The government continued to interpret the 1923 Lausanne Treaty, which refers broadly to “non-Muslim minorities,” as granting special legal minority status exclusively to three recognized groups: Armenian Apostolic Orthodox Christians, Jews, and Greek Orthodox Christians. The government did not recognize the leadership or administrative structures of non-Muslim minorities (e.g., the patriarchates and chief rabbinate) as legal entities, leaving them unable to buy or hold title to property or to press claims in court. The three groups, along with other minority religious communities, organized independent foundations with separate governing boards in order to hold and control individual religious properties. Following the 2013 repeal of a regulation governing the election of foundation board members, the government failed to promulgate new regulations permitting the election of foundation board members, as promised.
The government also continued not to recognize the Ecumenical Patriarchate as the leader of the world’s 300 million Orthodox Christians, consistent with the government’s stance that there was no legal obligation to do so. The government’s position remained that the Ecumenical patriarch was not “ecumenical,” but only the religious leader of the country’s Greek Orthodox minority population. The government continued to permit only Turkish citizens to vote in the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s Holy Synod or be elected patriarch but continued its practice of granting Turkish citizenship to a number of Greek Orthodox metropolitans under the terms of a 2011 stopgap solution to widen the pool of candidates to become the next patriarch.
The Armenian Apostolic Patriarchate and the Ecumenical Patriarchate continued to seek legal recognition. Their communities operated as conglomerations of individual religious foundations. Because the patriarchates did not have legal personality, associated foundations controlled by individual boards held all the property of the religious communities, and the patriarchates had no legal authority to direct the use of any assets or otherwise govern their communities.
The Istanbul governorate continued to maintain that leaders of the Greek Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic Orthodox, and Jewish communities must be Turkish citizens, although coreligionists from outside the country had assumed informal leadership positions of these groups in some cases.
The government continued to consider Alevism a heterodox Muslim sect and did not financially support religious worship for Alevi Muslims. Alevi leaders said the government failed to meet their demands for religious reforms and expressed concerns about security. Sufi and other religious-social orders (tarikats) and lodges (cemaats), banned officially since 1925, remained active and widespread as the government did not enforce the ban.
The government continued to limit the rights of non-Muslim minorities, especially those it did not recognize as being covered by the 1923 Lausanne Treaty. Non-Sunni Muslims did not receive the same protections as recognized non-Muslim minorities. The government continued to train Sunni Muslim clerics, while restricting other religious groups from training clergy, and continued to fund the construction of Sunni mosques while restricting land use of other religious groups. The government continued not to recognize Alevi houses of worship (cemevis), and Alevis continued to experience difficulty obtaining exemptions from mandatory religion classes.
The trial continued for a policeman indicted in November 2014 for first-degree murder in the May 2014 shooting of Ugur Kurt, an Alevi who was attending a funeral outside a cemevi in Istanbul. Kurt was reportedly killed by a bullet fired while police were confronting protestors in Istanbul’s Okmeydani neighborhood, which contains a large concentration of Alevis. An evidentiary hearing in October was postponed until February 2016.
The trial of 13 individuals charged with conspiracy to commit a large scale assault against the Izmit Protestant church and to assassinate its pastor in 2013 continued. Police had confiscated weapons and found evidence of prolonged, careful planning for an attack. Based on a charge filed in 2014, the preliminary investigation of a gendarmerie captain and a police officer for their alleged role in the conspiracy continued. The next hearing is scheduled for 2016. At year’s end, the 13 suspects had been released on bail.
In January, the Diyarbakir Military Court held the first hearing in a new trial for the 2011 death of Sevag Balikci, a Christian of both Turkish and Armenian descent who was killed while serving in the Turkish Army. Another soldier had been convicted on the lesser charge of involuntary manslaughter. In 2013, the Diyarbakir court had not found Balikci to be the victim of intentional homicide or a hate crime and sentenced the defendant to 53 months’ imprisonment with credit for time served in pretrial detention, leaving him approximately three years to continue serving in prison. The Diyarbakir court’s finding did not satisfy the victim’s family, which appealed the verdict. In January, citing procedural errors, the Military Court of Appeals vacated the judgment and remanded the case to the Diyarbakir criminal court. The Diyarbakir court held a preliminary hearing in September; the next hearing was scheduled for 2016. The defendant remained in jail pending further judicial action.
The trial of Canan Arin for “openly disrespecting the religious belief of a group,” which involved a reported insult to the Prophet Mohammad, continued to be suspended for the duration of the year. Arin had been charged in 2011 after a speech she made at a conference about child marriage, but the court suspended the proceedings in 2013, provided the crime was not repeated for three years. The case against Arin will be dismissed in 2016 as long as she is not charged before then with a similar crime.
