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U.S. Commission Places Turkey on “Watch List” for Religious Freedom

The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom placed Turkey on its “Watch List” as one of the most serious offenders of religious freedom abuse toward non-Muslim communities. It was the Commission’s most extensive report on religious freedom in its ten-year history.

Congress created the Commission in 1998 through the International Religious Freedom Act. It serves to monitor the status of freedom of thought, conscience, and religion or belief abroad, as defined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and related international instruments. It provides independent policy recommendations to the President, Secretary of State, and Congress.

An eleven-page section is devoted to the current situation in Turkey in which the Commission states:

“The significant restrictions on religious freedom for religious minority communities, including state policies and actions that effectively deny non-Muslim communities the right to own and maintain property, to train religious clergy, and to offer religious education, have led to the decline–and in some cases virtual disappearance–of some religious minorities on lands they have inhabited for millennia. Because these and other religious freedom problems persist, and the existence of several religious communities in Turkey remains imperiled, the Commission decided this year to place Turkey on its Watch List.”

The report continues saying:

“When Turkey was founded in 1923, there were approximately 200,000 Greek Orthodox Christians in the country. In 1955, by which time the number had fallen to 100,000, progroms targeted the Greek Orthodox community, resulting in destruction of private and commercial properties, desecration of religious sites, and killings. As a result of these pogroms and other difficulties, the Greek Orthodox Christian community has fallen to its current low level, which the State Department reports to be no more than 3,000. Although the Ecumenical Patriarch of the Greek Orthodox community in Turkey has been under Ottoman Turkish jurisdiction since 1453, the Turkish government today still does not recognize the Greek Ecumenical Patriarchate as a legal entity. Moreover, the Turkish government also refuses to acknowledge the Patriarch’s Ecumenical status, recognizing only his role as head of the Greek Orthodox community in Turkey. Although Prime Minister Erdogan reportedly stated in parliament in January 2008 that the issue of Patriarch Bartholomew’s title as “Ecumenical” is an “internal” one for the Patriarchate and that the state should not interfere, the Turkish government still does not officially recognize the Patriarch’s Ecumenical status. The Turkish government also maintains that only Turkish citizens can be candidates for the position of Ecumenical Patriarch and for hierarchs in the Church’s Holy Synod.

“In 1971, the government’s nationalization of institutions of higher education included the Orthodox Theological School of Halki on the island of Heybeli, thereby depriving the Greek Orthodox community of its only educational institution for its leadership in Turkey. Furthermore, in November 1998, the school’s Board of Trustees was dismissed by the General Authority for Public Institutions. Due to the factors mentioned above and because of the continuing expropriation of income-generating properties from Greek Orthodox private citizens, the very survival of the Ecumenical Patriarchate and the Greek Orthodox community in Turkey is at risk.

“In the summer of 2008, the European Court of Human Rights ruled unanimously in a case brought by the Greek Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarchate that Turkey was in violation of Article 1 of Protocol No. 1 (protection of property) of the European Convention on Human Rights. The case concerned an orphanage on the Turkish island of Buyukada owned by the Ecumenical Patriarchate. The Turkish government has yet to implement the court’s ruling.”

Among the several recommendations regarding Turkey, the Commission proposes that the U.S. government should:

— “urge Prime Minister Erdogan to follow-up on his January 2008 statement that the Ecumenical status of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate should be an internal church issue by granting official recognition to the Ecumenical status of the Patriarch;

— “urge the government of Turkey to permit all religious minorities, including those not covered by the Lausanne Treaty, to train religious clergy, including by permitting the reopening of the Halki Seminary under the control of the Ecumenical Patriarch, and not under the supervision of the Turkish government, and allowing for religious training to occur.”

Read the entire Commission’s Annual Report on their website,

(Pages 206-216 will refer to the Commission’s findings on Turkey)

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