestants, as well as some Islamic sects, have been excluded from the legal arena. In Turkey, although the “Lausanne Minorities” are Turkish citizens, they have always been regarded as foreigners and as traitors. Seeing them as foreigners is not unique to the Appeal Court. I should like to give you an amusing example: In 1988 the Committee of Ministers issued a regulation called “Protection against Sabotage”. Under article 5 of this Regulation, groups which could attempt sabotage were enumerated. According to paragraph “f”, one of these groups was the “indigenous foreigners” (yerli yabancılar). If you are not Muslim you are not considered to be Turkish, and therefore not considered to be a Turkish citizen. These indigenous foreigners were Turkish citizens of Greek and Armenian origin. These terms were also used in some Court of Appeals as well as in the Constitutional Court jurisprudences.

Moreover, the government does not grant legal personality to the leadership organs or administrative structures of these groups, leaving them unable to buy or to hold title to property or to press claims in court. The Greek Patriarch is not even allowed to use the title he would prefer. The Orthodox Church would like the Patriarchate to have the title of “Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople”; however, the Turkish authorities have not accepted this title to date since the government views it as a danger to national unity. Greek Orthodox and Armenian religious training institutes have been closed by the Turkish authorities. Neither the Greek Patriarchate nor the Armenians have legal status as an institution, and these two religious communities are not allowed to train new clergy in Turkey. No religious establishment in Turkey can obtain legal status. All these are indeed in contravention of the Lausanne Treaty itself[17].

Up to now, we mostly hear about the minorities’ problems in relation to property issues because this is the most painful issue for them, threatening their very existence.

A 1936 law required that religious foundations compile and officially register lists of all properties owned. Although it was widely recognized at the time that these lists were not comprehensive, the government then began seizing unlisted properties from religious foundations. A 1974 High Court of Appeals ruling interpreting the 1936 law stated it had been illegal for religious foundations to acquire any new property after 1936, enabling the government to seize without compensation religious foundation properties acquired between 1936 and 1974[18].

Minority foundations have lost innumerable amounts of real estate since 1974, as a result of this jurisprudence of the Appeal Court (Yargıtay). They were taken, one by one, through cases filed by the Directorate General of Foundations and the Treasury[19].

 Although the Constitution, Laws, and the Government declare Turkey to be a strong secular nation, the government nonetheless acts in many ways in contravention of genuine secularism. This always has been always so since the inception of the new Turkish Republic. In practice, the government provides favourable and prejudicial treatment only to Sunni Islamic groups. The Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet) operates under the Prime Minister’s office and with a president appointed by the Prime Minister. Apart from the Sunni sect, the government does not employ religious leaders, instructors, or other staff for any other religious groups/sects, be they Muslim or non-Muslim.  This is another example of clear discrimination that the state has carried out since its inception.

The government donates land for the construction of mosques and in many cases funds their construction through the Diyanet or municipalities. Municipalities pay the utility bills for mosques located within their boundaries. These benefits are uniquely available to Sunni Muslims. The Diyanet Foundation, a quasi-governmental entity, owns many of the mosques around the country.

The government considers Alevism a heterodox Muslim sect and does not financially support religious worship for Alevi Muslims[20].

It indeed even does not officially and legally recognise Alevism. The government is set to launch an initiative for people of the Alevi faith in an effort to resolve Alevi issues and keep them from feeling alienated, but Alevi leaders remain cautiously optimistic, having some misgivings about the government’s sincerity. As part of the initiative, which is reportedly in draft form at present, cemevis — Alevis’ places of worship — will actually be considered as places of worship, and municipalities will be required to provide land free of charge to Alevis for the construction of cemevis, two dailies, Türkiye and Habertürk reported on the weekend.[21]

The [Turkish Penal Code] prohibits imams, priests, rabbis, and 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 one month to one year, or three months to two years if the crime involves inciting others to disobey the law. There are legal restrictions against insulting a recognized religion, interfering with such a religious group’s services, or defacing its property.

. . .