In October, the Higher Court of Appeals reversed internationally known concert pianist Fazil Say’s 2013 conviction and suspended sentence of 10 months in prison for “openly disrespecting the religious belief of a group,” which involved posting lines attributed to poet Omar Khayyam on a social media site. The court said his posting constituted freedom of expression.
The 10-month and seven-month suspended sentences for two individuals and suspended court cases of an additional 37 individuals charged in 2014 with “disrespecting religious beliefs of a group” for their posts on the satiric online collaborative site Eksi Sozluk continued. The cases were suspended for three years, meaning the defendants will not face jail time provided they do not commit the same crime before 2017.
The state continued to provide training for Sunni Muslim clerics while restricting other religious groups from training clerics inside the country, including through requirements imposed by the Higher Education Board. The lack of monastic seminaries within the country meant that the Greek Orthodox and Armenian Orthodox Patriarchates were unable to train their clerics. Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, leader of the Greek Orthodox Church, called again in October for the government to allow the reopening of the Halki Seminary on the island of Heybeli, closed in 1971 in response to a law that required all private colleges for religious training to be affiliated with a state-run university and prohibited the operation of a seminary within a monastic community.
Many prosecutors and police reportedly continued to regard certain public religious speech and religious activism with suspicion, such as proselytism by Protestant evangelicals and Mormons. Anti-missionary rhetoric remained in required school textbooks.
Many state buildings, including universities, maintained mesjids (small mosques) in which Muslims could pray. The government continued to deny Alevis the right to establish similar places of worship in government buildings, and government buildings did not contain places of worship for non-Muslims.
The government continued to donate land for the construction of mosques and continued funding their construction through the Diyanet or municipalities. Municipalities continued to pay the utility bills for mosques located within their boundaries. These benefits remained uniquely available to Sunni Muslim mosques, with other religious institutions paying their own utility bills, except in some opposition-controlled municipalities that recognized Alevi places of worship and paid their utility bills. The Diyanet Foundation, a quasi-governmental entity, continued to own many of the mosques around the country.
The majority of Protestants met in unregistered locations for worship services. The government reportedly recognized only 15 Protestant churches as official places of worship throughout the country, including several chapels run by foreign diplomatic missions. Protestant groups reportedly used approximately 40 rented buildings and more than 100 residences for unregistered worship services. In December the government permitted the opening of a new Protestant church in Sanliurfa. The Protestant Divine Light Church is housed in a renovated bakery and expected to serve the city’s Protestant Christian population of approximately 500.
Many local officials continued to impose zoning standards on churches, such as minimum space requirements, that they did not impose on mosques. Local officials required Protestant groups to purchase 27,000 square feet of land (approximately 0.6 acre) to construct churches, even for small congregations. Officials did not apply this requirement to Sunni Muslims, who were permitted to build mesjids in malls, airports, and other spaces.
The Syrian Orthodox community continued to seek permission to build a second church in Istanbul to accommodate its growing population. In September the Regional Board for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage provisionally approved a proposal by the Syriac Church Foundation to build a second church on land offered by the Istanbul Municipality. The community to date had only one church in Istanbul to serve an estimated local population of 17,000 to 20,000. The Syrian Orthodox community did not request government funding for construction of the church, which the government regularly granted to Muslim communities for mosque construction. Instead, the community requested only that the municipality provide free land for the building site and was prepared to finance the construction itself. The Syriac Church Foundation was awaiting a final decision at year’s end.
Although Alevi groups were able to build new cemevis, the government continued to decline to provide financial support from the Diyanet, a move Alevi groups considered discriminatory. Alevi leaders reported there were approximately 2,500 to 3,000 Alevi cemevis in the country, an insufficient number to meet their needs.
In August the Supreme Court of Appeals affirmed a lower court’s decision that cemevis are places of worship and should be exempt from paying utility bills. The lower court had held that cemevis had been known as places of worship for Alevis for hundreds of years, and a charter referring to cemevis as places of worship was not in contravention of the constitution or prohibited by law. At the end of the year, the government had not legally recognized cemevis as places of worship although several municipalities led by the opposition Republican People’s Party recognized cemevis and waived utility bills.
