Religious freedom in Turkey follows troubling trajectory - USCIRF

The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has placed Turkey on its Special Watch List for concerns over religious freedom in its 2021 Annual Report, U.S.-based Armenian Mirror-Spectator reported on Thursday.

Religious freedom conditions in Turkey continued to follow a troubling trajectory in 2020, according to the report originally released last month.

The conversion of the Byzantine cathedral Hagia Sophia back into a mosque was a move that many denounced as divisive and hostile to Turkey’s religious minorities, the report said.

Members of the ruling party and its coalition partner rejected efforts to recognise the cemevis of the minority sect Alevis as places of worship, and the government declined to resolve long-standing religious freedom concerns for Alevis, it said.

Alevi, Armenian and Protestant communities and organisations reported receiving death threats, whereas Jews described an increase in anti-semitism largely linked to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the report.

Throughout the year, authorities brought politically-motivated charges of ‘insulting religious sensibilities’ against individuals and groups, while others in official positions utilised rhetoric characterised as hate speech that denigrated nonreligious individuals and members of the LGBT community.

Religious sites -including places of worship and cemeteries- were subject to vandalism, damage, and, in some cases, destruction, which the government regularly fails to prevent or punish, according to the report.

USCIRF recommended that the U.S. Government “include Turkey on the U.S. Department of State’s Special Watch List for engaging in or tolerating severe violations of religious freedom”.

It encouraged the U.S. Government “to raise in all meetings with Turkish government officials and press at the highest levels for the reopening of the Greek Orthodox Halki Seminary” which has remained dormant since 1971 in Istanbul’s Prince’s Islands.

The U.S. Congress should incorporate consideration of Turkey’s treatment of religious minorities and broader human rights issues into its continued evaluation of the U.S.-Turkey bilateral relationship, USCIRF said.

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