The state provides training for Sunni Muslim clerics. Religious groups other than Sunni Muslims do not have schools to train clerics inside the country. The Greek Orthodox Halki seminary on the island of Heybeli closed in 1971 in response to a law that required all private colleges to be affiliated with a state-run university and meet government requirements that did not permit the operation of a seminary within a monastic community. The Greek Orthodox community thereby lost the only educational institution in the country for training its religious leadership. Co-religionists from outside the country assume informal leadership positions in some cases, but according to a mandate from the Istanbul governorate, leaders of the Greek Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic, and Jewish communities must be citizens. Religious groups generally face administrative challenges when seeking to employ foreign religious personnel because there is no visa category for religious workers.

The government does not recognize conscientious objection to military service, and those who oppose mandatory military service on religious grounds face charges in military and civilian courts as well as prison sentences.

Although registration with the government is not mandatory for religious groups, unregistered religious groups cannot request legal recognition of places of worship, and holding religious services at a location not recognized as a place of worship is illegal. All organizations, including religious groups, can register as associations or foundations. Religious groups must associate themselves with a charitable or cultural cause in order to register as either type of entity.

The General Directorate of Foundations (GDF) regulates the activities and affiliated property of all charitable foundations and assesses whether they are operating within the stated objectives of their organizational statute. There are several categories of foundations, including religious community foundations.

. . .

. . . Membership in the foundation cannot be limited to any one ethnic or religious group; technically, a foundation to support a specific religion is not possible under the law.

. . .

. . . Associations can be closed by court orders and are bound by the civil code not to discriminate on the grounds of religion, ethnicity, or race.

The constitution establishes compulsory religious and moral instruction in public primary and secondary schools, with content determined by the Ministry of National Education’s Department of Religious Instruction. Members of recognized non-Muslim religious groups are legally exempt from religious instruction.

Only Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, and Jewish religious community foundations may operate schools under the supervision of the Education Ministry. Other religious groups may not operate schools of their own. The curricula of these schools include information unique to the cultures of the three groups and may be taught in the minority groups’ languages. Beginning in the 2012-2013 school year, the government permits Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, and Jewish students who are not citizens, including children of undocumented Armenian migrants, to enroll in the community schools. However, because these children are legally classified as “visitors” they are ineligible to receive a degree from those schools.

Because the government does not recognize the Syrian Orthodox community as a protected minority under the Lausanne treaty, it is not allowed to operate its own schools as are the Greek, Jewish, and Armenian communities. As a result, Syrian Orthodox children are not able to receive education in neo-Aramaic, the language of their community and church.

. . .

. . . Additional religious courses can now be taken as electives for two hours per week for each grade in regular schools. The new law also abolishes all age limits for Quran courses.

Although the constitution stipulates that no one shall be compelled to reveal his or her religious beliefs, there is a space in which to note one’s religious affiliation on national identity cards. A few religious groups, such as Bahais, Alevis, and Yezidis, are unable to state their religious identity on national identity cards because their groups are not included among the available options. Despite a 2006 regulation allowing persons to leave the religious identity section of their identity cards blank or change the religious identity section by written application, the government restricts applicants’ choice of religion. Applicants must either leave the religious identity section blank or choose from the following: Muslim, Greek Orthodox, Christian, Jew, Hindu, Zoroastrian, Confucian, Taoist, Buddhist, no religion, or other[22].

This is how the ruling party is performing in regard to the freedom of religion. But what about the main opposition party, CHP? The CHP’s policy always has been much more restrictive toward the democratization of Turkey and has been against the minorities, as well, when the government tries to accord them more rights. It even petitions the Constitutional Court, demanding that the ban on the headscarf not be abolished. Acting as passionately as the CHP in advocating this ban, some bar associations have waged a heated campaign not to allow head-scarfed women to practise law in courts. But because the Council of State did not support their campaign, they have failed to stir up much trouble for head-scarfed lawyers, for the time being. Certain segments in Turkish society still fear the liberation of head-scarfed women. As we thus can see, there are some problems in Turkey which have remained unchanged since the inception of Turkey.

