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WikiLeaks: 2005-04-08: 05ANKARA2061: Religious Freedom - a Weak Link in Turkish Reform

Posted: Thursday, October 27, 2011 at 04:20 PM CT


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Reference ID Created Released Classification Origin
05ANKARA2061 2005-04-08 15:46 2011-08-30 01:44 CONFIDENTIAL Embassy Ankara
This record is a partial extract of the original cable.
The full text of the original cable is not available.
C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 03 ANKARA 002061 
E.O. 12958: DECL: 04/08/2015 
REF: A. ANKARA 1935 
     B. ANKARA 1511 
     C. ANKARA 814 
     D. 04 ANKARA 6871 
(U) Classified by Polcouns John Kunstadter;
reasons 1.4 b and d. 
1. (C) Summary: Turks cite history to argue that Turkey is a 
model of religious tolerance.  They assert that the existence 
of diverse religious communities in the Ottoman Empire and 
the acceptance of the Jews who migrated to Istanbul after 
expulsion from Spain in 1492 proves Turkey is free of 
religious discrimination.  However, from its founding until 
today the Republic of Turkey has encouraged emigration of 
"non-Muslims," principally Christians, through discriminatory 
taxes and other policies, including the fomented Istanbul 
riots of 1955 and pressures on Syriacs in the southeast. 
Very few Christians and Jews remain in Turkey. 
Discrimination or other pressure continues against Alevis and 
others not in the Hanafi Sunni mainstream as well.  EU 
contacts say GOT failure to allow more freedom for religious 
minorities could eventually derail Turkey's EU candidacy. 
End Summary. 
Image of Religious Tolerance a Myth 
2. (C) If you raise concerns about religious freedom in 
Turkey, the response will almost always be a kind of bemused 
denial.  The vast majority of Turks -- government officials, 
journalists, academics, politicians, and people on the street 
-- believe that their country is a model of religious 
tolerance.  In school they are taught a mythic version of 
Ottoman and Turkish history, focusing on the presence of 
various, sizable religious communities in the Ottoman Empire. 
 They claim with pride that their history is free of the kind 
of bloody religious conflict that wracked Europe for 
centuries (Turkish students are not exposed to a serious 
analysis of the massacres of Armenians and Alevis or pressure 
against the Syriacs). 
3. (C) A prime example of this distorted, backward-looking 
perspective is the way Turks constantly refer to the Jews who 
fled Spain for Istanbul in 1492.  Turks cite this historical 
reference to reject the idea that religious minorities face 
discrimination in Turkey today.  For example, Mustafa Sait 
Yazicioglu, an MP from the ruling AK Party (AKP) and former 
president of the GOT's Directorate of Religious Affairs 
(Diyanet), recently cited the events of 1492 in a meeting 
with us as evidence that the Diyanet's current campaign 
against missionaries (reftels A-C) does not reflect hostility 
toward other religions. 
4. (C) It is true that Jews were forced out of Spain and 
taken in by the Ottomans.  It is also true that the Ottoman 
authorities did not massacre them, drive them from their 
homes, or otherwise persecute them as European powers had 
done.  But the Ottomans treated Jews (and Christians) as 
second-class subjects, and today, more than 500 years later, 
the Republic of Turkey is doing the same.  Jews, like 
Christians and other religious minorities, are in practice 
barred from careers in key State institutions such as the 
armed forces, the MFA, law enforcement, the judiciary, and 
the National Intelligence Organization.  There are no 
"non-Muslims" in the 550-seat Parliament. 
5. (C) The popular image of a tolerant, religiously diverse 
Turkey contrasts sharply with present-day reality.  While 
millions of Christians lived in the Ottoman Empire, few are 
left today.  The Armenian Orthodox comprise the largest 
Christian community, with approximately 65,000, followed by 
the 15,000-strong Syrian Orthodox (Syriac) community.  The 
once large Greek Orthodox population is now estimated at less 
than 2,000.  There are also approximately 25,000 Jews, 3,000 
Protestants and small numbers of other religious minorities. 
The overall national population is officially 99 percent 
Sunni Muslim.  However, this figure is inflated by the GOT's 
refusal to recognize the Alevis, estimated to number 5-8 
million, as a distinct religious group, or to take account of 
the fact that a significant proportion of the nominally 
Muslim population does not actively practice its religion. 
GOT Policies Pressure "Non-Muslims" 
6. (C) The winnowing out of religious minorities did not 
happen by accident.  Since its founding in 1923, the Republic 
of Turkey has utilized a series of policies to encourage 
emigration of religious minorities, principally of 
Christians.  In 1940, for example, the GOT imposed a wealth 
tax on Christian and Jewish citizens at a rate up to 10 times 
greater than the rate used for Muslims, a policy that 
historian Bernard Lewis referred to as a "tax pogrom."  This 
type of approach continues in many forms, including the 
State's relentless expropriation of properties owned by 
"non-Muslim" foundations, and the above-mentioned Diyanet 
campaign to define missionaries as a threat to national 
7. (C) Nevertheless, the myth of religious pluralism 
persists, fed by the inability of Turks to recognize how far 
removed they are from the Western concept of religious 
freedom.  FM Gul recently denied the existence of religious 
prejudice in Turkey by asserting that, "Turkey is a place 
where churches and synagogues are built near mosques."  In 
fact, Turkey has many historic churches lying in ruins where 
there are no longer enough Christians to form a congregation. 
 The State bureaucracy places great hurdles in front of 
"non-Muslims" seeking to restore historic properties or open 
new places of worship where there is a demand.  The 
Ecumenical Patriarchate's Halki seminary remains closed. 
