“Turkey is a signatory of the European Convention on Human Rights, which entails religious rights. And all European countries have addressed this problem — legal personalities — not Turkey. It is hard to explain why Turkey does not address this issue,” said Gerald Knaus, chairman of the European Stability Initiative (ESI), at the Round-Table Conference on Freedom of Religion in Turkey and the EU Member States, held in İstanbul from Feb. 5-6, 2014.
Knaus referred to a 2010 report by the Venice Commission on the legal status of religious communities in Turkey and the right of the Orthodox Patriarchate of İstanbul to use the adjective “ecumenical.”
In the report, the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission said the recognition of the legal personality of religious minority institutions and communities established in Turkey is a major issue.
A member of Turkey’s Greek community said at the conference that the current Turkish government’s approach to the issue has been friendly, yet there is an attitude of superiority.
“The Greek patriarchate has no legal personality. In regards to the properties confiscated from the minority foundations, yes, they are given back — although there are some problems — but they are given back without an apology, and this giving back is done as if the government is granting a gift.”
Cengiz Aktar, senior scholar of the İstanbul Policy Center, agreed.
“This is Prime Minister [Recep] Tayyip Erdoğan’s style; he kind of donates or grants rights to people; but his decisions are not backed by legal and institutional guarantees. He tells people that ‘I’m in charge of your safety and security.’ This is a bit like in the Ottoman Empire,” he said.
According to historian and writer Herkül Millas, though the Justice and Development Party’s approach is more friendly than the Kemalists hard-line approach, it is not modern.
“This is a move from a Kemalist to an Islamist approach; it is not modern. It is a romantic movement related to the Ottoman era. It does not provide liberties to individuals but groups, as it was in the ‘millet’ system for people,” he said.
Another problem the participants discussed is the state’s control of religion in Turkey, where the Religious Affairs Directorate (Diyanet), Turkey’s top Islamic authority, only serves the needs of the country’s Sunni Muslim community.
“We need to have a modern understanding of citizenship and secularism,” Millas said. “Minorities are human beings. They want their citizenship rights; they do not want to be treated like subjects. Being treated like subjects is humiliating. “
Samim Akgönül, a professor from the University of Strasbourg, said that Turkey’s policy of minorities is one of domination.
“It’s time to go beyond the identity of religiousness and move to individuality of groups without identifying them with religion. Identity works against individuality and that is how it was in the Ottoman period. However, the right concepts should be based on free individuals, practicing or not.”
The conference’s participants have debated obstacles confronting reforms in Turkey; perspectives on religious freedom; and the state and Muslim affiliations in Turkey in the 21st century.