True religious freedom not to be found in Turkey

Published 6:57 am Monday, July 5, 2010

In commenting on anti-Jewish attacks in Turkey, I noted the country’s constitution is formally secular and promises religious freedom. Nonsense. The Turks have no idea of the meaning of religious freedom and have not for centuries, even back into the Ottoman Empire.

Not only are Jews attacked but Christians are as well. “Christian” in Turkey has as broad a range as anywhere. It includes at least Eastern Orthodox (Greek, Bulgarian), Roman Catholic, Armenian, general protestant, and evangelical Christian.

Turkish authorities boast of how quickly they arrest those who have assaulted Christians or attacked their churches. Yet none, after years of such atrocities, has been brought to trial.

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At the same time, the government exercises a distinctly favorable and sympatric attitude toward Islam and treats it with special attention and privileges. It has been markedly at least resistive to any and all other religions. Turkish society and culture are characterized by Islamic customs and traditions, but it accommodates both strong and weak practice of Islam and tolerates the unobtrusive public practice of other religions. Both government and society seem to feel threatened by Greek Orthodox and Armenian churches and nervously patronize them as official minorities. In the bigger cities are some Roman Catholic and protestant churches, but usually not much attention is paid to or notice taken of them, when they draw no attention to themselves.

Radical Islam has been disfavored in the past, but it is gaining acceptance. General society has been distinctly moderate on religion and almost secular. The government is formally secular, but is currently under strong suspicion, most threateningly by the military, as growing more Islamic—if not to Islamic law, then to an official adoption of Islam for the country. The suspicion is valid and almost necessary. Many in governmental office are serious about Islam, and it is of the nature of serious Islam to force itself upon others and forcefully (if not violently) dismiss any departure from or exception to Islam.

The secularists may succeed in preventing increased Islamic institutions, the most they can be expected to achieve is maintenance of the status quo. If there is any change, it can be expected to move in the very direction the secularists fear, i.e., Islamic law, even if enacted incrementally.

However, there are oppressive restrictions (if not outright opposition) of the public practice of other religions. The constitutional provision for religious freedom satisfies the government’s conscience. However, most other religious groups are convinced religious freedom is neither actually practiced nor valued. Missionaries of other religions are not granted visas, and there is no public outcry against acts of violence against evangelical Christians. The country, both government and people, seem so accustomed to the heteronomy of Islam it has little idea of what genuine religious freedom is.

The Greek Orthodox Church was founded in Byzantium, what is now Turkey, and its international headquarters remains in Istanbul. Yet, the Turkish government will not allow the Orthodox to educate its priests within the country.

On April 18, 2007, five young Muslims broke into a Bible publishing office in Malatya in eastern Turkey. When the three Christians there refused to pray the Islamic prayer of conversion, the Muslims slit their throats.

When in the coastal city of Antalya, I attended a lecture titled. “Turkish Politics, Past and Present” by a professor of international relations at Mediterranean University. The idea that most impresses me is her conviction that Turkey is no longer a democracy. It cannot be so regarded, because all the “checks and balances are gone.” There is no separation of powers, and one party controls the entire government. The present constitution came from the military, and one can hardly expect a democratic government to be proposed by the military.

The country has suffered over 20 constitutions and many amendments since the initial form in 1925. So, when the constitution offers religious freedom, it has no meaning because this section can be removed as easily as others have been.

When my Turkish friends assure me the country offers religious freedom, I believe them, i.e., I believe they believe this because since grade school they have been taught they do. But the Turks haven’t the slightest idea of what religious freedom is.