Turkey’s Jewish community lacks freedom of religion and belief

Non-Muslim citizens of Turkey, including members of the Jewish community, suffer from institutional violations of their freedom of religion and belief, according to a 2022 report titled “A call to move from aspirations to actions: follow-up report on the right to freedom of religion or belief in Turkey.

The detailed report published by the Norwegian Helsinki Committee’s Freedom of Belief Initiative notes that the Jewish community and its representative institutions in Turkey face systematic problems in areas such as the lack of legal entity status , lack of public funding for their religious services, government interference with their right to appoint their religious leaders, and government refusal to return their seized property, among other abuses.

The report explains that one of the main problems faced by non-Muslim communities and their representative institutions such as the patriarchates or the chief rabbinate is that they do not have legal personality or legal entity status. Thus, these religious institutions:

  • Cannot access the justice system;
  • Cannot open a bank account, buy property or enter into contracts;
  • Cannot officially employ their own religious leaders and provide them with social security;
  • Have no means of coordinating activities or investments related to their common life and future, as they cannot form representative institutions or supreme councils with legal status.

This is why, the report continues:

“Individuals belonging to religious or belief groups organize themselves into associations or create foundations with religious aims, although these too are subject to limitations. Significant restrictions continue to hamper the associational capacity of non-Muslim community foundations. Foundation board elections have been hampered since 2013. As a result, the functioning of community foundations and beneficiary communities continues to be crippled and weak. These community foundations administer and fund non-Muslim community properties such as churches and synagogues, schools, hospitals, and other charities. They are a lifeline for these communities.

Substantial government interference in the internal affairs of the Jewish, Armenian, and Greek Orthodox communities “continues with regard to the organization, appointment of religious leaders, and use of their titles.” In Turkey, non-Muslim communities “remain subject to different laws and practices regarding the appointment of religious leaders or spiritual leaders,” the report notes.

Meanwhile, mandatory religious culture and ethics (RCE) classes create problems and pressures for Jewish and other non-Muslim children on many levels. One includes government recording of citizens’ religions in population registers or identity cards:

“National smart ID cards include a field for religion. Individuals can enter their religion or beliefs in this field “according to their preference” or leave this field blank. … Information about the beliefs of individuals is considered qualified (sensitive) personal data and should therefore be protected in accordance with personal data protection law. Only authorized public officials can view this information. Ultimately, however, their ability to see a list of a religion other than Islam, or an empty field, presents the risk of discrimination on the basis of religion or belief.

“Furthermore, for Jewish and Christian students, there is a real risk of discrimination. They are forced to reveal their religion or beliefs. These students, in order to benefit from the right to an exemption from compulsory courses in religious culture and ethics, cannot leave the religion field blank in their identity card. The General Directorate of Religious Education of the Ministry of National Education (MNE) sent a memorandum to provincial governors in 2015 ordering that in order to be exempted from RCE courses, students receiving education in primary and secondary schools, other than schools for religious minorities, should have their religion recorded on their identity document in the religion section. Children whose religion field is empty in their file are required to take the RCE courses. Consequently, individuals are caught between having to declare their religion and having to take the RCE class.

The required RCE course also teaches Judaism and Christianity from a completely Islamic perspective. According to Islamic belief, Judaism and Christianity are distorted versions of Islam, but not authentic religions.

The report notes:

“Essential principles and practices of Christianity and Judaism are extensively included in the Grade 11 textbook. However, the assumption from the Islamic point of view that the scriptures constituting the main sources of Christianity and Judaism have been “altered” looms large in the book. This approach undermines their legitimacy and rejects their principles and practices. According to Christian and Jewish theologians in Turkey, the information presented is based on inaccuracies and incompatible with the fundamental teachings of Christianity and Judaism.

Non-Muslim communities are also subject to official inequality in the public funding of their religious services. The enormous power and budget of the country’s main Sunni institution and the absence of any public funding for the religious services of non-Muslim institutions paint a fairly clear picture of the extent of the inequality.

