Religious minorities and New Constitution


ORHAN KEMAL CENGİZ
o.cengiz@todayszaman.com

8/12/2011

According to a news article published by the Akşam daily on Dec. 8, the parliamentary Constitutional Subcommittee has invited the leaders of religious minorities to explain their viewpoints on the new constitution.

The newspaper reports that:

“In this regard, Greek Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew, Armenian Orthodox Archbishop Aram Ateşyan, Chief Rabbi of Turkey Rav İsak Haleva and Syrian Orthodox Archbishop Yusuf Çetin will come to Parliament in order to personally convey their suggestions. If the leaders of religious congregations don’t come to the commission, then minority foundations to which they may refer to will be called upon. Committee member Altan Tan said: ‘There are many minority congregation foundations. We don’t know many of them. This is why we have embraced the idea of calling upon their highest level representatives and listening to what they may want to share with us’.”

I find this invitation quite significant and important. However, I am not sure if religious minorities have any concrete suggestions to put forward for the agenda of this committee.

As far as religious minorities are concerned, the Turkish legal system is based on a few tricks. Neither the Constitution nor any law make a single reference to religious minorities or their institutions. The only legal instrument that recognizes the very existence of minorities in Turkey is the Treaty of Lausanne dated 1923. The courts and Turkish bureaucrats used to refer to this treaty when they dealt with minorities. However, this reference is just make up, because, somehow, they managed to use it in a negative way. The treaty has always been referred to like this: “Such and such rights are not recognized in the treaty.”

We are talking here about a huge legal gap, which was deliberately created by the founders of the Turkish Republic as part of their policy of getting rid of non-Muslims from Turkey. Consequently, the legal affairs of non-Muslims have always been operating in a vacuum, in which the legal gap could be exploited in a million different ways to make non-Muslims vulnerable and have them suffer.

In recent years, these policies started to change. This government came out with some de facto solutions to solve some deep-rooted problems. For example, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) ruled that the expropriation of some buildings of the Ecumenical Patriarchate was a clear breach of Turkey’s obligation under the European Convention. And the court ordered Turkey to return these buildings to their legal owners. The government decided to get these buildings listed under the name of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in the Land Registry. This was undoubtedly a huge step forward, on the one hand. Yet it is very limited since it does not bring about a comprehensive solution to the “legal personality” problem of the Ecumenical Patriarchate or to other non-Muslim congregations because there is no law in Turkey that regulates the legal personality matter of religious minorities. The government’s step in giving back properties only opened a very limited window for the legal personality question with regard to the Land Registry.

In some of my previous articles I also criticized the passive attitudes of religious minorities when it comes to pursuing their rights in Turkey. This legal gap could only be filled by introducing some new laws and regulations which are not available in the Turkish legal system. Religious minorities could and still can have an active role in the creation of these new legal instruments. They can identify good examples from Europe and the US; they can try to reach consensus on some minimum standards amongst themselves and then bring these suggestions to the attention of the government, instead of waiting passively for the steps that will be taken by the government.

I think the parliamentary subcommittee’s invitation is a good opportunity for non-Muslims in Turkey. I strongly suggest they try to reach consensus on a few principles before talking to the members of Parliament. They can then introduce these “principles” as the common demands of minorities in Turkey. They do not need to go into sophisticated legal details. For example, they can demand the constitutional recognition of religious minorities in Turkey as a start. I really hope the leaders of religious communities will come together and start to produce some common work on this occasion.

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