12/29/2005, 00.00
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Ankara is dragging its feet on new religious property legislation despite EU demands

The state of freedom of religion in Turkey is the real issue, says a human rights expert. Other points are minor by comparison.

Ankara (AsiaNews/Forum18) – For years, Turkey's parliament has been debating legislation on religious communities' ownership of property but has failed so far to adopt any law even though it is a condition for EU accession. At the root of the problem is the issue of religious freedom.

Under Turkey's Law on Foundations, only some non Muslim religious groups can own property. A new bill was presented in 2002 under EU pressures allowing non Muslim religious communities to keep what they already own (often rather precariously) and recover property taken from them over the past seventy years. However, the government's Directorate-General for Foundations recognises only 160 foundations. Since none of them belong to the Roman Catholic Church, Protestant Churches, Jehovah's Witnesses, and Baha'is, it is unclear what will happen to their respective properties.

The government has been reluctant to recognise new foundations fearing it might have to return all the properties seized from Christian and Jewish community foundations since the 1930s, according to Otmar Oehring head of the human rights office of the German Catholic charity Missio. Many of these seized properties—places of worship, but also community-owned schools, hospitals or land—were sold, and the government might have to pay compensation for the loss.

For Oehring, religious freedom in Turkey can be achieved by "changing the Constitution and bringing in an accompanying law to concretely introduce full individual and collective religious freedom rights." There would then no longer be a need for the peculiar arrangements that allow the government to avoid recognising this right.

At present, he notes, Art. 24 of the Turkish constitution only protects the right to worship. It includes no guarantees about the freedom to change one's faith or to join together with others in religious communities. No guarantee is given to religious communities' right to organise themselves freely as they choose, own property directly, and have legal recognition. That is why the constitution must fall in line with Art. 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), which guarantees full religious freedom.

This right includes freedom for individuals to change religion or belief, "and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief, in worship, teaching, practice and observance".

In its recent Proposal for the Accession Partnership 2005, the European Commission specified the following measures for Turkey to take:

·        it must fully protect "freedom of religion" by adopting a law comprehensively addressing all the difficulties faced by non-Muslim religious minorities and communities in line with the relevant European standards;

·        "suspend all sales or confiscation of properties" belonging to non-Muslim religious community foundations pending the adoption of the above law;

·        adopt and implement as soon as possible provisions concerning "the exercise of freedom of thought, conscience and religion by all individuals and religious communities in line with the ECHR, taking into account the relevant recommendations of the Council of Europe's Commission against Racism and Intolerance;

·        establish conditions for the functioning of these communities, in line with the practice of Member States, including legal and judicial protection of the communities, their members and their assets, teaching, appointing and training of clergy, and the enjoyment of property rights;

·        protect the right of each community to organise itself in ways other than as a foundation and to choose its leaders free from government interference. (The government has often removed individuals from boards of directors, something that the Armenian Apostolic and Greek Orthodox foundations know all too well.)

Finally, Oehring writes that "[t]here are indications that some parts of the [ruling] AKP leadership might understand fully what religious freedom means and do indeed want controls on religious communities to be lifted, but do not dare to express their views for fear of provoking the still powerful military." (PB)

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