Turkey lashes out at U.S. over religious freedom report

Turkey has condemned a U.S. commission report on religious freedoms in the world, which stated that religious freedom in the country remained deeply troubling in 2018, pro-government TRT Haber reported.

The state of religious freedoms in Turkey is raising serious concerns about the further deterioration of conditions in the year ahead as the government continues to crack down on the Gülen movement, discriminate against the Alevi community and interfere in the affairs of the Armenian and Greek Orthodox churches, the 2019 annual report of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom said.

Hami Aksoy, spokesman of the Turkish foreign ministry, on Wednesday blasted the report for “describing the members of FETÖ as Sunni Muslims facing persecution,’’ in reference to the Gülen movement. Aksoy said the report was “biased, dislocated from reality and written under the influence of … evil groups.’’

Followers of U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gülen, accused by Ankara of orchestrating the July 2016 coup attempt, continued to be dismissed from public service, detained, and arrested in the tens of thousands, the report said, over alleged complicity in the failed putsch, or involvement in terrorist activity.

Ankara maintains the Gülen movement is a terrorist organisation.  The government of Erdoğan, once allied to the movement, has since the coup attempt dismissed some 130,000 civil servants for alleged links to the group and thrown some 50,000 alleged members in jail.

The Turkish government has failed to address long-standing religious freedom issues, the report said, while increasing the demonization and a smear campaign by government entities and pro-government media, all of which play a part in the growing climate of fear of religious minority communities.

The government of Erdoğan has interfered in the affairs of such communities by way of ‘’disallowing patriarchal elections for the Armenian Apostolic Church and maintaining its requirement that Greek Orthodox metropolitans obtain Turkish citizenship in order to participate in the church’s Holy Synod,’’ it noted.

Meanwhile, government officials also continued to engage in anti-Semitism by way of public statements and comments made on social media platforms, the report highlighted, underlining that pro-government newspapers and media outlets propagated hate speech targeting Christians and Jews.

The country’s Alevis, who combine Shi’ite, Sufi, and Sunni traditions in their practice, don’t receive equal funding from Turkey’s Religious Affairs directorate, whose state proposed a budget increase is 36 percent, it said.

The Alevi community has been long waiting on the promise of the legal recognition of their cemevis, or place of worship. 

The return of expropriated religious properties and state-mandated religious education for primary and secondary students are among the other longstanding religious freedom concerns in the country, the report said.

Turkey has been engaging in or tolerating religious freedom violations that meet at least one of the elements of the “systematic, ongoing, egregious” standard for designation as a “country of particular concern,” or CPC, under the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA), the 2019 USCIRF said.

The USCIRF noted thus recommended to the U.S. government to urge Ankara to fully comply with the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) rulings on freedom of religion or belief, including by removing the field for religious affiliation on national ID cards’ microchips and recognizing Alevi cemevleri as legal places of worship and streamlining measures allowing non-Sunni Muslim faith communities to apply for government funding to support the construction.

It also recommended that Ankara is urged to rebuke government officials who make anti-Semitic statements or other derogatory statements about the country’s religious communities.