Government’s Minority Policy: Let Things Drift

Neither the minority rights, nor the freedom of religion, faith and conscience enshrined in Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights, conformity to which is an obligation for Turkey, have really come to life.

Engin PAREV Istanbul – BÄ°A News Center07 February 2011, Monday First things first, it should be noted that the government set up by the Justice and Development Party (AKP) has taken unprecedented steps in terms of religious minorities – i.e. “Non-Muslim minorities” as the only religious minority group according to Turkey’s interpretation of the Lausanne Treaty.

Even saying “non-Muslim” is not easy nowadays. According to a news appearing in the media last summer, the Minister for EU Affairs and Chief Negotiator Egemen Bagis, taking into consideration the criticism made by a Christian clergyman, announced their decision to use the term “different faith groups” instead of “non-Muslim” in all the correspondences of the Secretariat General for EU Affairs.

Of course, in the meantime, the wheels of the State continue to turn, still using the Treaty of Lausanne against the minorities with the restrictive interpretation it has adopted for years, which serves the state well despite its wrongness.

AKP changed the Foundations Law in 2002 despite all the nationalist opposition in the parliament (Republican’s People Party + Nationalist Movement Party) and despite the state policy that confiscated the immovable properties of minorities on various grounds and excuses based on that ominous decision given by the Court of Cassation in 1974; with this change, AKP accepted, to a degree, the arbitrariness of this old practice.

Unfortunately, it is very difficult to explain in so short a space all those things done before 1974. The Foundations Law, changed three times since 2002, proved a partial improvement as regards the return of some of the minority properties, yet it falls short in completely righting the wrongs done over the long years.

Some immovable property categories were included within the Law’s scope, while a large portion of the properties of listed foundations were excluded from the return scheme, and an arrangement is yet to be made about the properties “transferred/sold” to third parties, which are said to have no place in the law.

Compared to the Turkish governments serving since the earliest days of the Republic and never giving an inch about these matters, this government has taken substantial steps in line with the European Union (EU) harmonization laws. These issues have now started to be discussed openly. All these have been positive developments that broadened the horizons.

Standstill period
For the last three or four years (you can extend the number of these years as you want) the government has almost entered a standstill period with regard to its minority policies. Instead of adopting a broadly inclusive and perpetual freedom of religion and faith and inclusive and long-term minority rights policies, the government chose to make some “nice gestures” about some specific minority issues, inventing a new “day-to-day” policy to manage the situation with these gestures.

As a consequence, many arbitrary practices were seen in the implementation of the law, and some were even referred to courts and went as far as the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR). This legislation that fails to bring clear freedoms is still used arbitrarily by various governmental organizations and also by the judiciary, an institution that has never changed its historical attitude and practices in these matters.

For example, with an amendment made in 2003 in the Development and Planning Law and called a reform, the term “mosque” was changed to “place of worship”, receiving applauds from the European Union and the communities following the harmonization laws.

However, in the seven years since that so-called reform, implementation of this law has rarely been seen. For years, no municipality has officially authorized the places of worship of Jehovah’s witnesses and Protestants, who continue their de facto existence, save for one exception. No municipality has been able to find a land approved for these groups within its provincial or district borders!

And the “high” judiciary, taking advantage of this uncertainty and lack of political resolution, continue to give rulings to close these places of worship, finding them unauthorized. You can find many similar examples of the problems faced by the protestant community in 2010 in terms of freedom of religion and faith.

In short, “letting the inadequate legislation drift” has become the dominant attitude of the government on minority policies in the recent years, and negative practices continued both in the government and in the judiciary.

Hence, neither the minority rights, nor the freedom of religion, faith and conscience enshrined in Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which Turkey is obliged to adhere to, have really come to life.

The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe has announced very recently that Turkey is one of the nine countries that show concern-raising delay in implementing the decisions of the ECtHR

Under the above-mentioned “nice moves “, the Armenian Surp Haç Church on the Aghtamar Island in Van was restored, some clergymen from minority communities were given work permits and those coming from abroad were given Republic of Turkey IDs. The Greek Orthodox service at the Sumela Monastery in Trabzon was held for the first time since 80 or so years. The Greek orphanage in Buyukada, confiscated for years and abandoned to rot, was given back with the decision of the ECtHR (though the ECtHR decision had to be implemented in any case!).

Although these are surely positive moves, Turkey’s religious minorities or other religion and faith groups were not provided with perpetual and inclusive freedoms.

