08/28/2010, 00.00
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Undue interference in the choice of religious leaders

Turkey recognises only four religions: Sunni Islam, the Greek Orthodox Church, the Armenian Apostolic Church and Judaism. It also seeks to determine which religious leaders are elected. Foreign policy appears to shape its choices.

Ankara (AsiaNews/F18) – The Turkish government continues to interfere in who leads the Greek Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic and Jewish communities. It also determines who leads the Diyanet, the Presidency of Religious Affairs, the highest Islamic religious authority in the country, Forum 18 News Service reports. This violates the rights of each religious group.

The Turkish state recognises only four religions: Sunni Islam, Greek Orthodox Church, the Armenian Apostolic Church and Judaism. Other religions are neither recognised nor formally allowed; however, they are de facto tolerated. Moreover, no religious community in Turkey at present has independent legal status in its own right—which means for example that no religious community can own property.

The government chooses the head of the Diyanet. Other Muslim groups are not recognised. Even if they are tolerated, the latter can be banned at any given time.

Source told F18 that whilst each group can in principle choose its leader, "the procedures” by which they choose “is defined throughout the process, with changes in criteria as well as reciprocal negotiations" so that "each election is different".

Usually, each community submits a list of names and the Interior Ministry indicates those that are incompatible with existing regulations, whether the latter exist or not.

This does not apply to religious groups that are not recognised by the state like the Catholic and Anglican Churches. The latter are free to pick their leaders.

Turkish authorities have even claimed the right to decide what title religious leaders can use and how they can be appointed. For the Turkish government, Bartholomew I, the Ecumenical Patriarch, is only ‘Fener Rum Patrik’, i.e. the Patriarch of Fener, the Istanbul neighbourhood where he lives. In so doing, they can deny that the patriarch has any jurisdiction over Orthodox communities in other countries, in regions like eastern Greece or in the Diaspora.

A Turkish court in June 2007 ruled that Bartholomew held no ‘ecumenical’ jurisdiction outside Turkey, and that he was only the head of the local Greek Orthodox community. Even tough this had no impact on his status outside Turkey, it did cause widespread protests.

Similarly, the Turkish government has denied that the Armenian Patriarchate has any jurisdiction outside Turkey, for example over the tiny Armenian community on the Greek island of Crete.

In 2002, the authorities also set the rules for the election of the head of Turkey’s Jewish community. The chief rabbi must be a Turkish citizen, at least 40 years old, with the right religious training and be trustworthy in the eyes of the Turkish government. When the mandate of the chief rabbi expired in 2009, the elections take place only in may 2010.

The government also requires that all members of the ruling bodies of religious communities (Holy Synod of the Greek-Orthodox Church, the Spiritual Council of the Armenian Patriarchate and the Jewish Beth Din) be made up of Turkish nationals; however, it has not interfered when foreigners were appointed.

However, if a religious community decides not to follow government suggestions, things can get rough. This happened to the Armenian Apostolic community, which has some 60,000 members.

In 1998, Mesrop Mutafyan was elected patriarch against the expressed wishes of the Turkish authorities. Quickly, the new patriarch came under heavy pressures to resign. Eventually, this took a toll on him. As his health declined, he was increasingly unable to exercise his functions, raising the issue of a successor. The Church had hoped to hold elections on 12 May, but the government delayed in giving any response.

Eventually, the Interior Ministry wrote to the community on 29 June via the Istanbul Governor's Office, rejecting both the proposals put to it from within the Armenian community, arguing that Church regulations did not envisage the possibility of electing a new Patriarch while the incumbent was still alive or choosing a Co-Patriarch. It insisted that a Patriarchal Vicar-General, a post that did not exist in the Church hierarchy, be appointed. By such action, the government has provided a clear example of how it unduly interferes in a religious group’s internal affairs.

In the end, the Spiritual Council convened on 1 July and hastily chose Archbishop Aram for the newly-created post of Vicar General, in what is a clear sign that Armenians were not free to choose their top leader.

For F18, the Turkish state’s action preventing religious groups to choose their leaders freely is a violating of “freedom of thought, conscience and religion" as defined in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Article 9 of the European Convention of Human Rights.

Over last few decades, it appears that Turkey has not followed a single approach to the issue; instead, it has adopted different positions as a function of its foreign policy. This has meant that religious leaders have been chosen based on factors completely foreign to their respective communities and that the Turkish state has used relations with religious groups for political exchanges.

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