Fresh Religious Freedom Concerns Raised as EU Mulls Turkey's Membership

As the EU Commission released its Progress Report on Turkey’s preparations for EU membership last week, Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) highlighted two cases which raised fresh concerns over the implementation of the country’s religious freedom obligations.

The EU has issued a warning to Turkey, saying that if it does not open its ports to Cypriot ships by mid-December its EU membership talks may be frozen.

Meanwhile, CSW has highlighted the trial of two men charged with “insulting Turkishness” under article 301 of the Turkish penal code, which has been scheduled for Nov. 23.

Hakan Tastan, 37, and Turan Topal, 46, worked for a local Bible correspondence course, CSW reported. In October, Gendarme officials stormed Tastan’s residence with a search warrant. They then confiscated computers and documents from the two men’s office in Istanbul. The men were transported to Silivri, where they were interrogated by military officials and taken to the prosecutor.

The men have also been accused of inciting hatred against Islam, negating the Turkish Army, promoting sexual promiscuity, bribing Muslims to convert to Christianity and gathering personal information about people they are in touch with. They deny all charges.

In a separate incident, Odemis Protestant Church in Izmir was attacked with six Molotov Cocktails by a group of fifteen people last Saturday, CSW informed U.K.-based Christian Today. The church building was damaged in the attack, but no one was injured. While the incident has been reported to police, no investigation seems to be forthcoming and no arrests have been made.

The pastor of the church, Mehmet Sahin Coban, reported that the church has been a target of similar attacks and threats in the past. In the two weeks prior to the attack, groups of people had thrown stones through the windows of the church. This was reported to the police, but no preventative measures were taken. Instead the church was asked to close down to comply with city zoning laws.

This attack was reported in the local media in Turkey, while the arrests of Hakan Tastan and Turan Topal were widely reported in national press.

According to Christian Solidarity Worldwide’s National Director, Stuart Windsor, “Both incidents raise difficult questions over the extent of improvements on religious freedom in Turkey.

“The Turkish Constitution guarantees various rights for religious minorities, including the right to open places of worship and propagate beliefs, but the implementation of such legal provisions does not match Turkey’s obligations under national and international law,” he said. “As Turkey works to demonstrate its suitability to join the EU, it must prove its commitment to protecting the rights of religious minorities.”

The European Commission has given Turkey until mid-December to open its ports to Cypriot ships, or face unspecified consequences. The warning wasd set out in a report criticizing the pace of Turkish reforms in the year since EU entry talks began.

Turkey agreed last year to extend its customs union with the EU to Cyprus, which joined the bloc in 2004, but has not done so, with the result that Turkish ports and airports remain closed to Cypriot traffic.

The Commission said it will make "relevant recommendations" to EU leaders if Turkey does not meet its obligations towards Cyprus.

Correspondents say the leaders may opt to freeze Turkey's membership talks. The decision would be made at a Dec. 14-15 summit in Brussels.