Turkey’s Jewish community lacks freedom of religion and belief

(May 3, 2022 / JNS) Non-Muslim citizens of Turkey, including members of the Jewish community, suffer from institutional violations of their freedom of religion and belief, according to a 2022 report titled “An Appeal to Move Forward From Aspirations to Actions: Monitoring Report on the Right to Freedom of Religion or Belief in Turkey.”

The comprehensive report published by the Norwegian Helsinki Committee’s Freedom of Belief Initiative notes that the Jewish community and its representative institutions in Turkey face systematic problems in areas such as a lack of a legal entity status, a lack of public funding for their religious services, the government’s interference in their right to appoint their religious officials and the government’s refusal to return their seized properties, among other abuses.

The report explains that one of the major problems that non-Muslim communities and their representative institutions such as Patriarchates or Chief Rabbinate face is that they do not have a legal personality or a legal entity status. Hence, these religious institutions:

  • Cannot access the court system;
  • Cannot open bank accounts, buy property or make contracts;
  • Cannot officially employ their own religious officials and provide social security for them;
  • Have no possible way of coordinating activities or investments related to their common lives and future, since they cannot form representative institutions or supreme boards that have legal status.

That is why, the report continues:

“Individuals belonging to religious or belief groups organize themselves as associations or establish foundations with religious intent, though these are also subject to limitations. Important restrictions continue to hamper the associative capacity of the non-Muslim community foundations. The foundations’ board elections have been obstructed since 2013. As a result, the functioning of the community foundations and the beneficiary communities continue to be paralyzed and weak. These community foundations administer and fund non-Muslim community properties such as church and synagogue buildings, schools, hospitals and other charitable work. They constitute a lifeline for these communities.”

Substantial interference by the government in the internal affairs of the Jewish, Armenian and Greek Orthodox communities “persists related to the organization, the appointment of religious leaders and the use of their titles.” In Turkey, non-Muslim communities “remain subject to different laws and practices regarding the appointment of religious officials or spiritual leaders,” the report notes.

Meanwhile, the compulsory Religious Culture and Ethics (RCE) courses create problems and pressures for Jewish and other non-Muslim children on many levels. One includes the government’s recording citizens’ religions in population records or identity cards:

“The chip-enabled national identity cards include a field for religion. People may record their religion or belief in this field ‘according to their preference’ or leave it blank. … Information on individuals’ beliefs is considered qualified personal data (sensitive) and therefore this information must be protected in accordance with the Personal Data Protection Law. Only authorized public officials may view this information. Ultimately, however, their ability to see a listing of a religion other than Islam, or a blank field, presents the risk of discrimination on the basis of religion or belief.

“Furthermore, for Jewish and Christian students, there is a real risk of discrimination. They are compelled to reveal their religion or belief. These students, to benefit from the right to an exemption from the compulsory Religious Culture and Ethics courses, cannot leave the religion field blank in their identity records. The Ministry of National Education’s (MNE) Directorate General of Religious Education wrote a memorandum to provincial governors in 2015 ordering that to be exempt from the RCE classes, students receiving education in elementary and middle schools, other than schools for religious minorities, would have to have their religions recorded on their identity documentation in the religion section. Children with a blank religion field in their records are required to take RCE classes. Therefore, individuals are caught between being forced to declare their religion and being forced to take the RCE class.”

The mandatory RCE course also teaches Judaism and Christianity from a completely Islamic perspective. According to the Islamic belief, Judaism and Christianity are distorted versions of Islam, but not authentic faiths.

The report notes:

“The essential principles and practices of Christianity and Judaism are broadly included in the 11th-grade textbook. However, the Islamic view’s assumption that the scriptures constituting the main sources of Christianity and Judaism have been ‘tampered with’ has an important place in the book. This approach undermines their legitimacy and rejects their principles and practice. According to Christian and Jewish theologians in Turkey, the information presented is based on inaccuracies and incompatible with the basic teachings of Christianity and Judaism.”