The government built its policies solely on well-timed point gestures. It did not take any steps to ensure that the seminaries, which are vital in order for these communities to be able to raise their clergymen, were opened, neither did it leave it to the communities to decide on their own patriarchs, as was the case with the Armenian community; it did not weed out the discriminatory practices in the education system, and it did not take the necessary legal and other measures to combat hate speech and hate crimes.

In the numerous political murders that have deeply injured the hearts of many, no culprits have been found in the four years passing since other than the triggermen, either in the murder case of Hrant Dink, which was kept alive by the efforts of his family, the civil society and his lawyers, or in the murder case of the three Christians ruthlessly killed in Malatya.

Despite the fact that almost all aspects of these events are clearly and publicly known unlike other political murders taking place in Turkey, the cases are still open.

In particular regarding the murder of Hrant Dink, in the last four years a parliamentary committee report was penned along with a report from the Prime Ministry Inspection Board; in both of these reports, it is stated that the information that the murder was to take place was known beforehand by the intelligence units of all relevant bodies and that there was a case of negligence.

The ministers and prime minister of the government and even the president of the republic, who finally lost patience, expressed their displeasure and embarrassment regarding the process. But thinking like us does not eliminate their responsibilities over the issue.

We shall see how the ECtHR decision of 14 September 2010 will be implemented.

There is no end to these examples. And this article can go on for pages after pages if we were to cover not only the religious minorities but also the problems of the Alevis, Caferis, Shafiis, Bahais and all other religion and faith groups and majorities and minorities. But since it is related to our main subject, let us take a look at this final example.

What is happening to the Mor Gabriel Syriac Orthodox Monastery?
The purpose and title of this article was to draw attention to minorities who were left to “drift”. The government, on the one hand basking in the applause it has received as a result of the positive steps it has taken, on the other hand turns a blind eye and deaf ear to what is happening at the 1600 year-old Mor Gabrial Monastery on the Tur Abdin plateau, the most sacred place for the Syriacs in Turkey and in the world, near Midyat, and to the fact that the Monastery is left to the “valley of the wolfs”.

Yet the government knows very well that after the cadastral surveys started in the region in 2008, it has virtually left this historical and holy monastery to the mercy of the local ashiret (clan) leaders who also act in the capacity of village guards.

Suleyman Celebi, a member of this ashiret of village guards, is sitting in the parliament as an MP of AKP. Of course, in reality, the government chooses to be a mere spectator to this trend of coveting and confiscating the properties of not only the Monastery but also all the other Syriac Orthodox, Yazidi or -following the example of our Chief Negotiator- “different faith groups” and others.

Or shall we eventually blame the judiciary and accept all these as an order of the “independent judiciary”? There are many ongoing cases that have already put a snare on the spiritual and material existence of the Monastery; the cases are currently at the Court of Cassation.

Let’s say that the judiciary ended up giving unfavourable decisions in these cases – and maybe it really will-, and will approve the account given by cadastre officers who are afraid of the malice of these village guard ashirets; but what can one say about the cases initiated against the lands of this 1600 year-old monastery by the Treasury and the Forestry Administration using this excuse?

As far as we know, the Treasury works not under the judiciary but at the disposal of the state and the government.

There is hardly anyone who has not heard that the Syriacs all around the world, the EU countries, the other countries, the USA, the Council of Europe to which Turkey is also a party, and the parliamentarians in all of these countries are beating a path to the doors of these courts for the last three years; so, can anyone say that all the ministers of the parliament and MPs of the region are somehow unaware of all these? Did the attorneys of the Treasury initiate the cases of the Treasury in secret, without telling anyone? And in addition to all the other court cases? Furthermore, this matter is emphasized insistently in the EU Progress Reports of the last 3 years. It would be useful to take a look at the article by Dr. Otmar Oehring who has studied this issue extensively.

In the recent years, it has become popular to write colourful articles on the Syriacs and on the city of Mardin, with frequent touristic tours organized to the region and photos of the monastery printed in the weekend issues of newspapers; it is a good development, as people have started to know more about the culture in their own countries. Or did all those photos and images serve only to give a “taste of the past” within the scope of the pet minorities, with the public collectively turning a blind eye on the attempts to cut the life-blood of the Syriacs, except for perhaps a handful of concerned writers?

That is why we chose such a title for this article! How else can we explain the excessive elasticity of the laws that can be pulled either way, leaving the judiciary to rule whatever it wants, and the filing of law suits against the remaining lands of the monastery by the administration? We will leave them to your judgement as hard facts that are difficult to explain side by side with all those “nice moves “… (EP/EÃœ)