Turkey is among the first Muslim countries to react to the outcome of the Swiss referendum. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, head of the moderate Islamist Justice and Development Party, had harsh words, calling the outcome a “sign of an increasing racist and Fascist stance in Europe.” Turkish President Abdullah Gul said the vote was a "disgrace" for Switzerland. Turkey’s Minister for EU Affairs Egemin Bagis made an appeal to Muslims on Hurriyet in which he asked them to withdraw their money from Swiss banks, and urged his compatriots to choose Turkish banks.
“The doors of Turkish banks are wide open,” he said. Switzerland should “backtrack on this wrong decision” to ban minarets. “We need to empty Swiss banks coffers,” he said
As opposed to such heated reactions, other voices in Turkey have called on Turks to look into their own nasty little past. “Switzerland may have acted badly, but . . . is the Church truly free in Turkey?” Turkish journalist Serkan Ocak titled his article in Radikal yesterday. In a clear analysis, he raised questions about religious freedom in his country, showing that, despite angry words by Turkish authorities about the racist scandal in Switzerland, it is practically impossible to build a new church in Turkey, or even return an old unused church to its original use.
“Since 2003 in accordance with a European Union directive and Turkey’s building code, it is possible to open a new church,” Serkan said. “In practice however, it is not easy to do.”
In his in-depth article, he gave an example of the situation. “The Protestant Church of Salvation applied for a permit to build ten religious buildings seven years ago, and is still waiting for one. The law says that authorisation can be granted to build churches but the power to grant the permit is left to district prefects, who are not inclined to issue any. Even in Ankara, the prefect turned down an application for a Protestant place of worship in Cankaya neighbourhood on the ground that “there is not enough space”.
In Turkey, a great number of restrictions apply to religious freedom. Serkan cites another example. In 2003, lawyer Orhan Kemal Cengiz obtained the authorisation for one or two buildings. However, even though “a right is recognised and granted to a minority, certain conditions are imposed that make it virtually impossible for that right to be exercised.”
Some time ago, “a circular was issued, saying that places of worship must cover at least 2,500 m2. It is obvious that this creates huge difficulties. The same applies to restoration work or architectural changes. According to the law, only foundations are entitled to carry out such work. Thus, using certain technicalities, issues are never solved. Because of this, the Catholic Church is still not recognised as a legal person.”
The situation concerning Saint Paul’s Church in Tarsus is also at an impasse. The building was turned into a museum years ago, but Christians want it back to use as a place of worship. Whilst pilgrims who visit the church for mass are no longer required to pay an entrance fee, problems remains and are quite real.
Mgr Luigi Padovese, president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Turkey and apostolic vicar for Anatolia, explains, “In addition to the practice adopted by Turkish authorities at the end of the Pauline Year, which forces groups to reserve at least three days ahead of time for any Eucharistic celebration, uniformed police have now begun entering the church during functions; ostensibly for “security reasons”. If at least they would come in plain clothes to avoid causing any alarm among pilgrims. Turkish minister of Culture and Tourism had raised hopes when he said that this “museum” in Tarsus could become a church again, but now no one knows when the situation will actually change.”
Many promises were also made to the Orthodox Church, but nothing has been done. Despite Erdogan’s nice words when he met on 15 August of this year the Greek Patriarch Bartholomew I and the heads of other religious minorities, the Orthodox theological school of Halki has still not reopened after it was shutdown in 1971. More importantly, there is no sign it will be reopened anytime soon.
The problem in Turkey runs deeper than seeing parallels between the fate of minarets and Church bell towers. Since 2002, the Turkish government has been reassuring the Vatican and the Orthodox Patriarchate that steps would be taken towards respect for religious freedom.
Even though Turkey’s secular constitution guarantees everyone complete freedom of worship irrespective of religion, Christians continue to have a hard time finding a church that is open. Many of them also continue to experience social discrimination and so choose not to show their religious identity in public.