Date:  May 24, 2021

Four Christian charities have urged the United Nations Human Rights Committee (UNHRC) to act in order to help persecuted Christians in Turkey.

The four groups – European Evangelical Alliance, World Evangelical Alliance, Middle East Concern, and the Turkish Association of Protestant Churches – cite examples of institutionalised discrimination against, particularly, Protestant Christians.

Their report poses a series of questions which the UNHRC should ask of Turkey, including queries about what measures are in place to support fair procedures for pastors faced with deportation, what routes are available for churches to seek legal recognition, and what steps have been taken to ensure that individual Christians can freely practise their faith.

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The government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (here pictured reciting Islamic prayers at Hagia Sophia) has been accused of institutionalised discrimination against Christians

The report notes Turkey’s own legal guarantee of freedom of religion (Article 24 of the Turkish constitution) as well as that of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) to which Turkey is a signatory.

Turkey, however, has declared an exception to Article 27 of the ICCPR which is intended to guarantee the rights of minorities to practise their own religion, an exception which the report argues results in Protestant Christians “being marginalised and subject to the whims of national and local authorities”.

Refusal to recognise churches and church meeting places

Churches in Turkey are often prevented from obtaining legal recognition as a “religious congregation” or from having church buildings and meeting places officially recognised as places of worship.

Many historic church buildings have, the report explains, “been appropriated by the state”, with unregistered churches refused access. At the same time local authorities often refuse to grant official recognition to alternative venues.

The report also cites the travel restrictions and deportations imposed on overseas pastors and church ministers in what it refers to as a “systematic campaign to label foreign Protestants as security threats”.

In February 2021 Pastor Michael Feulner, a German citizen who has worked in Turkey for more than 20 years, was threatened with deportation on the grounds of national security. Since early 2019 approximately 70 overseas Christians have been expelled from Turkey as threats to national security.

This official attitude to pastors from overseas creates particular problems for Turkish congregations given that “Turkish legislation does not make provision for the training of Christian clergy either in private establishments for higher religious education or through the public education system”.

Suspicion and Hostility

This situation is caused by an ingrained suspicion and hostility towards Christians, especially Protestants, which is encouraged by the Turkish government.

“Protestantism is seen as a Western and alien construct,” explains the report, “and continues to be viewed with suspicion by Turkish society at large.”

The report gives the example of the Turkish school curriculum, in which Christian evangelism and missionary activity is viewed as a threat to Turkish culture and a national security threat.

The population of Turkey is 99% Muslim, the majority of whom are Sunni. Islam is a strong part of Turkish identity. Protestants are mainly converts from Islam or the children and grandchildren of converts. The wider Christian community are ethnically non-Turkish and are historic Christians, descended from those who converted to Christianity many centuries ago, some even from the first century; they still bear the trauma of the Armenian, Assyrian, Syriac and Greek genocides of the early twentieth century, in which at least 3.75 million believers were killed by Ottoman Turks.

Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is increasingly open about his ambitions to spread Turkish Islamic influence, as if to re-establish the Ottoman Empire. In summer 2020 Erdoğan ordered two historic buildings in Istanbul – Hagia Sophia and The Church of the Holy Saviour – originally Christian churches, then mosques, and latterly museums, to be turned back into mosques.

In March 2021 a report from the US Department of State confirmed the role of Turkey in supporting Azerbaijan’s war against ethnic Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh.

In April the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) added Turkey and Azerbaijan to its special watch list (SWL) for “engaging in or tolerating severe violations of religious freedom”.