Turkey only NATO member singled out in U.S. religious freedom report

(Edited to cite Tuğba Tanyeri Erdemir and Aykan Erdemir's article.)

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has recommended the State Department to return Turkey on a special watch list for “engaging in or tolerating severe violations of religious freedom,” according to the commission’s annual report.

As analysts Tuğba Tanyeri Erdemir and Aykan Erdemir noted in a piece for Providence Magazine, the designation suggested on the USCIRF's 2020 report singles out Turkey as the only country among NATO’s 30 member states with religious freedom concerns.

“Throughout 2019, members of Turkey’s various religious and ethnic minority communities faced both threats of violence and actual violence, including at least two killings,” the 104-page report said.

It cited the stabbings of Christian missionary and South Korean citizen Jinwook Kim on the streets of the southeastern city of Diyarbakır and an Armenian citizen at her front door in Istanbul, two months after a message arranged in the shape of a cross was posted on the wall of her home, containing profanity and referring to the residents as “infidels”.

The USCIRF also highlighted the need for U.S. diplomatic staff to track religious minority communities’ efforts to “open, regain, renovate, and protect places of worship and other religious sites of spiritual, cultural, or historic importance,” while also working with the Turkish government to “ensure the protection of such sites.”

“In several instances in 2019, Armenian, Assyrian, and Greek religious and cultural sites, including numerous cemeteries, faced severe damage or destruction – in some cases because of neglect, but also due to vandalism or state-endorsed construction projects – while Alevi holy sites in the (central) province of Sivas faced similar threats after the government issued mining permits for the surrounding area,” it said.

The commission called for the U.S. government to “exert significant pressure on Turkey to provide a timeline for its withdrawal from Syria,” while ensuring that neither its military nor its Syrian allies “expand their area of control in northeast Syria.”

The USCIRF also asked the Trump administration to prevent Ankara from carrying out “religious and ethnic cleansing” in that area, or “otherwise abuse the rights of vulnerable religious and ethnic minorities there.”

“Religious minorities in other areas that Turkey seized earlier, such as Afrin, continued to experience persecution and marginalization, especially displaced Yazidis and Christians,” the report said.

Turkish troops, backed by Syrian armed groups, seized the Kurdish-majority town of Afrin in March 2018, after a two-month campaign carried out to combat what Turkey said was the threat posed to its territory by the People’s Protection Units (YPG), a Syrian Kurdish group that had controlled the district since Syrian government forces withdrew in 2012.

Turkey and its Syrian allies have denied reports of any deliberate ethnic cleansing or intention to expel the Kurdish population, but say the mass displacement of Kurds following Afrin’s capture was a by-product of the fighting.

Following the Turkish government’s 21-month imprisonment of pastor Andrew Brunson, whose incarceration led to U.S. sanctions and the subsequent 2018 lira crisis, has prompted USCIRF to recommend the passing of a U.S. law that advocates “the release of United States citizens and locally employed diplomatic staff unlawfully detained in Turkey” and calls for the U.S. president to impose sanctions on senior Turkish officials.

Ankara targeted some of the detained U.S. persons “in connection with religion or belief”, a violation that calls for “the imposition of sanctions on responsible Turkish officials”, the USCIRF said.