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Cablegate: Istanbul Protestants Continue to Face Challenges

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

UNCLAS SECTION 01 OF 02 ISTANBUL 001819

SIPDIS

SENSITIVE

E.O. 12958: N/A
TAGS: PHUM PGOV TU
SUBJECT: ISTANBUL PROTESTANTS CONTINUE TO FACE CHALLENGES
TO THEIR RELIGIOUS FREEDOM

REF: A. ADANA 149

B. ADANA 128
C. 03 ISTANBUL 149

1. (SBU) Summary: While acknowledging that the environment
for religious minorities in Turkey has significantly improved
over the past several years, leaders of several Istanbul
Protestant churches claim that they continue to face legal
hurdles and cultural prejudice in their activities. Because
their registration applications are routinely denied, delayed
or ignored, the churches are forced to operate unofficially,
with no legal guarantee to protect them from arbitrary
closure. Some Protestant leaders suspect that the lack of
formal procedures for the legal establishment of places of
worship stems from the Turkish secular establishment's fear
that this would open the way for the registration of
thousands of illegal mosques. End Summary.

2. (SBU) Leaders of ten separate Protestant churches (most in
Istanbul, but including one each from Izmir and Ankara)
described their recent experiences to poloffs and conoff on
December 2. The Protestants claim that there are about 30
churches in Istanbul with approximately 40 to 50 members in
each congregation. All operate unofficially, with the
exception of the Istanbul Protestant Church Foundation, which
successfully registered as a foundation in 1998 (Note:
Subsequent legal changes requiring that new foundations have
at least USD 600,000 in capital have effectively eliminated
this as an option for other churches. End Note).

3. (SBU) Overall, the Protestant leaders conceded that the
general atmosphere for their activities had improved over the
last several years, albeit in "baby steps." They cited the
following examples of harassment over the past year alone:

- Although appropriate permits had been obtained from the
local deputy governor, the Sisli Police obtained higher
authority to force the River Church to suspend its weekly
screening of a film about Jesus. Claiming that they had
received a bomb threat against the church, police searched
the premises and suggested that they stop showing the film
"for their own protection."

- Despite being contacted by Bayrampasa prison officials when
foreign inmates requested Christian services and provisions,
the River Church was denied permission to administer the
services on the grounds that the church pastor is not a
registered priest. According to the pastor, however, he is
an ordained minister and no Turkish authority ever asked to
check his credentials.

- Although they had obtained prior permission and there were
no apparent protesters, police forced Alo Dua Church
Protestants to stop distributing copies of the New Testament
on Prince's Island, again claiming it was "for their own
protection."

- In a separate incident, a group of Protestants was harassed
by hostile bystanders in Taksim while distributing materials
on New Year's Day. Although permission had been obtained in
advance, several police present failed to intervene, except
to force the Protestants, rather than the hostile bystanders,
to vacate the premises, again citing their security as the
reason.

- Church members traveled to a remote area in the Black Sea
region for the baptism of four new members. They claim that
thirty gendarme showed up, made threatening remarks and
forced them to leave.

- Last month several congregations reported that outsiders
distributed materials at their services published by an
organization called Hakikat (reportedly linked with Turkish
Hizbullah) threatening Turkish converts with violence if they
don't convert back to Islam.

4. (SBU) The Protestant leaders also shared stories about
legal roadblocks they have faced over the past year:

- The River Church applied for a permit to hold discussion
groups about the movie "The Passion." Despite a
constitutional right to assemble, the application was denied
on the grounds that zoning laws in the requested area do not
allow church discussion groups.

- Church members were occasionally harassed, subjected to
unreasonable delays, or denied outright when they sought to
change their religion on their national ID cards. One
official simply refused to provide the necessary application
forms; others were told they could not convert without a
document from a registered church (Note: The only such
churches are of other denominations, mostly Greek or Armenian
Orthodox. End Note).
- Most complained that their inability to officially register
means that they cannot obtain Turkish residency or work
permits. The Turkish government requires individuals
applying for residency to have at least USD 30,000 in Turkey,
but residency permits are required to open bank accounts.
Without such permits foreigners must leave the country every
90 days, in order not to overstay their visas.

5. (SBU) Comment: Protestants appear to be free to worship in
the privacy of their unregistered churches (usually
residential or commercial office space), but when they seek
to conduct outreach or other public activities, they
routinely encounter official harassment and occasionally
public prejudice. The lack of established procedures to
officially register the churches effectively denies the
Protestant community any legal protection from official
harassment and arbitrary closure. Even the Istanbul
Protestant Church Foundation has so far been unable to obtain
the necessary zoning permits for its small church (Note:
Current zoning regulations stipulate that places of worship
be at least 2,500 square meters in size - a requirement that
the church (and many mosques) fails to meet). The reluctance
of Turkish authorities to facilitate the registration of
these churches may stem, in part, from the secular
establishment's concern that such a precedent could lead to
the legalization of thousands of uncontrolled, unregistered
mesjits or mosques.
ARNETT

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