Although Turkey's current government has taken "significant steps" in support of religious liberties, its system of regulating religious groups remains problematic, according to the co-chairman of the U.S. Helsinki Commission.
At a briefing on religious freedom in Turkey, the Helsinki Commissions Christopher H. Smith said he applauded efforts by the predominantly Muslim nation to bring its legal system into conformity with Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) commitments on religious freedom.
The current government has taken significant steps to improve conditions for the enjoyment of religious liberties, steps that were unthinkable just a few years ago, the Republican congressman from New Jersey said, as he addressed the Apr. 12 hearing in Washington, D.C.
However, "there are important areas still requiring close attention and urgent action," he added, citing in particular Turkey's system of regulating religious groups, the loss of important religious properties through government expropriations, and the difficulties meeting openly that protestant and evangelical groups are experiencing.
According to Smith, Protestant and Evangelical groups are experiencing problems in meeting openly despite reforms that purportedly allow non-Muslim religious communities to build churches and buy property.
Groups without legal standing or unable to afford these options cannot meet in other locations, such as private homes or rented facilities, as authorities have actively sought to close these meeting places under the pretext of zoning laws, Smith stated. Worse yet, the reforms are enforced in varying degrees depending upon the will of the local officials.
The congressman also noted that the Armenian Orthodox Church had suffered the loss of important properties through government expropriations.
Similar to the situation of the Greek Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox and Catholic Churches, the Armenian Orthodox Church has lost much under current laws that enable the government to assume direct administration of properties that fall into disuse when the size of the local community falls below a certain point, he said.
Last September, Turkey did adopt regulations to improve the way the size of a religious community is gauged and to give communities with legal status the ability to acquire new property, Smith noted. However, the loss of property has done much damage to the church and the legislation does not allow for the reclamation of properties unjustly expropriated by the State.
In closing, Smith again acknowledged that Turkey had done much to earn a date to begin negotiations with the European Union and urged the Government of Turkey to continue its good work and redouble efforts to fully respect the rights of individuals and their communities to freely profess and practice their faith.
Also testifying at the hearing in Washington were: Merve Kavakci, former member of the Turkish Grand National Assembly; Rev. Fr. Vertanes Kalayjian, Armenian Orthodox Church; Van Krikorian, Turkish-Armenian Reconciliation Commission; Barry Jacobs, American Jewish Committee; and Jeff King, President, International Christian Concern.
The U.S. Helsinki Commission, which is also known as the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, is an independent federal agency that monitors progress in implementing provisions of the Helsinki Accords. The Commission is composed of nine Senators, nine Representatives, and one official each from the Departments of State, Defense and Commerce.