The Directorate of Religious Affairs (the Diyanet) is an official state institution that manages affairs related to the religion of Islam in Turkey. It was established in 1924. Yet it reached the peak of its activities and budget under the rule of the Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP). The institution trains and employs all of Turkey’s imams and muftis, who are also civil servants. Its workforce exceeds 138,000 imams and other officials and has a budget of over 16 billion Turkish liras (about $1.1 billion) in 2022.

The report notes that the religious services provided by the Diyanet are funded by taxes paid by all citizens. There is no tax exemption option. However, non-Muslim citizens, including Jews, “do not receive any public funding despite contributing to the state budget through their taxes. These communities depend on donations from their members.

Public funding of religious services is thus ensured only for the Sunni Islamic community. “This is in contradiction with the prohibition of discrimination and with the obligation of the State to respect the principle of equality”, notes the report.

Non-Muslims, including Jews, also face discrimination regarding their right to manifest their religion or beliefs through religious symbols and/or dress. “The [Muslim] the headscarf is the only religious symbol authorized for civil servants or pupils of primary schools, colleges or high schools. Other religious symbols like the kippacross or Zulfikar [Alevi symbol] are not permitted,” the report explains.

There is also inequality in terms of official recognition of Muslim and non-Muslim religious holidays. The Feast of Ramadan (Eid al-Fitr) and the Feast of Sacrifice (Eid al-Adha) are officially recognized as national holidays. However, important religious days for non-Muslims, including Rosh Hashanah, are not part of national holidays in Turkey.

In the meantime, the government’s refusal to return the property it confiscated from its non-Muslim citizens remains a major violation of the victims’ property rights and freedom of religion. Thousands of non-Muslim properties, including cemeteries and Jewish schools, have been seized by the Turkish government over the years.

The Foundations Act of 1935, for example, placed both Muslim and non-Muslim foundations under guardianship. “This paved the way for community foundations to be appended (mulhak) foundation status,” according to the report. “This status has given the VGM [the General Directorate of Foundations] extended powers over these foundations, removing their autonomous legal status. The next step was therefore the seizure of these foundations and their properties.

Even decades later, “for non-Muslim communities, the process of returning unjustly taken community foundation property is not over; the damage has not yet been fully repaired,” the report adds.

Antisemitic hate speech targeting Jews also remains a serious problem, the report notes: “The Jewish community is frequently targeted on social media with insults, hatred and defamation. Despite complaints from the community, public authorities and social networks such as Twitter and Facebook have failed to address these issues.

When Israeli President Isaac Herzog arrived in Turkey on March 9 for an official visit, for example, some Turks targeted him and Israel with anti-Semitic hate speech under the hashtag “#Defol Herzog,” which means “#Get Out, Herzog”.

The report gives another example from 2021. In response to protests by professors and students at Istanbul Boğaziçi University against the government, a medical professional named Cemil Kandemiroğlu wrote on Twitter, addressing protesters: “ You are all disgraceful. You are traitors. You are Jewish. May Allah damn you, InsALLAH.

“The Jewish community condemned Cemil Kandemiroğlu’s post using the term ‘Jew’ as a synonym for traitor and dishonorable, and wishing God’s damnation on the Jewish people, on Twitter on June 18, 2021 and filed a complaint with the prosecutor” , notes the report.

When Turkey was founded in 1923, the Jewish population was around 81,000. Following decades of persecution that includes a pogrom, discriminatory tax policies that targeted only Jews and Christians, and other serious rights abuses, the country’s current Jewish population has fallen below 15,000 out of a population total of about 85 million. Given all the discrimination and anti-Semitism in Turkey, it’s no wonder the vast majority of Jews born in the country voted with their feet and immigrated to Israel.

Uzay Bulut is a Turkish journalist and political analyst formerly based in Ankara. She is currently a research student in the MA Woodman-Scheller Israel Studies International Program at Ben Gurion University in Israel.

Sharon P. Juarez