Turkey's Christians need a break

(Photo: Unsplash/Turkey)

There are concerning reports of Christians in Turkey being increasingly subjected to marginalization and persecution, but Ankara's unfair policies towards religious minorities have not gone unnoticed in the US. 

In Congress, there are moves to pass a law on "monitoring religious freedoms in Turkey and the Ecumenical Patriarchate", whose initial draft was approved at the end of last month. The legislation will be discussion more in the coming weeks before being put to a vote, and its bi-partisan backers are hoping it will lead to real change.

Certainly, it's high time for change.

The latest annual report from the Association of Protestant Churches in Turkey sheds light on the conditions of Protestant Christians in the country and the discrimination they are being subjected to for political and authoritarian reasons.

The report reveals the continuing challenges for Protestant Christians, as the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan does not make it easy to obtain buildings for the purpose of worship, making it difficult for them to find places to meet. In fact, the total number of places, including churches, charities, and their cultural institutions, is less than 200, all of which are rented, not owned.

This in turn creates challenges to forming their own legally-recognised associations, a problem that existed even before 2020 after Erdogan's government changed the regulations for forming associations.

The deportation of foreign church leaders, or barring entry is another challenge highlighted by the report, which records 100 such incidents, and there is a lack of opportunities for theological training within Turkey, meaning many Protestant pastors have to go abroad.

Elsewhere, the report says that the foreign spouses of Turkish nationals involved in church work are having their visas denied, forcing the couples to emigrate abroad.

A number of Christians recently told "The Times" about the persecution they were subjected to in Turkey and how this forced them to leave their country.

The case of American pastor, Andrew Brunson, threw a spotlight on the situation. He was pastor of the Protestant Church of the Holy Sepulcher in the Turkish city of Izmir, before he was arrested and charged with espionage and having links with the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) and the US-based Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen. Ankara only released him after coming under pressure from former US President Donald Trump.

The Turkish Constitution actually recognizes freedom of religion but it is not applied in a consistent way, and within wider society too Protestants have experienced hostility.

For example, in 2006, Protestant places of worship were attacked with Molotov cocktails, and three Protestants who worked at a Christian publishing house were brutally murdered in Malatya in 2007.

The US is taking an interest in Turkey's treatment of Christians, as the proposed law on religious freedoms and the Ecumenical Patriarchate in the country shows.

The law seeks to hold the Turkish government accountable for religious freedom violations, and would put pressure on the US to take action.

It has bi-partisan support from Democrats Carolyn Maloney and Jim McGovern, and Republicans Gus M Bilirakis and Republican Brian Fitzpatrick.

They want Turkey placed on the special watch list of countries violating religious freedoms which would impose certain obligations on the US to act in the face of violations.

The US State Department's 'Religious Freedom around the World 2020' report said there had been "an escalation of religious and ethnic violations in Turkey, as the country has witnessed an increase in targeting religious minorities".

It remains to be seen whether additional US pressure would improve the religious freedom situation for Christians in Turkey. Of course, it should not take outside intervention for Turkey to change its ways.