Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Religious Groups Call on Turkey to Draft Secular Constitution
A number of religious groups' leaders who gathered on Monday to introduce a study on the demands of various religious groups in Turkey said that the new constitution of the country should be secular.
"This is a Sunni state because the Religious Affairs Directorate sponsors only the affairs of Sunni adherents of Islam. No Jewish, no Christian, no Alevi can get a cent from the huge budget of the directorate. There is no such secular state in the world," said İzzettin Doğan, the head of the Cem Foundation, an Alevi organization.
Speaking at the release of the study, "Belief Groups in Turkey: A new framework aimed at issues and demands," hosted by the İstanbul Policy Center at Sabancı University and its Education Reform Initiative, Doğan emphasized the importance of being neutral, non-discriminative and maintaining an equal distance to all belief groups in a secular state.
"The Religious Affairs Directorate should be restructured from A to Z to include all religious groups," Doğan added and said that their work will help to push the government to not put its intentions to make a new constitution aside.
Tosun Terzioğlu, the rector of Sabancı University, who opened the meeting that was attended by religious leaders of almost all faiths in Turkey, said that a new and pro-freedoms constitution is necessary in today's Turkey, which has been going through a process of transformation.
A debate for a new constitution has been ongoing in Turkey, which still has the military-sponsored Constitution of 1982 that came after the Sept. 12, 1980 military coup that restricts many individual freedoms -- including freedom of religion.
Speaking also at the opening of the meeting, Turkish Syriac Catholic Bishop Yusuf Sağ called on all representatives of the Turkish Parliament to keep an equal distance to all citizens in Turkey regardless of their belief system.
"When we demand such a constitution, we demand our basic rights as citizens, we don't ask for a favor," he said.
Some lawmakers from the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) and the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party), including Ali Özgündüz and İbrahim Yiğit, were present at the introduction of the study started by the Alevi Foundations Federation (AVF) and supported by İstanbul Bilgi University researchers Ayhan Kaya and Özge Genç. Representatives from many belief groups addressed in the study include Catholic, Protestant and Apostolic Armenians; Jews; Greek Orthodox; Catholic and Orthodox Assyrians; Bahá'ís; Protestants; Yazidis and Sunnis; and Alevi and Shia Muslims, including Hanefis, Shafi'is, Alevis, Nusayris, Mevlevis and Caferis.
One of the most important findings of the study is that there is no institutionalization when it comes to the relationship between the state and various belief groups.
"There is a lack of legislation to establish, organize and direct those relations," the study states indicating that interviewees point out that representatives of belief groups have had "closer" and "warmer" relations in recent years with high-level state officials, however, those relations usually remain at a personal level and there is difficulty in making them institutionalized.
"That means that the Turkish Republic does not have policies regarding belief systems based on democratic institutions and legal ground," the study emphasized.
Another problem noted in the study when it comes to relations between the state and belief groups is that since many religious organizations do not have a legal personality in Turkey, relations go over religious leaders; therefore, relations of religious groups with many state institutions -- the Directorate General for Foundations (VGM), governors offices, municipalities, land registries and development committees -- are problematic.
As a result, the study suggests that the issue of religious freedom should be handled in line with the decisions of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR). For example, the ECtHR ruled last year in a case filed by a Turkish citizen who is a member of the Alevi community that listing religions on identity cards, whether obligatory or optional, is in violation of human rights.
The report's suggestions included that opening places of worship should be a right; the state should take initiatives regarding handing down religious beliefs from one generation to another, religious leaders' selection and education; beliefs and members of religious groups should not be seen as threatening elements to societal and cultural security, and they should be treated as Turkey's historical and cultural richness; and all religious groups should be treated equally without discriminating against them.

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