Turkey only NATO member put on special watch list in U.S. religious freedoms report

Turkey is the only country among NATO’s 30 members that the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has said should be added to a State Department special watch list over severe violations of religious freedoms, according to the commission’s annual report.

"In 2019, religious freedom conditions in Turkey remained worrisome, with the perpetuation of restrictive and intrusive governmental policies on religious practice and a marked increase in incidents of vandalism and societal violence against religious minorities," USCIRF said in its 2020 report released on Tuesday.

The commission cited the Turkish government's interference in the internal affairs of religious communities by preventing the election of board members for non-Muslim foundations and introduction of new limitations on the long-delayed election of the Armenian Apostolic Church’s patriarch. 

Since 2013, Turkey's government has obstructed non-Muslim community foundations from exercising their right to elect new board members, a right that is protected under the Lausanne Treaty, by failing to draft the election regulation it is legally obliged to draft. The government insists community foundation elections cannot take place without a government-drafted election regulation. 

Meanwhile, the government had prevented the Armenian community from electing a new patriarch. The Spiritual Council of the Armenian Apostolic Church elected an interim leader in 2017 since the existing patriarch had not been fulfilling his leadership duties since 2008 due to dementia, but the government declared the election void saying that the result might cause disturbance and divisions in society.

Following the patriarch's death, the Turkish Interior Ministry introduced a new regulation which included a stipulation that effectively ruled out 10 out of the 13 possible candidates.

Armenian, Assyrian, and Greek religious and cultural sites, including numerous cemeteries, faced severe damage or destruction due to the government's neglect, but also vandalism encouraged by governmental rhetoric, USCIRF said.

The disputes around turning former holy sites that hold legal status as a museum, including former Greek Orthodox sites Hagia Sophia and the Chora Museum, were also mentioned in the report.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has repeatedly signalled over the years that Hagia Sophia should be restored as a mosque to fulfil a long-standing demand by Turkish Islamists.

The Hagia Sofia was completed in 537 C.E. and served as the seat of the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople until 1453 when the Ottomans captured the city and turned the Hagia Sofia into a mosque. It was turned into a museum in 1935.

The commission also touched upon violations in Turkey-controlled regions in Syria.  

Formation of so-called "safe zone" in northern Syria established by Turkey and its Free Syrian Army (FSA) allies has precipitated the displacement of some ethnic and religious communities the territory, it said.

Meanwhile, Syrian militias defaced several holy sites of religious minorities in northern Syria, USCIRF said, adding that non-Muslim communities remained in a constant state of fear.

"Religious minorities in other areas that Turkey seized earlier, such as Afrin, continued to experience persecution and marginalisation, especially displaced Yazidis and Christians," it said.

"What happened in Afrin is concerning that it would be a precedent for what we might see happening in other parts of northeast Syria," Voice of America quoted USCIRF Chairman Tony Perkins as saying.

In a report published on Wednesday, VoA cited rights groups and detailed allegations of human rights abuses by Turkey and Syrian proxies.

The Turkish-backed Sultan Murad Division has been accused of kidnappings, including that of a 17-year-old girl. A 24-year-old woman was found dead in Azaz, a nearby town controlled by other groups backed by Turkey. These groups are accused of torturing and killing the woman, VoA said.

“The rule of law (in Afrin) continues to ebb and flow with the mood of local militia leaders,” Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Advocacy Director Philippe Nassif told VoA.

There are at least a dozen Turkish-backed militias in Afrin, VoA said, all of whom are frequently accused of crimes against the local population. Among the accusations are arbitrary arrests, property seizures and a haphazard imposition of taxes, according to former Syrian military general Ahmed Rahal. Civilians are targeted “for simply being Kurdish,” Rahal told VoA, and are accused of affiliating with the Syrian Democratic Forces, majority-Kurdish forces allied with the United States who controlled the province until the safe zone was established.