03/04/2004, 00.00
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Long, upward battle still ahead for religious freedom

Ankara (AsiaNews) – According to the US State Department's Feb. 25 annual report on human rights, persecutions continue to occur in Turkey in addition to discrimination and restrictions placed on religious minorities. Moreover the report says free religious expression is greatly limited in the country.

Religious freedom, within a wider perspective of human rights, is one of the problems Ankara must work on to smooth out its road to becoming a member of the European Union.  

In Nov. 2003 Guenter Verheugen, a pro-expansion EU commissioner, turned in a report presenting the progress Turkey had made in compliance with EU human rights standards. His opinion is considered important since it was the last before the European summit in October, when the Commission will say whether Turkey has fully respected the "Copenhagen Standards" established in 1993.    

The European standards involve verifying a country's institutional stability, democracy, status of law, human rights and protection of minorities. If Turkey gets the thumbs up, in Dec. 2004 the European Commission will decide if it will begin negotiations with the country to join the European Union.  

Verheugen's report says Turkey has made important steps toward improving conditions of democracy, especially on the legislative front. Yet it is says the country is still not fully in line with the Copenhagen Standards.

On the greatest problems the report points to is that of the reform of the country's legislative system, which must be in line with that of other EU members, especially in terms of its practical application. Even the Turkish minister of justice himself, Cemil Cicek, admitted that country is still is home to human rights violations and says that, despite having passed required laws, it is still very difficult to enforce them in real life.  

Concerning religious freedom, the report says that Turkey is still not subject to serious restrictions according to European standards. Yet, the document notes that both religious and Church officials have no legal status and cannot receive religious formation and instruction. Religious communities have no property rights and Muslim women are forbidden to wear headscarves in public offices, schools or universities.  

Turkey's constitution defines the country as a "legal, democratic, secular and social state respecting human rights", guaranteeing equality and religious freedom to all citizens without distinction of religion. It establishes that "no one can be forced to pray or attend religious services or ceremonies or disclose their own beliefs and convictions" and that "no citizen will be criticized or incriminated for his beliefs or convictions." A citizen's religious belonging, however, appears on his state ID card, yet there are no legal prohibitions placed on religious conversion.   

Turkey defines itself as a secular state, and yet Islamic religious instruction is mandatory for Muslims in the county's primary and secondary schools –with courses set by the government which supervises Islamic religious activities through its Religious Affairs Department.  Turkey has 76,000 imams and 9700 muezzin working as state officials. Meanwhile the state department checks on the activities of other religious minorities and their property dealings.      

The Catholic Church has not accepted being subject to control by the department. Hence it is not a state-recognized religious institution and has no legal status. Thus Church property is all under the names of individuals and the Church cannot purchase real estate. In order to restore ancient monuments and buildings the Church must obtain permission from the regional Office for the Protection Cultural and National Patrimony. Religious buildings, due to a prolonged absence of priest and faithful, once they are no longer used become state property.  

In Turkey it is illegal to open private religious schools –whether Muslim or of other faiths. This includes seminaries, novitiates and vocation centers. Religious services can only take place in authorized places of worship.  (MR)

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