Turkey, considered a key U.S. ally in the war on terror, has been placed on a U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) list of worst religious offenders, alongside countries such as Iran, Iraq and North Korea – once known as the "axis of evil," a phrase coined by former U.S. President George W. Bush in the wake of 9/11.
In the last few years, Turkey was present on USCIRF's watch-list of countries that might be committing religious suppression, but its latest report, released in March and covering the period between April 1, 2011 and Feb. 29, 2012, has placed the Eastern European nation on its list of "countries of particular concern" category for its "systematic and egregious limitations" of religious freedoms.
This now puts Turkey in the same category as the "axis of evil" governments, along with Tajikistan, Myanmar, Egypt, Eritrea, Nigeria, Pakistan, China, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Vietnam.
The main reason for Turkey's placement on the list has been cited as the country's treatment of its Christian minority, which is constantly targeted and discriminated against. Christians are a distinct minority in Turkey – the CIA World Factbook reveals that Muslims make up 99.8 percent of the near-80 million population, while Christians and Jews account for only 0.2 percent.
Religious attitudes in Turkey in general are notably conservative – 59 percent of those who responded to a survey in 2009 said that members of other (non-Muslim) faiths should not even be allowed to hold meetings or publish literature about their beliefs.
Open Doors USA, an organization that exposes persecution and injustice committed against Christians worldwide, ranked Turkey as number 31 on its list of top 50 countries where persecution of Christians is most severe.
USCIRF is an independent, bipartisan U.S. federal government commission, whose members are appointed by the president and leadership of both political parties in the Senate and the House of Representatives. The commission's vote on Turkey only passed by a 4-5 margin.
However, as reported by Today's Zaman, a publication focused on Turkish news, USCIRF members who voted against Turkey's inclusion on the 15 worst-offender countries list said that there are no records with regard to Turkey's regression on religious freedom. They also insist that the country can even be a model for Arab Spring nations looking toward a more democratic government.
They argued that according to the U.S. Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which is aimed at preventing laws that substantially burden a person's freedom to exercise their religion, there needs to be systematic breaches of freedom of religion, including detention and torture of people for a country to be classified in such a way.
Namik Tan, Turkey's ambassador to the U.S, has also expressed his disapproval over his country "unjust" classification.
"Any independent perspective would acknowledge that Turkey does not belong to the place the commission designates for it. Listing Turkey among 'countries of particular concern' is unjust and unexpected," the ambassador said, according to the Anatolia news agency.
The USCIRF decision, however, has reportedly been welcomed by some Greek Orthodox Americans, who recalled longtime abuses against Orthodox Christians in what is considered a historic heartland of Eastern Orthodoxy.
"Turkey hasn't been tolerant," said the Rev. Alexander Karloutsos, assistant to Archbishop Demetrios of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America.
"Our seminary remains closed. We can't educate our clergy. We don't have a legal personality in Turkey and neither does the Catholic Church, Protestant churches, the Armenian Church, the Jewish community," he added.