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Religious Intolerance in Turkey

19 Νοεμβρίου 2010

Religious Intolerance in Turkey

International Conference on Religious Intolerance in Turkey

On 16-17 November, the Order of St Andrew held a conference entitled «Turkey’s Bridge to the European Union» at the European Parliament  in Brussels. Human Rights Without Frontiers was invited to a panel addressing «Issues and Concerns of Religious Minorities in Turkey». Hereafter the paper presented by Human Rights Without Frontiers.

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Our organization started dealing with Christians in Turkey when in the early 1990s the first waves of Syriac Orthodox and Chaldeans arrived in Western Europe as asylum-seekers. They were then victims of the Turkish army and of the Kurds. They left their villages and homes, often destroyed, in search of a better and more tolerant world where their security would be guaranteed, where their daughters would not be kidnapped to be forcibly married to a young Muslim, where their crops would not be burnt.

The message that they also brought us is that the Armenians were not the sole victims of the genocide perpetrated during WWI by the Young Turks. They had also been victims of that genocide that they called «Seyfo» (The Sword).

The genocide is far behind us but we remain concerned about the persistent anti-Christian feelings that still prevail in Turkey. The battle for fair laws and equality of religion is certainly a priority but improving the legal framework regulating the life of religious communities, and in particular non-Muslim religious groups, is not sufficient to eradicate the problems of religious intolerance that they have been experiencing for years.
According to some recent surveys, Turkish society does not demonstrate a tolerant or respectful attitude towards people of different religious communities,.Surveys measuring religious intolerance

An interesting study conducted by Istanbul’s Sabanci University in 2009, «Religiosity in Turkey – An International Study», reveals that of those who joined the study, 66 per cent said that members of other religions should not be allowed to expound their ideas by organizing meetings open to the public. Indeed, 62 per cent said they should not be allowed to give out books that explain their views.

The survey also found that almost 40 percent of the population of Turkey said they had «very negative» or «negative» views of Christians. In the random survey, 60 percent of those polled said there is only one true religion; over 90 percent of the population of Turkey is Sunni Muslim.

Ali Çarkoglu, one of two professors at Sabanci University who conducted the study, said no non-Muslim religious gathering in Turkey is completely «risk free.»

«Even in Istanbul, it can’t be easy to be an observant non-Muslim,» Çarkoglu said.

The report was part of a study commissioned by the International Social Survey Program, a 45-nation academic group that conducts polls and research about social and political issues. The survey quantified how religious the population is in each of its 43-member countries.

The study has been conducted previously three times at roughly 10-year intervals. This year marked the first time study data has been collected in Turkey. Turkey was the only Muslim-majority population in the study.

The survey includes significant nuance. While 42 percent of the population agreed with the statement that religious people should be tolerant, 49 percent of those surveyed said they would either «absolutely» or «most likely» not support a political party that accepted people from another religion. But 20 percent of those surveyed said they had «very positive» or «positive» views of Christians – 13 percent «very positive,» and 7 percent «positive.»

Çarkoglu said the results of study could be attributed to the Turkish educational system, which mandates religious studies for both junior high school and high school students – classes in which Christians and Jews «are not even mentioned» or are portrayed as «the others.»

«That instills in these students a severe point of view of intolerance,» he added.
The survey is available in Turkish from

A Protestant concurred with the result of the Survey, stating that «this is exactly our experience. Commitment to freedom of religion is often in general terms supported by people. But when it comes to specifics, there is a strong resistance to allowing the teaching of one’s religion, the establishment of churches, etc. This resistance comes both from officials and from ordinary citizens.»
This study was just confirming an earlier survey carried out in 2005 by the Pew Global Attitudes Project which also suggested a distinctly negative attitude towards Christians among Turks, with 63 percent describing their view of Christians as «unfavorable,» the highest rate among the countries then surveyed.

Such societal attitudes can explain a number of hate crimes targeting or planned to target Christians in the last few years. It is not with laws that they can be fought against but through education of the public, children and youths in schools and in the media.

Hate crimes

On 3 August 2009, a young Muslim took a Christian Turk at knife point, draped his head with the national flag and threatened to slit the throat of the «missionary dog» in broad daylight in Istanbul.

Yasin Karasu, 24, held İsmail Aydın, 35, hostage for less than half an hour on Monday in a busy district on the Asian side of Istanbul in front of passersby and police who promptly came to the scene. The two men had known each other for about a year. While in the army, Karasu showed interest in learning more about Christianity and would call Aydin, a convert from Islam, to ask questions and talk, saying he was interested in other religions. Karasu was then sent to prison for the duration of criminal investigations into the case. The crime is punishable by four years in prison, but Justice Tahsin Dogan ruled six months later that Karasu should be released unconditionally, without serving the remainder of his sentence.

