Erdoğan threatens Turkish Cypriot court over banning of Koran courses

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on Friday said the top court in the breakaway Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) would face consequences, news website Ajans Cyprus reported, following the court's recent ruling to ban Koran courses in the Turkish-controlled northern third of the Mediterranean island.

The court must quickly “amend its mistake, otherwise there will be repercussions with (Ankara taking) different steps”, Erdoğan said.

The Turkish president, speaking to reporters after Friday prayers, said TRNC's constitutional court “needs to learn what secularism is”, adding that the court's comments on Koran courses was not acceptable. Northern Cyprus “is not France”, he said.

Ankara will “not permit steps to be taken to impede Koran education” in Cyprus, Erdoğan said, urging the breakaway Turkish state to follow Turkey's lead in implementing religious education. “It is not possible for us to accept those steps taken by those unions who are enemies of religion,” he said.

Before Erdoğan commented on the matter, a spokesman for his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) called the top court's ruling a judicial coup that went against secularism.

The court’s decision came during increasing concern among Turks on the divided island that Turkey’s government was seeking to use its political and financial influence to push for more a religious population.

Turkey’s Presidential Communications Director Fahrettin Altun called the ruling the product of an ideological and dogmatic mind.

“This judicial coup against the freedom of religion and belief is not acceptable and everyone who respects democracy has to react,” Altun said in a statement on Twitter on Thursday.

On Wednesday, TRNC's constitutional court annulled a law allowing Koran courses to be organised by the Office of Religious Affairs, which acts under the influence of Diyanet, Turkey’s own directorate of religious affairs.

The court ruled that Koran education should be performed under state control and surveillance, said Hasan Esendağlı, the president of TRNC Bar Association, Yenidüzen newspaper reported on Thursday. 

Secularism guarantees freedom of religion and cannot be used as a tool to ban religious education, Altun said. “However, Jacobins use secularism to suppress religious values and cultural wealth.”

The main teachers’ union in Northern Cyprus had urged authorities to pay more attention to education, complaining that the TRNC had more mosques than schools, and that religious education was on the rise due to an increase in unlicensed summer schools and Koran classes.

The TRNC also gets its school textbooks from Turkey, which dropped evolution from the curriculum several years ago.

“This wrong decision is a threat to the existence and unity of the Turkish Cypriots,” Altun said. “Turkey will continue to stand by Turkish Cypriots with all its might and power and will disrupt this dangerous game played on them.”

The Mediterranean island has been divided since a Turkish invasion in 1974, prompted by a brief Cypriot coup aimed at uniting the island with Greece. The internationally recognised Republic of Cyprus controls the southern two-thirds of the island, and the TRNC, recognised only by Turkey, the remaining third in the north.

Since its foundation in 1983, the TRNC has relied heavily on financial assistance from Turkey. There is an increasing fear among indigenous Turkish Cypriots that the Turkish government seeks to Islamise and demographically re-shape the state through migration and other means. Turkey denies the accusations.