Since 2011, the GDF had received 1,560 applications from religious minority foundations which had applied for compensation for properties seized by the government in previous decades. Since 2011, the GDF has returned 590 properties, although no properties were returned during the year. The 970 applications pending from 2011 were rejected because they did not meet the criteria as outlined in the 2011 compensation law. Since the time period for submitting compensation applications expired, no new applications were submitted during the year. Applications for the return of properties were previously received from the Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, Jewish, Syrian Orthodox, Bulgarian Orthodox, Georgian Orthodox, Chaldean, and Armenian Protestant communities. Religious institutions and communities that did not have legally recognized foundations were not able to seek compensation for seized properties.
In October, the Istanbul Court of First Instance ordered the Istanbul Municipality to pay the Surp Agop Armenian Church Foundation 111.85 million liras ($38 million) for a roughly one-acre parcel of land seized by the government in 1971. The parcel formed part of a 10-acre cemetery that was returned to the foundation in 2012 without the one-acre parcel because it contained roads and passages associated with a nearby metro station. At year’s end, no appeal had been filed.
In October the government brokered a deal in which a private property owner gave the Gedikpasa Armenian Protestant Church Foundation the deed to Camp Armen, a roughly two-acre plot in Istanbul’s Tuzla neighborhood housing an abandoned orphanage where slain ethnic Armenian journalist Hrant Dink stayed as a child. Camp Armen garnered international attention when activists and politicians intervened to halt the owner’s planned demolition of the property and the site became a rallying point for sit-ins by those seeking to protect Dink’s legacy. In August three volunteer “guards” were attacked near the property by unidentified assailants. The property owner reportedly returned the camp after the government offered to pay for expropriation of part of the land, which had been seized in 1971 under a law banning religious foundations from acquiring real estate.
In October the High Court finalized the return of more than 100 acres of property to the Dayrulzafaran Monastery in the southeastern district of Mardin. The land was returned by the government in 2013 but had been pending an appeal.
A case remained pending at the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) to determine ownership of some parcels of land around the Mor Gabriel Syriac Orthodox Monastery that remained in dispute. The land dispute had begun in 2008, when the Under-secretariat of the Treasury, the Department of Forestry, and nearby villages initiated a series of court cases against the monastery to seize the land.
On April 27, the Catholicosate of the Great House of Cilicia (based in Lebanon) filed a lawsuit with the Constitutional Court to recover the centuries-old headquarters of the Catholicosate of Sis, in the Kozan District of Adana Province. The lawsuit alleges that the headquarters, once a center of Armenian Christian life, was wrongly seized one hundred years ago and should be returned.
In March, following a 5.75 million lira ($2 million) restoration undertaken by the GDF, the government re-opened the historic Edirne Synagogue and permitted the building to be used for religious celebrations.
Minister of European Union Affairs Volkan Bozkir attended a memorial service led by acting Armenian Patriarch Archbishop Aram Atesyan at the Armenian Patriarchate in Istanbul to commemorate the events of 1915, in which one and a half million Armenians perished. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu issued statements offering condolences to the grandchildren of these “Ottoman Armenians.”
The government permitted religious services at the Mardin Protestant Church in Artuklu, which was reopened after 60 years following extensive renovations paid for by the church foundation. The government continued to permit annual and other commemorative religious worship services at religiously significant sites previously converted to state museums, such as the Sumela Monastery near Trabzon, St. Peter’s Church in Antakya, St. Nicholas’ Church near Demre, and the House of the Virgin Mary near Selcuk, although the government cancelled the service at Akdemar Church near Van for security reasons. Some municipal and minority religious group leaders called for these sites to be opened to worship without restrictions.
For the second consecutive year, the government held an event to commemorate Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 27. The event, which included participation by high-level government officials, was held in Ankara for the first time.
The government continued not to implement a 2013 ruling by the ECHR which found that the government’s compulsory religion courses in public schools violated educational freedoms, even though the ECHR denied the government’s appeal of the ruling. The ECHR ruled in favor of the Alevi community, which had argued that the courses promoted Sunni Islam, which was contrary to their religious convictions.
Although authorities added material on Alevism to the religious course curriculum after the ECHR decision, many Alevis stated this material was inadequate and, in some cases, incorrect. In March National Education Minister Nabi Avci said the government would partner with the Helping Hands Foundation to support construction of an Alevi school to teach Alevi-Bektashi beliefs. At the end of the year, the school had not yet opened. Alevis had many unresolved discrimination cases against the Ministry of National Education pending in courts at the end of the year.
