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Turkey moving to ensure religious rights for all

by Bulent ArinÇ

After decades of official neglect and mistrust, Turkey has taken several steps to ensure the rights of the country’s non-Muslim religious minorities, and thus guarantee that the rule of law is applied equally for all Turkish citizens, regardless of individuals’ religion, ethnicity or language.

Turkey’s religious minorities include Greek Orthodox, Armenian, Assyrian, Kaldani and other Christian denominations, as well as Jews, all of whom are integral parts of Turkish society.

As part of the Turkish government’s new initiative to end any sort of discrimination against these non-Muslim communities, President Abdullah Gul has emphasized that message by receiving Bartholemew, the Greek-Orthodox Patriarch of Istanbul, and by visiting a church and a synagogue in Hatay — a first by a Turkish president.

In August 2009, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan met with leaders of religious minorities on Buyukada, the largest of the Prince Islands in the Sea of Marmara, and listened to their problems and concerns, a clear signal of his government’s intent to buttress their sense of civil inclusion.

As deputy prime minister, I met with representatives of religious minorities in March 2010, and visited the Armenian and Greek Orthodox Patriarchies in 2010 and 2011. Likewise, Turkey’s minister for European Union affairs, Egemen Bagis, has met with these communities’ leaders.

Beyond establishing warm relations between the Turkish government and the country’s religious minorities, official policy has been changing as well. In May 2010, Erdogan issued an official statement that warned public servants and citizens against any discrimination against religious minorities, and that emphasized the absolute equality of Turkey’s non-Muslim citizens.

But the groundwork for the initiative of recent years was laid long before. In August 2003, the Erdogan-led government introduced legal changes to resolve property-rights issues related to religious minority associations.

For the first time in the republic’s history, 365 landholdings and buildings belonging to the minority communities were legally registered under their name.

In 2008, the government, despite fierce opposition from other political parties, changed the Law of Associations and allowed religious-minority associations to purchase real estate (and to receive contributions from abroad). Then, in August 2011, an important amendment to the Associations law mandated the return of more than 350 properties to religious minorities. As part of these changes, the Greek-Orthodox Girls School in Beyoglu, Istanbul, and the Jewish Community Center in Izmir have been granted legal status, ending a century-old dispute.

Even before that, in November 2010, the Greek-Orthodox Orphanage on Halki Island was returned to the Greek-Orthodox Patriarchy. To facilitate their religious duties, Orthodox metropolitans were granted Turkish citizenship, and the Associations Council, the country’s highest authority on religious associations, now includes for the first time a non-Muslim member representing minority faiths.

Moreover, the directorate general of Associations has been charged with the task of renovating houses of worship used by religious minorities, including the historic Aya Nikola Church in Gokceada Canakkale, and the Assyrian Catholic Church and Greek Catholic Church in Iskenderun. A number of other churches and synagogues are also under renovation.

The authorities have taken many other historically and symbolically important steps as well. The Ministry of Culture and Tourism has renovated the Panagia Sumela Monastery, a 1,600-year-old church in Trabzon on the Black Sea coast.

The first mass in decades was held in August 2010, led by Bartholomew and attended by hundreds of worshippers from Greece, Russia, Georgia, Europe, the United States and Turkey.

Another milestone was the renovation and opening of the 1,100-year old Armenian Aghtamar Church in March 2007. The first mass in 95 years was held in the church, led by the Armenian Archbishop Aram Atesyan and attended by thousands of worshippers.

These measures have been taken to address the long-standing problems of Turkey’s non-Muslim religious minorities. Turkish Muslims have lived with Jewish and Christian communities for centuries and treated them with respect and compassion.

We are determined to solve their remaining problems, and we believe that we can do so through mutual trust and cooperation. Turkey’s Jews and Christians are full citizens with equal rights, and we will work to ensure that this reality is recognized in all areas of the country’s life.

Bulent Arinc is deputy prime minister of Turkey. © 2012 Project Syndicate