Non-Muslim minorities inclined to say ‘yes’ in referendum

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non-muslim-minority1.jpgDeputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç was seen he came together with religious leaders of minority groups in a breakfast in March.
As the nation prepares to vote for a constitutional amendment package in a referendum on Sept. 12, non-Muslim minorities in Turkey are inclined to say “yes” to the reforms, which are expected to improve Turkish democracy. They generally feel that more changes are necessary, however, to more fully democratize the country.

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The ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government has taken major steps to save the country from its current Constitution, which was drafted under martial law after the Sept. 12, 1980 coup. Like many civil society groups, non-Muslim minorities have widely expressed the view that the proposed constitutional changes don’t go far enough but still represent a considerable step in the right direction.

According to Ara Koçunyan, editor-in-chief of the Armenian daily Jamanak, published in Ä°stanbul, non-Muslim minorities will benefit from the proposed government reforms. “The referendum means that there will even more changes to come,” he told Today’s Zaman. Koçunyan also added that the Turkish-Armenian community is going to vote with the grander vision of further changes in mind. “The members of the Armenian-Turkish community approach the issue with great awareness of citizenship. They are aware of the process of change in Turkey, and supporting that kind of a process is natural for minorities,” he said.

Non-Muslim minorities applaud the government’s initiative to create a new civilian constitution that will expand individual rights and freedoms but they also say that more reforms are needed

He said that the Turkish-Armenian community is the largest minority group in Turkey with a population of approximately 60,000; out of this group most live in Ä°stanbul.

For Aris Nalcı, editor of Turkish-Armenian weekly Agos, the issue of the upcoming constitutional amendments is a personal matter as he had to leave Turkey when he was an infant because of the military coup in 1980. He says: “My mother had to leave Turkey [during the coup] when I was just 40 days old. When we came back two years later, I didn’t know my father,” he said.

He further asserted that Turkish-Armenians were among the groups who suffered the worst during the Sept. 12 coup and wants to push for further amendments.

He finds this process to be groundbreaking and inspirational. “Constitutional change is about touching an untouchable, a taboo. It’s a step forwards for broader change,” he said.

Nalcı feels that most Turkish-Armenians will vote for the amendments.

The Sept. 12 coup d’état was the third coup in Turkey’s history and arguably its bloodiest. The coup came after a period of ideological and armed conflict on Turkey’s streets during the second half of the 1970s. An estimated 5,000 people were killed during the violence.

After the coup in 1980, the military ruled the country through the National Security Council (MGK) before democracy could be restored. Some 600,000 people were reportedly detained during this period and more than 200,000 tried, 10,000 stripped of their citizenship and 50 executed. Hundreds and thousands were tortured or went missing.

These tragedies are the ones which Denis Ojalvo, an international relations expert from İstanbul’s 20,000-plus Jewish community, would like to emphasize, stressing that positive change is often born from despair. Ojalvo says that while the Sept. 12 military coup led to the horrible suffering of minorities, the military intervention later brought them relief.

He argues that politically speaking, the most important issue for Turkey right now is that the executive branch should become independent of the legislative branch. Political leaders should take the lead of the people who voted them in. “This points at handicaps in our political parties’ laws and the election system. Since the political parties do not want to lose absolute control over their organizations, they do not solve this problem. Submitting a constitutional reform for a referendum without tackling that basic problem is like a black humor to me,” he said.

He added that the “judiciary-military tutelage” seems to have been replaced by an “executive tutelage” with the proposed changes to the Constitution.

The 1982 amendments to the constitution were voted in by referendum in June 1982. The first elections were held in 1983, out of which came a single-party government under Turgut Özal’s Motherland Party (then ANAP, now ANAVATAN).

Kezban Hatemi, a minority rights lawyer, reminds us that many civil society groups have joined efforts to launch a referendum campaign called “Yetmez ama evet” or “Not enough, but yes,” claiming that it reflects the views of non-Muslim minorities in Turkey as well as regular citizens.

She said that what they are expecting from the government as the next step is a brand new civilian constitution which will broaden individual rights and freedoms.

Hatemi also pointed out that the government has taken great steps towards addressing the concerns of minorities, something that harmonizes well with Turkey’s goal to join the European Union. “This is the first time that non-Muslim minorities have had a fresh breath of air,” she said.

Hatemi elaborated by drawing attention to the issue of confiscated properties which have yet to be returned to their rightful owners, “This problem has not yet been solved, but there have certainly been improvements.”

Hatemi said that she didn’t think that non-Muslim minorities would follow the path of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), which opposes the change. She stressed that it was Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the new leader of the main opposition CHP, who took the Foundations Law to the Constitutional Court be overruled. It was later passed in favor of the minorities.

Laki Vingas, head of the Greek Schools Foundation, however, says that it is wrong to place the AK Party and the CHP against each in the referendum issue. “If the CHP had proposed the same changes,” he says, “I would still say ‘yes’ to them.” He added that the Greek community overwhelmingly approves the constitutional amendment package.

“We need to say ‘yes’ on Sept. 12. Saying ‘no’ would give strength to coup supporters,” said Mihail Vasiliadis, editor-in-chief of Apoyevmatini, a weekly Greek newspaper that caters to the Greek community of approximately 2,500 in İstanbul.

According to Vasiliadis, non-Muslim minorities seem to support the constitutional amendment package in general.

When it comes to the Syriac community’s feelings regarding the reform package, Daniel Gabriel, human rights and the United Nations nongovernmental organization director of the Syriac Universal Alliance (SUA), said that the Turkish government could do much more to encourage the kind of democratization necessary to join the European Union, especially with respect to the protection and empowerment of all minority groups in Turkey. “The SUA sincerely applauds the Turkish government call for constitutional change,” he said in a written statement from Europe.

He feels the current amendment package is “more symbolic than real,” adding, “It’s truly one step forward and two steps back.”

He asserts that ethno-religious minorities such as the Syriacs in Turkey will still not benefit from the long-awaited changes. “This is regretful because September 12, 2010 could be a defining moment in Turkish history. Here is a great opportunity for the Turkish nation to really align itself with EU democratic principles and not miss another chance. The flotilla has sailed and it’s called ‘True Democracy.’ The Syriac Universal Alliance asks Turkey to get on board before it’s too late,” he said.

Nevertheless, Zeki Basatemir, on the board of directors for the Syriac Catholic Church Foundation in Turkey, said they will vote “yes” in the referendum because this is the first time they feel that the politicians in Turkey have been interested in helping them solve their problems. “Most of the Syriacs think that the reform package is good,” he says, “We will vote ‘yes’ with the sentiment of ‘pacta sunt servanda,’ or ‘agreements must be kept’,” he said.

29 July 2010, Thursday

YONCA POYRAZ DOÄžAN Ä°STANBUL

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