The worrying increase in attacks on Christian sites in Turkey
Attacks on Christian sites in Turkey have significantly increased since 2015, according to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. Furthermore, Turkey's non-compliance with judgments by the European Court of Human Rights is also very high.
This article was first published in French on Conflits.
First, some good news. In Turkey, the number and severity of terrorist attacks on places of worship have decreased over the past decade, according to a report by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) published in November 2023. Religious communities attribute this to more effective protection and increased collaboration by Turkish authorities. For example, in February 2023, Turkish authorities arrested 15 individuals linked to the Islamic State who were allegedly ordered to attack churches and synagogues in Istanbul.
However, less spectacular attacks on places of worship and religious sites have significantly increased since 2015, especially those belonging to the Alevi and Protestant minorities. The U.S. Commission laments that “in many cases, police do not apprehend assailants, and in the instances in which assailants do face arrest, they often receive lenient treatment from Turkish courts.”
Therefore, an analysis of eight media sources between 2003 and 2022 shows that only 35% of attackers are identified. Almost half of these identified attackers are not even prosecuted, a quarter do not receive any punishment, and only a quarter are actually sanctioned.
The U.S. Commission identifies a multitude of insidious threats, distinguishing two types. On one hand, threats stemming from human action: vandalism, graffiti, treasure hunting, stone extraction, burglary, theft, property confiscation, arson, and attacks and intimidation of minority community members.
These communities feel particularly vulnerable when Turkish officials at the highest level make public hateful and discriminatory statements. For example, on May 4, 2020, President Erdogan used the phrase "terrorists escaped from the sword," referring to survivors of the Armenian genocide. Two Armenian churches in Istanbul were subsequently attacked on May 8 and 23, while the Armenian foundation Hrant Dink received death threats.
On the other hand, the U.S. Commission highlights the degradation caused to the heritage of minority religions due to lack of maintenance and targeted neglect by Turkish authorities (erosion, vegetation, fires, and seismic activity).
The case of the Greek Orthodox orphanage Prinkipo, on Büyükada Island off the coast of Istanbul, is emblematic of this neglect. The orphanage was initially closed by Turkish authorities in 1964 as retaliation against Greece during the Cyprus conflict. It was left abandoned and officially confiscated in 1997 due to "dereliction".
In 2005, the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople brought the case before the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), which ordered the restitution of the orphanage in 2010. The Turkish authorities officially returned it in 2012. However, the largest wooden building in Europe, built in 1898, has fallen into ruins. It is now the responsibility of the Greek Orthodox community to restore the site, despite a considerable financial cost of 65 million euros.
In this case, the request for restitution instead of mere compensation was a first for the ECHR. And for the first time, the Turkish judiciary complied with such a decision without objection, granting a Pyrrhic victory to the Greek Orthodox community.
The European Centre for Law and Justice (ECLJ) is acting before the ECHR to support Christian communities in recovering their property. For example, Turkey was condemned in November 2022 by the ECHR to compensate an expropriated Greek Orthodox foundation. Under the pretext that the procedural guarantees required at the national level had not been respected by Turkey, the Court did not rule on restitution. The foundation must therefore start their trial from the beginning.
The Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe, responsible for monitoring the implementation of ECHR decisions, considers that as of 31 December 2022, Turkey had 480 cases pending execution. Turkey is the State most condemned by the ECHR, closely followed by Russia, which is no longer a member of the Council of Europe since March 2022. The judgment in favor of the foundation of the Syrian Orthodox monastery Mor Gabriel in October 2023 is the latest on the list of approximately 3,500 convictions of Turkey since the establishment of the ECHR in 1959.
The ECHR tries to be respected. For example, in July 2022, it returned with a new condemnation judgment against Turkey in the case of political opponent Osman Kavala, following its referral by the Committee of Ministers in February 2022 after its first judgment in December 2019, which had not been executed.
A futile procedure for Mr. Erdogan. Following yet another conviction in September 2023, this time in the case of Yüksel Yalçınkaya, the Turkish president stated in his opening speech to the Turkish Parliament session on 1st October 2023, his intention to no longer "respect" the decisions of the ECHR, nor even to read them.
The difficulties experienced by Christian Churches in enforcing their rights come from Turkish nationalism, both ethnic and religious. The Treaty of Lausanne in 1923 aimed to recognize civil, political, and cultural rights for the main non-Muslim minorities. In practice, Turkey recognizes only the Greek, Armenian, and Jewish religious minorities, and even then without granting them all the rights guaranteed to them in principle by this treaty.
Thus, the Greek and Armenian Churches do not have legal personality. The patriarchates rely on foundations to exercise their property rights as best they can. Latin Catholics, Protestants, and Alevi Muslims (because non-Sunnis) are not officially recognized either.
Control is also exercised over the education and appointment of clergy. The patriarch and officials of the Greek Orthodox Church must be Turkish and born in Turkey, in order to avoid potentially Greece-leaning positions. In 1971, under the pretext that all private universities had to be affiliated with a State-run university, Turkish authorities indefinitely closed the Orthodox Theological Institute of Halki, located on Heybeliada island off Istanbul.
Turkey's approach to managing religions is simple. The promotion of Islam supports its nationalism. Theoretically a secular State, Turkey discriminates against anything that is not Sunni Muslim. When collecting taxes, all Turkish citizens are equal... But only the Sunni Muslim worship benefits from public financing, granted through the Presidency of Religious Affairs (Diyanet).
Mr. Erdogan even manages to islamize Turkish secularism. In July 2020, he converted the Hagia Sophia Basilica, a building constructed by the Byzantines in the 5th century and a museum since 1934, into a mosque. In May 2021, he inaugurated the first mosque in Taksim Square in Istanbul, the epicenter of the protests known as the "Gezi movement," which were brutally suppressed.
Internationally, the Turkish president takes care to appear as the protector of Sunnis who are violated in their dignity. The three million Turkish voters in Europe are mostly favorable to him. Everywhere, Mr. Erdogan is multiplying the construction of mosques that he keeps under his control.
And yet, during his speech before the United Nations General Assembly in New York in September 2023, in the context of burned Qurans in Sweden, the Turkish president stated that "racism, xenophobia, and Islamophobia" in European countries that he did not mention had "reached an intolerable level." Quite ironic, isn't it?