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Analysis: Turks edge toward faith freedom

By UWE SIEMON-NETTO, UPI Religion Editor   |   Feb. 11, 2003 at 6:26 PM   |   Comments

WASHINGTON, Feb. 11 (UPI) -- Turkey gradually seems to adjust its religious freedoms to European norms as it tries to win acceptance into the European Union, a top Roman Catholic expert told United Press International Tuesday.

"Curiously, Christians and radical Islamists in Turkey favor their country's attempt to get into the EU because they know the Turkish authorities would have to play by its rules," said the Rev. Hans Voecking, Islamic affairs adviser to the Conference of Catholic Bishops in Europe.

While there is little discrimination against Jews and most Christians in daily life, according to a U.S. State Department analysis, religious freedoms in Turkey are far from complete. For example, neither members of religious minorities nor radical Islamists may become officers in the military or attain senior positions in the state bureaucracy, Voecking related.

The reason for this is the secular nature of the Turkish state. "The Turks would like Europeans to believe that their country adheres to similar principles as France (whose constitution affirms the strict division between church and state). This is not quite so," explained Voecking, a member of the White Fathers, a missionary order.

To begin with, the government's Directorate of Religious Affairs, called the Diyanet, oversees Muslim religious facilities and education, the State Department reports. Some groups claim that the Diyanet reflects only the beliefs of the Sunni Islamist mainstream.

It regulates the operation of the country's more than 70,000 mosques, whose imams are civil servants, as are the muftis (religious jurists). Many of the sermons delivered every Friday from Turkish pulpits were written at the Directorate, Voecking said.

Helmut Wiesmann, a senior official in the Catholic Bishops Conference of Germany, claimed in a recent article in Herder Korrespondenz, a Catholic publication, that the Diyanet employed 123,000 people from theologians to cleaning men. According to Voecking, the government finances more than 20 university-level Muslim divinity schools.

"Mosques are mushrooming all over the place, often paid for by Saudi Arabia," he continued, "while no new churches are allowed to be built and the cost of the renovation of olds ones must not exceed $400." United Press International tried to verify these and other claims in telephone calls to the press and religious affairs counselors at the Turkish Embassy in Washington Tuesday. They did not return UPI's calls.

The State Department says that 99 percent of the 65.6 million Turks are Muslims, primarily Sunnis. However, some 12 million Turks adhere to the Alawi Muslim minority, an offshoot of Shiite Islam. Their religious leaders do not receive government salaries.

The Alawis claim that their doctrines are not taught in the religious instruction classes that are mandatory at secular schools for all Muslims and also members of those Christian denominations that are not covered by the 1923 Lausanne Treaty between the Turkish government and the Greek Orthodox, the Armenian Orthodox and the Jews.

This means that young Protestant and Catholic pupils at primary and secondary schools must submit to instruction in the Islamic faith. The same applies to young members of the ancient Syrian Orthodox (Syriac) Church, which -- like the Chaldeans (Assyrian Christians affiliated with Rome) -- have been caught in the Turkish-Kurdish conflict in southeastern Anatolia, according to Freedom House scholar Paul Marshall.

Most of its members have fled to Istanbul and other large cities, where they have no churches of their own. They may not build new sanctuaries and if they use the churches of denominations recognized by the Lausanne Treaty, these can be confiscated. Should they celebrate Mass in private dwellings, they risk arrest.

Wiesmann reported that Christians in Turkey were stigmatized by the numerical code 31 in their identity papers -- much as the letter "J" in passports or ID cards identified Jews in Nazi Germany. "This has stopped several years ago," said Voecking, with some satisfaction.

Perhaps it is worth remembering that more than 20 percent of all Turks at the beginning of the 20th century were Christians; today their share has dwindled down to 0.6 percent. Much of the decline was of course due to the genocide of between 500,000 and 1.5 million Armenian Christians immediately following World War I. There are no more than 45,000 Armenians left in the country.

The State Department, Voecking and Paul Marshall are cautiously laudatory about Turkey's advances in the area of religious freedom. But, as Voecking says, "much has to be done to make Turkey a pluralistic society according to European standards -- and that may take decades."

© 2003 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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