Non-Sunni Muslims said they faced difficulty obtaining exemptions from compulsory religious instruction in primary and secondary schools, particularly if their identification cards listed their religion as “Muslim.” Members of other minority religious groups, including Protestants, also said they had difficulty obtaining exemptions. The government said that the compulsory instruction covered the range of world religions, but religious groups, especially Alevis and members of the Syriac Orthodox community, stated that the courses largely reflected Hanafi Sunni Islamic doctrine and contained negative and incorrect information about other religious groups. While the government allowed non-Muslims to select other electives to fulfill their required coursework for graduation, non-Sunni Muslims reported they often were only allowed to choose from electives concerning different aspects of Sunni Islam. In February the National Education Ministry’s Directorate General of Religious Education wrote a memorandum to provincial governors ordering all children except those whose ID cards listed Christianity or Judaism, including those whose ID cards listed no religious affiliation, to be enrolled in the mandatory religion classes.
Although the minister of education announced in October 2014 that students who attended non-Muslim minority community schools would be permitted to take elective courses in their religion, the courses had not yet been offered as of the end of the year.
The Armenian community worked with the Ministry of National Education on including questions on Armenian Orthodox Christianity for Armenian Orthodox students in a national religion exam required for high school entrance. This follows the introduction in 2014 of questions on Judaism for Jewish students taking the entrance exam. The government reported that 218 Armenian Orthodox students and 43 Jewish students answered religious questions for non-Muslims.
By year’s end, the Ministry of National Education had not issued a ruling on the 2013 petition by the Syriac community to open a primary school in Mardin. One GDF-approved Greek school, closed in 1964 and re-opened in 2011, continued to operate on the island of Gokceada (known as Imvros in Greek).
The government continued to permit the Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, and Jewish religious community foundations to operate schools under the supervision of the education ministry, and also allowed children of their noncitizen coreligionists, including children of undocumented Armenian migrants and Armenian refugees from Syria, to enroll in them. However, because these children were legally classified as “visitors,” they were ineligible to receive a diploma from those schools. The curricula of these schools included information unique to the cultures of the three groups and could be taught in the minority groups’ languages. The government did not permit other religious groups to operate schools.
The government limited the number of students admitted to public secondary schools, assigning tens of thousands of students to state-run religious schools, known as “imam hatip” schools. Enrollment in the imam hatip schools increased to approximately one million students, up from just 63,000 in 2003. Critics, including secular-minded parents, expressed concern that the government was favoring religion over secularism in education policy.
In February police in Izmir reportedly used water cannons to break up a demonstration against state-mandated instruction in Islam, including at imam hatip schools. Boycotts of these schools were reported to be organized across the country by a teachers’ union and Alevi community associations.
The Diyanet regulated the operation of 86,101 registered mosques and paid the salaries of 119,743 religious personnel as civil servants at the end of 2014, the last year for which data was available. The government did not pay the salaries of religious leaders, instructors, or other staff belonging to other religious groups.
No reforms were introduced to recognize the right of conscientious objection, to prevent the criminal prosecution of conscientious objectors for refusal to perform military service, or to provide for alternative government service. In February Mehmet Tarhan was sentenced to one year and three months’ imprisonment by the Sivas Military Court for his refusal to serve in the military. His sentence was later commuted to a fine. In April Baris Gormez was acquitted by the Isparta Military Court which recognized his right to conscientious objection based on a 2011 decision by the ECHR that found forced military service to be a violation of Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights. Under the constitution, the terms of international conventions prevail over national laws. At year’s end, the case was eligible for appeal but none had been filed.
According to officials of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, members faced prosecution and fines for their refusal to serve in the country’s military forces.
Some non-Muslims stated that listing their religious affiliation on national identity cards exposed them to discrimination and harassment. Members of many religious groups continued to state that by not including a religious identity or listing an identity other than Muslim on applications for employment, they or coreligionists were precluded from obtaining government jobs and were discriminated against in the private sector.
In March the Second General-Jurisdiction Criminal Court in Golbasi ordered the website of the Atheism Association blocked after the court found the website violated Article 216 of the Turkish Penal Code by “openly disrespecting the religious belief of a group.” Seven members of the Atheism Association faced charges for violating Article 216 for messages they posted online. At year’s end, the website was accessible and individual appeals of the charges were filed with the Constitutional Court.
In February the government commemorated the nearly 800 Jewish refugees who died aboard the Struma when it sank off the coast of Istanbul in 1942. Then-Minister of Culture and Tourism Omer Celik attended the commemoration and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement. In December the Republican People’s Party-affiliated Besiktas Municipality of Istanbul hosted, for the first time, a public menorah lighting before a crowd of several hundred. The ceremony was led by the Chief Rabbi of Turkey with participation by government representatives and members of the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim communities.