Turkey sees uptick in religious freedom violations

There has been a marked increase of reported violations of religious freedom in Turkey in 2021, and a lack of interest by authorities in pursuing cases involving Christian victims coupled with a disregard for the country’s churches, Washington-based rights organisation International Christian Concern (ICC) said.

Government regulations prevent access to churches for traditional Christians, with the buildings being seen a source of income by the state and society, some being transformed into mosques, the ICC said in an article published on its website on Monday.

In July, Turkey reopened Istanbul’s iconic Hagia Sophia to Muslim worship after the country’s highest administrative court ruled that the building’s 1934 conversion into a museum in by modern Turkey’s founding statesman, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, was illegal. While the transformation made international headlines, the state has quietly been moving to transform other historic Christian structures.

Some envisaged changes include the restoration of Saint Michael Church in Trabzon province for the purpose of reopening as a museum later this year, the destruction of St. Toros Armenian Church in Kütahya province and plans to transform the Holy Trinity Armenian Church in Konya province into an arts centre, the ICC said.

Meanwhile, trials involving members of the country’s Christian minority have been placed on the backburner, the organisation stressed.

The trial of Syriac monk Father Sefer Baleen, on charges of supporting terrorism for sharing food with a member of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), has been delayed, it said. Bileçen faces between two and 15 years in prison if found guilty of the charges.

In another case involving the disappearance of an elderly Christian couple Hurmüz and Şimuni Diril, there has been no serious investigation by Turkish authorities in identifying and holding accountable the culprits, according to the ICC.

The Syriac couple, residents of the only Christian village of the town of Beytüşşebap, Kovankaya (Mehri), went missing on Jan. 7, 2020.

Turkish authorities launched an unsuccessful search and rescue operation for the Dirils. It was not until two months later, on March 20, 2020, that the dismembered body of Şimoni was found. But the whereabouts of Hurmüz remain unknown.

“We have observed Turkey’s religious freedom violations increasing for a period of years,” the ICC cited Claire Evans, ICC’s Regional Manager for the Middle East, as saying. “The rapid escalation of these violations within the past several weeks is very concerning, and they run parallel to comparable escalations in countries where Turkey has a military presence.”