by Harut Sassounian
In a recent article, I wrote about the US State Department’s annual report on International Religious Freedom, which stated that “all religious groups that are not Sunni Muslim suffer discrimination and persecution in Turkey…. Religious minorities said they continued to experience difficulties obtaining exemptions from mandatory [Islamic] religion classes in public schools, operating or opening houses of worship, and in addressing land and property disputes. The government restricted minority religious groups’ efforts to train their clergy….”
Immediately after this report was issued, the Turkish Foreign Ministry rejected it calling the documented violations of religious rights “a repetition of certain baseless claims.”
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan sought a stronger rebuttal of the State Department’s accusations against Turkey, even though he usually ignores all complaints about his country’s flagrant violations of the human rights of its own Turkish citizens as well as those of its minorities and even Americans such as Pastor Andrew Brunson. Erdogan immediately ordered his aides to orchestrate a joint statement signed by all non-Muslim leaders in Turkey, claiming that their religious rights are not violated. Since these non-Muslim leaders are hostages in Turkey, they had no choice but to sign the petition that was prepared for them by the Turkish government.
While it would be easy for us to criticize these minority leaders for misrepresenting the violations to which they are subjected, this argument should be balanced by the fact that they live under a brutal regime that has no qualms about jailing and torturing not only religious leaders but also their community members. We should also be somewhat gratified that President Erdogan, despite his despotic nature, has exhibited a rare sensitivity on the accusations against his country, and has valued the statement issued by the non-Muslim leaders, thinking that it would help Turkey look good in the eyes of the international community.
As directed by President Erdogan, the representatives of 18 non-Muslim minority groups in Turkey submissively signed the joint statement on July 31, 2018, claiming that their rights are not violated by the Turkish government.
The statement falsely declared: “As religious representatives and foundation directors of the ancient communities of different religions and belief groups that have been living in our country for centuries, we live our beliefs freely and we freely worship according to our traditions. Statements claiming or implying that there is repression are completely false. The various problems and times of victimization in the past have reached solutions over time. We are in continual communication with our state institutions, who meet the issues we wish to advance with good intentions and a desire for solutions. We are making this joint statement consciously out of the responsibility to correctly inform public opinion.”