With Turkey’s vigorous efforts to join the European Union and fulfill the requirements necessary to qualify for membership, debates over minority rights have become central to the nation’s agenda. In expressing a strong and persistent aspiration to become an EU member, Turkey has committed itself to meeting the political criteria for membership, including respecting and protecting its minorities. Towards that end, the Turkish Government has undertaken fundamental constitutional and legal reforms in an unprecedented demonstration of political will and efficiency, starting with constitutional amendments in 2001 and forging ahead with many subsequent “reform packages” the Parliament has passed. Although they are positive measures and are headed in the right direction, close scrutiny of the new laws and their implementation to this date reveals that they are far from guaranteeing the constitutional protection of minorities which the EU requires and to which the Turkish Government has committed itself. Instead, they constitute much belated—if nevertheless welcome—steps toward granting some fundamental rights to members of some minority groups, leaving, despite such progress, much more that needs to be done to achieve respect for, and protection of, all minorities[23].

I strongly believe that Turkey needs to change its policies towards religious minorities. To start with, the arbitrary definition of the concept of “minority” must be changed. Minority policies must be governed by clear and concise laws which should govern minority policies, not regulations, bylaws, and circulars which can be changed overnight. The new constitution that is going to be made should refer to minority rights within it. Turkey must consider adopting new laws which will enable minority foundations to regain the properties which were taken from them as a result of the 1974 judgment of the Appeal Court. Religious establishments must be given legal status, something that will prevent State agents from arbitrary interference in their concerns. In these ways the government should follow up the EU’s requirements as well as to obey the judgments of the ECHR without further delay, and Turkey should revise its law in accordance with these judgments. The EU, the OSCE, and the Council of Europe consistently should condemn the reciprocity principle that both Greece and Turkey use to deny the rights of minorities.

The UN, EU, Council of Europe, and OSCE should supervise more regularly the implementation of the international human rights conventions in Turkey, as a way to stress the importance of religious freedom, and, in so doing, should promote legal reforms aimed at lifting restrictions on religious groups, on property restitution, and concerning specific cases of religious discrimination.

Last, but not least, to create tolerance and peace within Turkey, the government must come to admit, or at least has to acknowledge, the past atrocities committed towards non-Muslims in Turkey.


                * Salih Efe is a practising attorney in Ankara, Turkey. He is the co-founders of Amnesty International’s Turkey Section and currently acts as the General Secretary of the Human Rights Agenda Association. Mr. Efe received his law degree in 1993 from Marmara University in Istanbul and later received a second degree in political science at Concordia University in Montreal, Canada in 1998. In 2007, he obtained his Master’s degree in EU Studies and is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in International Relations in Ankara. Since 2001, Mr. Efe has worked as a legal officer for the ECHR, the UNHCR, and assistant coordinator for an EU Twinning project dedicated to the improvement of statement-taking methods in Turkey, and the Human Rights Joint Platform (IHOP).  He has been a member of the Refugee Rights Council in Turkey since March 2012.

[1] Markar Esayan, A Century of Mistakes Followed by a Decade of Change, Today’s Zaman (31
May 2013),

[2] Id.

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

[5] Orhan Kemal, Cengiz, Rights Violations Experienced by Protestants in Turkey Evaluated in Light of Human Rights Law (2003).

[6] Esayan, supra note 1.

[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[9] Id.

[10] Id.

[11] Id.

[12] Id.

[13] Id.

[14] Id.

[15] Id.

[16] Baskin Oran, Minorities in Turkey 36 (2004).

[17] Kemal, supra note 5.

[18]2012 Report on International Religious Freedom: Turkey, U.S. Dep’t St. (20 May 2013),

[19]U.S. Comm’n on Int’l Religious Freedom, Annual Report 2012 (2012), available at

[20] 2012 Report on International Religious Freedom: Turkeysupra note 18.

[21] Aydın Albayrak, Government set to launch Alevi initiative, leaders cautiously optimistic, Today’s Zaman (24 June 2013),

[22] Id.see also Senem Aydın Düzgit & E. Fuat Keyman, EU-Turkey Relations and the Stagnation of Turkish Democracy 11-13 (2013); U.S. Comm’n on Int’l Religious Freedom, supra note 19.

[23]Dilek Kurban, Confronting Equality: The Need for Constitutional Protection of Minorities on Turkey’s Path to the European Union, 35 Colum. Hum. Rts. L. Rev. 151 (2004).


Salih Efe