Cablegate: Religious Freedom Round-Up: Se Turkey

This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available.




E.O. 12958: N/A

1. (U) Summary: Members of the Protestant, Catholic and Muslim
communities in various cities in southeast Turkey report that
they are able to worship freely, but that the state continues to
restrict some aspects of their religious life. A Diyarbakir
pastor's acquittal last May on charges of worshiping in an
"illegal church" did not address the church's equally pressing
problem, a lack of legal status. Religious groups attempting to
gain legal status or regain lost properties continue to face
incommodious bureaucratic processes. In Adana, a representative
of that city's Jewish community, however, says that community's
biggest problem is its dwindling size in the region due to
emigration and self-selection, not "government problems." End

Protestants in Diyarbakir: no legal status

2. (SBU) The pastor of a Protestant church in Diyarbakir told
poloff in a September 3 meeting that his congregation of
approximately 60 members was able to worship freely, and was not
currently experiencing any harassment. At a May 2004 hearing,
he said, he had been acquitted of charges that he was operating
a church in an unauthorized building. In handing down that
decision, the judge cited a 1996 European Human Rights Court
precedent stating that sentencing someone for using a house as a
place of worship without government permission is a violation of
Article 9 of the European Human Rights Accord. (Note: In an
August meeting with poloff, a public prosecutor in Diyarbakir
asserted that the decision is an example of progress in the area
of religious freedom.)

3. (SBU) While the pastor welcomed the May decision that
allowed him to keep using the property for religious instruction
and worship, he is not completely satisfied as he and his
worshipers still do not have any legal status as a church. They
cannot legally hire any employee (such as a pastor) nor provide
benefits, for example. Moreover, they cannot own the property
in the church's name. The building they are using as a church
also serves as the pastor's home. If he should die, he asks,
how could he make sure it stays in the hands of his
congregation? The church does not receive state assistance for
electricity and water, as some other faith groups with legal
status do, nor does it have any space specifically allocated for
use as a cemetery for the community, he said.

4. (SBU) According to this pastor, groups wishing to form new
foundations must have at least one trillion TL (approximately
USD 665,000) before applying. (Note: Post has not yet been able
to confirm this independently. End Note.) Only one Protestant
foundation, he said, the Istanbul-based Bostanci Vakfi, was
formed prior to the establishment of that requirement. The
pastor said that there are approximately 70 churches dealing
with the same lack of legal status issue, and that
representatives of Protestant churches have formed a legal
commission that has been meeting in Izmir on and off for two
months to determine how to move forward. At this time they are
considering their best option to be forming an association
(dernek). It would be based in Ankara; there would be a number
of board members there and the churches would function like a
federation. He will keep us posted as they move forward in this

Catholic community in Mersin

5. (SBU) A Catholic priest in Mersin who has been in Turkey for
41 years (about 35 of them in Mersin) said that the church was
trying to form a foundation in order to be able to get title and
compensation for lost lands. He said that the church, which is
located adjacent to the Mersin Security Director's office and
municipality building, had lost its property (including its
cemetery) over the last few decades as Mersin grew, because its
properties were untitled by government decision and located in
growing urban areas. The property in Catholic Church use now
was limited to the church itself, an adjacent house and an
adjacent additional building. He said that the church had been
allowed land in a municipal cemetery when its dedicated cemetery
was lost and that it is "protected and respected" by

6. (SBU) He was not optimistic that the foundation would make
much headway and said that "the Turks do not have a concept of
reciprocity or give-and-take," stressing that he did not mean
that pejoratively, just that it was not their custom. Without
explicit, detailed agreements to restore individual laws, he
doubted that many religious institutions, regardless of faith,
would make progress because of institutional resistance and
Diyanet suspicion.

7. (SBU) He noted that the congregation was about 600-strong,
healthy, had had about 60 converts in recent years and is
largely self-supporting. He said that security officials were
allowing Christians in Mersin to have their religion revised on
their identity cards as "Christian" vice the automatic "Muslim"
entry recorded at hospitals, once church baptismal records
confirmed the Christian's petition for revision. He said that
is also occurring elsewhere in the Catholic community in Adana
(where it is quite small), Iskenderun (the Bishop of Anatolia 's
seat - others being Bishops of Istanbul and Izmir) and Antakya.

8. (SBU) The church had had little trouble receiving money from
abroad, he said, adding that its difficulties were in sending
funds out, and that the Papal Nuncio in Ankara had assisted them
on the occasions when this had occurred. He said these
financial issues were not major concerns; rather, his problems
lay in having to rely only on Catholic printed material
published in Istanbul, since law prevented it from entering from
outside Turkey, and gaining long-term residency and/or
citizenship for clergy working in Turkey. Twice, he said, his
requests for citizenship had been rejected despite being in
Turkey 41 years and he had only in 2003 received his first
5-year residency visa, having until then always received visas
in one or two-year increments.

Freedom to veil

9. (SBU) A senior Adana AK party leader asserted to PO in an
August meeting that "tolerance and freedom" are much of what AK
is about. "It is so important for us," he claimed. "There is a
large Sunni faithful population that feels controlled and
observed and limited by the State and this is part of what is
attractive about the possibility of freedom in the EU process,"
he explained. "Educating our women is important to us, but they
want, and we want for them, the freedom to study while wearing
turbans and receiving a modern education," he averred, adding,
"That is why the Prime Minister's children are in the U.S., as
are so many other AK Party members' female children. You care
about what they are learning, not what they wear. That is also
what we want." [Comment: Secular Turks disagree with this view
that the turban-style headscarf is purely a religious symbol;
secular Turks say Islamists use the headscarf as a political
symbol. End comment.]

Adana's Jewish Community

10. (SBU) A prominent Adana Jewish leader told PO in August
that the community's synagogue is safe and afforded protection
by the government. Istanbul congregations had urged the
community to take more physical security since last year, but
the group in Adana felt that the suggested costly physical
barriers would raise their profile and draw more attention than
their defensive contribution might merit. He said that the
synagogue had yet to receive free electricity, but also had not
tried to do so. It was not an issue to him. He said that the
small Jewish community here was concerned about the recent
criticism of Israel by PM Erdogan and hoped that it would be an
"isolated incident."

11. (SBU) He said the biggest issue was the dwindling of the
small Cukurova Jewish community as youth emigrate to Istanbul or
abroad. He mentioned that his nephews and nieces are in
Belgium, his son in graduate school in Chicago and his is
daughter married and in Istanbul. He said that Jewish faith is
"drying up" in Anatolia and predicted it will not last another
generation, but attributed this to "self-selection, not
government problems." He noted that rabbis infrequently come
down to Adana from Istanbul or abroad and welcomed any American
Jewish interaction from the small numbers stationed at Incirlik.

12. (SBU) Comment: There is broad room for improvement on
implementation of religious freedom reforms in Turkey. With the
bureaucratic obstacles that are placed in the way of some faith
groups attempting to obtain legal status, the Turkish state and
government send a negative message and create de facto
restrictions on religious freedom. And despite the acquittal of
Diyarbakir's Protestant pastor, that a case was opened against
him to begin with - for holding an unauthorized gathering in an
"illegal" church - is an affront to religious freedom. Finally,
as for societal attitudes, the AKP party official's mention, in
one breath, of tolerance and the "large Sunni faithful" should
be considered side by side with the less than tolerant views of
many in the Sunni community toward Alevis, Shia and other
religions. End comment.


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