Human Rights Issues in Turkey Highlighted as EU Membership Talks Approach

Ahead of the historical European Union accession talks with Turkey next month, the human rights situation of the predominantly Muslim nation has again been highlighted as a major obstacle.

Ahead of the historical European Union accession talks with Turkey next month, the human rights situation of the predominantly Muslim nation has again been highlighted as a major obstacle. Most recently, the President of Greece openly urged Turkey to respect religious freedom.

"If Turkey hopes to sincerely and substantially enter into the EU on the basis of its principles and values, it should adopt the fundamental principles of democracy," the Greek President Carolos Papoulias said as he greeted the visiting Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew I on Thursday, according to the Middle East Times.

Turkey’s membership in EU has provoked a vigorous debate. In the midst of many different opinions, the most fundamental and common concern regarding its entry to EU is the country’s poor human rights record.

In a statement issued by the EU last December, the bloc mentioned that in Turkey, "religious freedom is subject to serious limitations as compared with European standards."

Religious freedom is often under threat in Turkey, the most populous Muslim country in Europe with very small Christian communities.

According to the 2004 International Religious Freedom Report prepared by the U.S. Department of State, 99 percent of the population in Turkey consists of Muslims. The Turkish Government officially recognizes only three communities of religious minorities - Greek Orthodox Christians, Armenian Orthodox Christians, and Jews.

Under the law, religious services may take place only in designated places of worship; only the Government can designate a place of worship; and if a religion has no legal standing in the country, it may not be eligible for a designated site. Police occasionally raid unauthorized Christian gatherings meeting in private apartments.

Many churches in Europe had expressed vocal opposition to Turkey’s bid for membership in the EU. The president of the Bishops’ Conference of France Archbishop Jean-Pierre Ricard wrote a letter to the France President Jacques Chirac last December, stressing his concern that "some fundamental rights, in particular religious freedom, are not totally respected in Turkey, despite the reforms undertaken."

The archbishop also expressed his regret that "the opening of eventual negotiations with Turkey was not subordinated to complete respect for all fundamental rights, whether freedom of expression and association, the status of women, or religious freedom, rights that constitute the foundation of the European Union's cohesion."

CNN reported that before Pope Benedict XVI was elected as Pope, he had made statement showing his dismay to Turkey’s EU membership.

"The roots that have formed Europe, that have permitted the formation of this continent, are those of Christianity,” CNN quoted the then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as saying. “Turkey has always represented another continent, in permanent contrast with Europe."

"Turkey is founded upon Islam ... Thus the entry of Turkey into the EU would be anti-historical."

According to a report from CNN, the foreign ministry of Turkey said last Thursday it had invited Pope Benedict to make an official visit to the country in 2006. It is believed to be an attempt to gain the Pope’s support for the membership in EU.

On Sept. 23, an Istanbul court's decision to block a conference on the World War I massacre of Armenians embarrassed Turkey at a sensitive moment and angered EU states less than two weeks before the planned start of EU entry talks on Oct. 3, Reuters reported.

Turkey is alleged of carrying out a systematic genocide against Armenians in 1915 in an attempt to eliminate them and create a homogeneous Turkish state. Turkey has always denied the claim of killing the Armenians and said they were victims of a partisan conflict that also claimed thousands of Turkish lives.

The Armenian people had lived in the Turkey homeland for nearly 3000 years and were traditionally Christian.

"The absence of legal motivations and the (timing) of this decision a day before the conference looks like yet another provocation," Krisztina Nagy, the EU executive's spokeswoman for enlargement, said to Reuters on Friday.

Meanwhile, those supporting Turkey’s EU membership believe that the predominantly Muslim nation in the EU can become a bridge between Europe and the Middle East, therefore spreading stability and security, and promoting dialogue with the Islamic world.

Turkey has been waiting for the accession talk with the EU for 40 years since Ankara first signed an association deal in 1963. Last December, the 25-member bloc finally approved the talk, which is scheduled on Oct. 3, 2005.