Non-Muslim communities are also subject to official inequality in public funding for their religious services. The enormous power and budget of the main Sunni institution of the country and the lack of any public funding for the religious services of non-Muslim institutions give a rather clear picture of the scope of the inequality.

The Directorate of Religious Affairs (the Diyanet) is an official state institution that administrates the affairs related to the religion of Islam in Turkey. It was established in 1924. Yet it has reached the peak of its activities and budget under the Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) rule. The institution trains and employs all of Turkey’s imams and muftis, who are also civil servants. Its labor force exceeds 138,000 imams and other civil servants and has a budget of more than 16 billion Turkish liras (around $1.1 billion) in 2022.

The report notes that the religious services provided by the Diyanet are funded by the taxes paid by all citizens. There is no option of tax exemption. However, non-Muslim citizens including Jews “do not receive any public funding despite their contribution to the state budget through their taxes. These communities rely on the donations of their members.”

Public funding of religious services is thus provided solely for the Sunni Islamic community. “This is in contradiction with the prohibition of discrimination and with the state’s obligation to observe the principle of equality,” the report notes.

Non-Muslims including Jews are also subject to discrimination concerning their right to manifest religion or belief through religious symbols and/or attire. “The [Muslim] headscarf is the only religious symbol that is allowed for civil servants or students in primary, middle or high schools. Other religious symbols such as the kippah, cross or Zulfikar [Alevi symbol] are not allowed,” explains the report.

There is also inequality in terms of the official recognition of Muslim and non-Muslim religious holidays. The Ramadan Holiday (Eid al-Fitr) and the Feast of the Sacrifice (Eid al-Adha) are officially recognized as national holidays. However, important religious days of non-Muslims including Rosh Hashanah are not part of national holidays in Turkey.

In the meantime, the government’s refusal to return the properties it has confiscated from its non-Muslim citizens remains a major violation of the property rights and freedom of religion of the victims. Thousands of non-Muslim properties, including Jewish cemeteries and schools, have been seized by the Turkish government throughout the years.

The 1935 Law on Foundations, for instance, placed Muslim and non-Muslim foundations under tutelage. “This paved the way for the community foundations to be given annexed (mülhak) foundation status,” according to the report. “This status gave the VGM [the General Directorate of Foundations] extensive powers over these foundations, removing their autonomous legal status. The next step, then, was the seizure of these foundations and their properties.”

Even decades later, “for non-Muslim communities, the process of returning community foundation property unjustly taken has not been completed; the damage has yet to be fully remedied,” adds the report.

Anti-Semitic hate speech targeting Jews also remains a serious problem, it notes: “The Jewish community is frequently targeted in social media with insults, hatred and defamation. Despite complaints from the community, public authorities and social networks such as Twitter and Facebook have not addressed these issues.”

When Israeli President Isaac Herzog arrived in Turkey on March 9 for an official visit, for instance, some Turks targeted him and Israel with anti-Semitic hate speech under the hashtag “#Defol Herzog,” which means “#Get Out, Herzog.”

The report gives another example from 2021. In response to the professors and students of Istanbul’s Boğaziçi University protesting the government, a health-care professional named Cemil Kandemiroğlu wrote on Twitter, addressing the protesters: “You are all dishonorable. You are traitors. You are Jewish. May Allah damn you, InsALLAH.”

“The Jewish community condemned Cemil Kandemiroğlu’s post using the term ‘Jewish’ synonymously with traitor and dishonorable, and wishing God’s damnation on the Jewish people, on Twitter on 18 June 2021 and filed a complaint with the public prosecutor,” notes the report.

When Turkey was founded in 1923, the Jewish population was around 81,000. As a result of decades-long persecution that include a pogrom, discriminatory tax policies that targeted only Jews and Christians and other grave rights violations, the current Jewish population of the country has fallen below 15,000 out of a total population of about 85 million. Given all the discrimination and anti-Semitism in Turkey, no wonder that the vast majority of Jews born in the country voted with their feet and immigrated to Israel.

Source: JNS