8. (C) Christians tend to draw the most suspicion and 
hostility from the Turkish State, which remains mindful that 
Christians long preceded Turkic peoples in Anatolia.  The 
Turkish State also resents Christians' insistence on 
vigorously pursuing judicial redress, e.g., on restitution of 
confiscated property.  The Ecumenical Patriarchate predates 
the Ottoman Empire, and its representatives do not hesitate 
to assert historical rights.  Muslim Turks also harbor 
suspicions about Christians since they associate Christians 
with the Crusades, the Russian invasions of eastern Anatolia 
in the late 19th century and 1915, and the European powers 
that defeated the Ottomans in World War I and aimed to carve 
up Anatolia. 
9. (C) Jews, by contrast, face far less official ire.  The 
Jewish community is still grateful to the Turks for taking in 
their ancestors 500 years ago.  In private, Turkish Jews will 
acknowledge to us concerns about official discrimination. 
But they almost never raise such concerns in public.  When 
they have a problem, they try to resolve it quietly through 
channels.  If that fails, they accept it.  As Ankara 
University professor Baskin Oran put it to us, "After 500 
years the Jews still see themselves as guests here, and if 
you're a guest you don't make trouble." 
Religious Freedom a Sleeper Issue for EU 
10. (C) In some small, symbolic ways, EU-related legal 
reforms have caused a slight easing of conditions for 
religious minorities.  However, the overall impact remains 
limited and Turkey's EU accession drive has highlighted the 
country's shortcomings as never before.  The European 
Commission, in its progress reports on Turkey, has 
consistently cited religious freedom as a weak area in the 
GOT reform effort, and the European Parliament has repeatedly 
called for greater efforts.  However, EU member states 
generally appear reluctant to raise the issue directly. 
11. (C) Our EU contacts say it is difficult for member states 
to criticize the GOT's approach to religion because the EU 
cannot speak with one voice -- practices among EU states vary 
significantly.  However, they say religious freedom is a 
sleeper issue that could derail Turkey's candidacy if the GOT 
continues to avoid reform.  "If they keep ignoring it, sooner 
or later it will be a problem for the EU," said a Dutch 
diplomat.  There are signs of EU concern in the EU's reaction 
to the anti-missionary campaign.  Sema Kilicer, political 
officer at the European Commission's Turkey Representation, 
told us Enlargement Commissioner Rehn raised the missionary 
issue with PM Erdogan in Brussels, and Ambassador Kretschmer, 
head of the Turkey Representation, discussed it with FM Gul. 
A German diplomat told us church leaders in Germany are 
increasingly concerned about the plight of Christians in 
Turkey, and the German Government is taking heed.  Noting 
that there are 3,000 mosques in Germany, he said German 
officials are "fed up" with the hypocrisy of PM Erdogan and 
other GOT leaders who ignore the rights of "non-Muslims" 
while criticizing the EU as a "Christian club." 
12. (C) A Danish contact averred to us that religious freedom 
is the most difficult challenge for Turkey in its EU reform 
drive.  If change comes, he believes, it will come slowly, 
spread over the 10 years or so it would take for Turkey to 
complete the accession process.  Others, however, are 
starting to question whether the GOT will ever accept 
religious pluralism.  They believe religious freedom may 
define the limit of the AKP's capacity for reform, and there 
do not appear to be any parties among the opposition willing 
to pursue the issue.  "Maybe we expected too much of (AKP)," 
said Kilicer.  "They passed some reforms, but it seems they 
cannot do more.  Now what will happen?" 
13. (C) Ersonmez Yarbay, a pious but iconoclastic AK MP, told 
us the Turkish State at its founding made a terrible mistake 
by turning Turkey into a one-religion society.  Islam in 
Turkey, he believes, would be strengthened by competition. 
Imams would have to make greater efforts to teach Islam if 
other religions were given free rein.  There might be 
slightly fewer Muslims, but their faith would be truer. 
Moreover, if Turkey had retained its once large Christian 
community it would today be more advanced and closer to the 
West.  It might have even won a Nobel prize or two by now, he 
14. (C) He is right, of course, but he is almost alone. 
Reform rhetoric aside, the truth is that religious pluralism 
is opposed across the Turkish political spectrum.  Islamists 
fear the influence of Western religions, particularly 
Evangelical Christianity.  For nationalists, religious 
diversity -- like ethnic or linguistic diversity -- is a 
threat to national unity.  The general public is easily led 
astray by nationalist-religious rhetoric.  The Diyanet's 
anti-missionary campaign, which has been strongly supported 
at the Cabinet level, indicates that AKP is not about to 
challenge the status quo. 
15. (C) In his book "The Emergence of Modern Turkey," Bernard 
Lewis writes of the 19th century Ottoman reform efforts aimed 
at winning European support for the Empire.  According to 
Lewis, the most shocking element of the reforms for Ottoman 
Muslims was the stated principle that subjects of all 
religions would be equal under the law.  Under both the 
traditions of Islam and the policies of the Ottoman Empire, 
"non-Muslim" subjects were to be "tolerated".  However, this 
toleration "was predicated on the assumption that the 
tolerated communities were separate and inferior, and were 
moreover clearly marked as such," Lewis wrote.  For the 
European powers, the Ottomans' treatment of "non-Muslims" was 
"the touchstone of Turkish sincerity," according to Lewis. 
At the time, the Europeans often found Turkish sincerity 
wanting in the field of religious freedom.  The EU will 
likely reach the same conclusion unless the Turkish State, 
government, and society develop a new, truly tolerant 
approach to religious minorities. 


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