Turkish prime minister takes new initiative on Christian rights

Turkish prime minister takes new initiative on Christian rights

The head of the Turkish government has ordered local officials to do more to protect the rights of Christian and other non-Muslim religious minorities, such as by returning their confiscated properties and taking action against anti-Christian groups.

“Although their legal situation has begun to improve as a result of reforms, there are still problems in practice,” Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in a decree published in mid-May.

“I therefore urge all state organs to uphold the rights of the Christian and Jewish minorities, to behave with respect towards their clergy and to act decisively against all publications inciting hatred and discrimination,” stated Erdogan.

The document was published on 13 May in the government’s official gazette, five days after a Syriac Catholic church at Iskenderun was handed back for religious use after being used as an erotic cinema for half a century. The decree said lands expropriated from non-Muslim religious groups should be returned as soon as possible, while care should also be taken to ensure cemeteries for minorities were maintained and protected.

“Non-Muslim Turkish citizens must feel fully valued as citizens of this country – they should not be treated as lower than others,” said Erdogan, whose action in passing the decree was reported by Turkey’s Anatolia news agency.

“These communities are an inseparable part of the Republic of Turkey,” the prime minister said. “They have a constitutionally guaranteed right to equality in maintaining their identity like all its other inhabitants.”

Christian minorities have frequently complained of discrimination and hostility in Turkey, most of whose 71.5 million inhabitants are Sunni Muslims.

At an August 2009 meeting with the Istanbul-based Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomeos I of Constantinople, as well as with Jewish, Armenian and Syrian Orthodox leaders, Erdogan said Turkey had experienced problems in its “democratising efforts”. He  added that his government had opposed “ethnic and religious nationalism” and had kept an equal distance from rival religious groups.

In October, the European Commission warned Turkey it needed to better protect religious rights if it still hopes to join the European Union by 2015. That came after the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the rights of Orthodox and Protestant congregations had been violated through the denial of opportunities for property ownership and legal registration. [394 words]

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