06/10/2024, 13.11
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Turkey, Constitutional Court: Expulsion of Protestant leaders does not violate freedom of faith

The Protestant community, with more than 170 communities scattered throughout the country and 8,000 adherents, was in the crosshairs. For the judges, expelling or banning entry on the basis of intelligence reports does not constitute a violation of religious practice. A majority decision, opposed by the former president. In the meantime, there is renewed talk of a possible reopening of the Greek Orthodox seminary in Halki in the near future. 

Istanbul (AsiaNews) - The expulsion by government authorities of Protestant leaders and pastors heading Churches on the basis of secret service reports ‘does not constitute a violation of freedom of religion’. This is what the Constitutional Court has ruled in a majority decision taken in recent days that reopens more than one question about the practice of worship.

The Protestant community is in the crosshairs, with more than 170 communities scattered throughout the country and which, for years, have been reporting critical issues and abuses: denied requests, revoked residence permits and forced deportations are just a few examples.

Nevertheless, for the judges, the government and administration acted in accordance with justice and there would have been no ‘violation’ in prohibiting the entry or stay of religious leaders who, in response, launched a protest by taking the matter to court.

The Directorate of Immigration Management applied the restrictive code N-82 against already resident Protestants, which entails ‘prior authorisation’ for entry. The enforcement was taken for reasons of public order, security or health, in line with reports by the National Intelligence Organisation (MIT) describing ‘missionary activities’.

Residence permits were revoked, deportation orders were issued against some and those who went abroad for holidays were not allowed to return to Turkey. The religious officials then took the matter to the judiciary, but already in the first and second instance there were no grounds for finding violations and the decisions were ‘in accordance with the law and procedure’.

According to the judges, it was possible to apply for a special permit or visa at the entrance. 

Hence the decision to appeal to the Constitutional Court, with the hypothesis of violations of freedom of religion, which were, however, rejected in this case as well, with the green light for ‘proportionate’ intervention in cases where the activities were ‘missionary’ in nature.

Actions that, the judges go on to say, may endanger ‘public order, security, the rights and freedoms of others or other values that prevail in the balancing act’.

Among the critical (and opposing) voices was that of former Constitutional Court President Zühtü Arslan, who recalled that freedom of religion is guaranteed by Article 24 of the Constitution. ‘In a democratic society based on pluralism, the duty of the State,’ he pointed out, ‘is not to accept that some of the various worldviews or beliefs are “wrong”, but to take the necessary measures to allow individuals to live according to their worldviews and beliefs’.

Today, there are more than 8,000 Protestants in Turkey, mostly ethnic Turks, with 170 churches or congregations concentrated mainly in Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir, which, in 2009, formed the Association of Protestant Churches.

The aim is to ‘be an organisation of sharing, representation and solidarity’ of the country's Protestant reality, creating a place of ‘unity and cooperation’ as well as ‘monitoring and determining’ the ‘legal position’ before the laws of the Turkish Republic. To date, Protestants are not allowed to train their own clergy within the national education system, which is why some are led by foreign pastors.

According to the latest 2023 report, the majority of the 33 religious workers were marked with the code N-82, meaning ‘foreigner whose entry is subject to prior authorisation’, and the remainder with the code G-87, meaning ‘person who may pose a danger to general security’.

Religious officials were therefore forced to leave Turkey or were not allowed to re-enter the country. According to the association's data, since 2019, 250 people have been prevented from entering, denied permission to stay or deported, including US citizens Amanda Jolyn Krause, Benjamin Charles Mclure, Helmut Frank and Matthew Vern Black.

Finally, after years of stalemate, the dispute over the Greek Orthodox seminary (and theological school) in Halki, one of the many theatres of contention between Greece and Turkey closed by Ankara in 1971 but which could soon reopen, seems to have broken down.

This was reported by the daily Karar, according to which the resumption of activities would be linked to the second wave of government reforms initiated after the local elections on 31 March. Education Minister Yusuf Tekin, with a delegation, visited the area on 29 May for a meeting with officials of the Ecumenical Patriarchate and the Greek Orthodox community. Earlier, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis had discussed the matter, with the former reiterating the ‘efforts’ underway for the reopening. 

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