In April 2007, two Turkish Protestants, Necati Aydin and Ugur Yuksel, and a German, Tilmann Geske, were killed in the Christian publishing house where they worked in Malatya. They were tied up and stabbed to death. Two years later, plaintiff attorneys moved the focus of the trial away from the then five suspects – Salih Gurler, Cuma Ozdemir, Hamit Ceker, Abuzer Yildirim, and alleged ringleader Emre Gunaydin – to local officials believed to be liaisons or masterminds of the murders. On 15 October 2010, a court in southeast Turkey ordered the arrest of a suspected «middleman», journalist Varol Bulent Aral, who allegedly incited five young men to stab to death the three Turkish Christians.

In December 2007, a Catholic priest in the coastal city of Izmir was stabbed by a 17-year-old Turk, Ramazan Bay. He had met with Father Adriano Franchini, a 65-year-old Italian and long-term resident of Turkey, after expressing an interest in Christianity following mass at St. Anthony church. During their conversation, Bay became irritated and pulled out a knife, stabbing the priest in the stomach. Two years later, a judge in Turkey sentenced the 19-year-old Muslim to four-and-a-half years in prison.

Bay, originally from Balikesir 90 miles north of Izmir, reportedly said he was influenced by an episode of the TV serial drama «Kurtlar Vadisi» («Valley of the Wolves»). The series caricatures Christian missionaries as political «infiltrators» who pay poor families to convert to Christianity.

The media and religious intolerance

Every year, the Alliance of Protestant Churches of Turkey (TEK) releases a report about violations of the rights of Protestants in Turkey and the abuses faced by their congregations.

Their reports make it clear that violent attacks, threats and accusations are symptoms arising from an anti-Christian milieu of distrust and misinformation that the Turkish state allows to exist.

The report cites both negative portrayal in the media and state bodies or officials that «have created a ‘crime’ entitled ‘missionary activities,’ identifying it with a certain faith community» as being primarily responsible for the enmity felt towards Christians.

The TEK urges the government to develop effective media watchdog mechanisms to ensure the absence of intolerant or inflammatory programs, and that the state help make the public aware of the rights of Turkish citizens of all faiths.

The TV series «Valley of the Wolves» also played a role in a foiled attack on Antalya pastor Ramazan Arkan in December 2007. The author of the violent crime, Murat Tabuk, reportedly admitted under police interrogation that the popular ultra-nationalist show had inspired him to plan this attempted murder. The plan was thwarted, with the pastor receiving armed police protection and Antalya’s anti-terrorism police bureau ordering plainclothes guards to accompany him.

Together with 20 other Protestant church leaders, Arkan on Dec. 3, 2007 filed a formal complaint with the Istanbul State Prosecutor’s office protesting «Valley of the Wolves» for «presenting them as a terrorist group and broadcasting scenes making them an open target.»

The series has portrayed Christians as selling body parts, being involved in mafia activities and prostitution and working as enemies of society in order to spread the Christian faith.

«The result has been innumerable, direct threats, attacks against places of worship and eventually, the live slaughter of three innocent Christians in Malatya,» the complaint stated.

The Protestant leaders demanded that Show TV and the producers of «Valley of the Wolves» be prosecuted under sections 115, 214, 215, 216 and 288 of the Turkish penal code for spreading false information and inciting violence against Christians.

Television shows such as «Valley of the Wolves» may not be the norm, but the recent publication of a state high school textbook in which «missionary activity» is also characterized as destructive and dangerous has raised questions about Turkey’s commitment to addressing prejudice and discrimination.

As part of a concluding appeal attached to one of their reports they urged the state to stop an «indoctrination campaign» aimed at vilifying the Christian community.


It is important to note that the government focused its efforts mainly on preventing violent attacks on non-Muslim individuals and their property. Indeed, the AKP government seems to be trying to show that they embrace positive policies in favour of freedom of religion or belief in Turkey. Some suspect that the government’s real concern is to prevent attacks that would damage its reputation internationally.

However, the European Commission Turkey 2009 Progress Report has highlighted many serious freedom of religion or belief problems, which have either not been raised, or only referred to in passing, in criminal trials. These issues must be resolved to turn rhetoric on religious freedom into reality.

The issues requiring a quick solution include among others: the property disabilities and confiscations faced by communities as varied as the Alevi Muslims, Catholics, the Greek Orthodox, Protestants, the Syrian Orthodox Church; the lack of legal status of religious communities themselves under the Foundations and other laws; the non-existent legal possibility of conscientious objection to military service, especially for Jehovah’s Witnesses; and compulsory intolerant religious education in public schools.

Willy Fautré
Director of Human Rights Without FrontiersMember of the International Consortium on Law and Religious Studies[email protected]