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Threats to Religious Freedom in Turkey

By November 3, 2016December 16th, 2019Student Staff, Turkey

I am currently working on a Center for Global Justice project related to promoting religious freedom in Turkey.  Turkey, while a predominantly Muslim nation, is Constitutionally committed to being a secular nation.  Turkey’s Constitution guarantees freedom of religion, assembly, association and expression, among other rights (PDF). Turkey has also signed a number of international human rights agreements, including the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).  Under Turkey’s Constitution, international agreements have the “force of law” in Turkey (Article 90).  The ECHR also guarantees freedom of religion, expression, assembly and association:  Generally, freedom of religion encompasses the right to practice one’s religion both publicly and in private, alone or in a group.   

Despite Turkey’s commitment to secularism and religious freedom, both nationally and internationally, there are a number of concerns regarding religious freedom in Turkey.  Although Turkey does not have an official state religion, it exercises official state control over religion.  The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), in its 2016 annual report, notes some positive developments in Turkey, but states:
“No religious community, including the Sunni Muslim majority, has full legal status and all are subject to state controls that limit their rights to own and maintain places of worship, train clergy, and offer religious education. Other concerns relate to the compulsory religious education classes in public primary and secondary schools, the listing of religious affiliation on national identity cards, anti-Semitism, threats against Turkey’s small Protestant community, and denials of access to religious sites in the Turkish-occupied northern part of Cyprus….Under the Turkish interpretation of secularism, however, the state has pervasive control over religion and denies full legal status to all religious communities. This limits religious freedom for all religious groups and has been particularly detrimental to the smallest minority faiths. Official control of Islam is through the Presidency of Religious Affairs, and of all other faiths is through the General Directorate for Foundations.”  ( 
As a minority religion in Turkey (there are fewer than 150,000 Christians in Turkey, according to USCIRF), Christians may face challenges in Turkey.  Open Doors USA reports that the Directorate General of Foundation verbally ordered a city’s church building to be vacated in 5 days.  As the only church building in a city of 2 million people, it is shared by 4 congregations.  Although the order was later rescinded, the article states, “Under Turkish law non-Muslim, significant legal hurdles face faith communities that attempt to register an officially sanctioned house of worship. Multiple congregations often share the same space due to these challenges.” (

In July of 2016, Turkey endured a failed coup attempt.  The Catholic Register reports that “More than 300 people were killed and another 2,100 injured when soldiers tried to take over the Turkish parliament in Ankara and other key institutions.”  Since the failed coup, “At least 6,000 people have been arrested in Turkey on suspicion of being associated with Hizmet and Gulen, those allegedly behind the coup. Close to 3,000 military personnel, 2,700 judges and thousands of teachers and university academics have been fired.”  According to BBC, the Hizmet movement is a Muslim network, inspired by Fethullah Gulen, who “promotes a tolerant Islam which emphasizes altruism, hard work and education.” (  The Catholic Register states that Hizmet “reflects Gulen’s modern take on the mystical Sufi Muslim tradition.”  

Quoting Andrew Bennett of the Cardus Christian think tank, the Catholic Register states:
“When the Turkish government starts clamping down on a particular strand of Islam, it can only further marginalize other religious minorities, including Christians, Jews and Alevis…Freedom of religion has always been tenuous for Turkish Christians and Jews, who have had their properties seized by the state.”
Quoting Intercultural Dialogue Institute executive vice president Fatih Yegul, the Catholic Register reports,
“It has always been the Sunni Muslim ideology, that’s always been the dominant thing…But with these new developments for the past three years — with the government purging and putting pressure on free media, putting pressure on freedom of expression, etc. — one interpretation of Sunni Islam is becoming more and more dominant. Which of course can be interpreted as a threat against freedom of religion.” ( 

The Voice of the Martyrs states,
“This secular republic is now ruled by an Islamic party, and some are concerned by the growing authoritarianism of the prime minister… Active Christians face hardships ranging from job loss to physical violence and even death. All religious communities are subject to state controls, which limit the right to own places of worship, train clergy and offer religious instruction.” (
The research I’ve done so far has been educational, as I’ve been able to learn about an area of the world that, prior to beginning this project, I knew very little about.  I am hopeful that our project will be influential in helping Turkish people understand and assert their rights, particularly their rights to religious freedom. 

This post was written by a Center for Global Justice student staff member.  The views expressed in this post do not necessarily reflect those of Regent University, Regent Law School, or the Center for Global Justice.