December 8, 2009
ISTANBUL (CDN) — More than half of the population of Muslim-majority Turkey opposes members of other religions holding meetings or publishing materials to explain their faith, according to a recently issued survey.
Fully 59 percent of those surveyed said non-Muslims either "should not" or "absolutely should not" be allowed to hold open meetings where they can discuss their ideas. Fifty-four percent said non-Muslims either "should not" or "absolutely should not" be allowed to publish literature that describes their faith.
The survey also found that almost 40 percent of the population of Turkey said they had "very negative" or "negative" views of Christians. In the random survey, 60 percent of those polled said there is one true religion; over 90 percent of the population of Turkey is Sunni Muslim.
Ali Çarkoglu, one of two professors at Sabanci University who conducted the study, said no non-Muslim religious gathering in Turkey is completely "risk free."
"Even in Istanbul, it can't be easy to be an observant non-Muslim," Çarkoglu said.
The report, issued last month, was part of a study commissioned by the International Social Survey Program, a 45-nation academic group that conducts polls and research about social and political issues. The survey quantified how religious the population is in each of its 43-member countries.
Çarkoglu, along with Professor Ersin Kalaycıoğlu, carried out the research in 2008. The completed study with the results of all 43 countries will be released in 2010. The study has been conducted previously three times at roughly 10-year intervals.
This year marked the first time study data has been collected in Turkey. Turkey was the only Muslim-majority population in the study.
The survey includes significant nuance. While 42 percent of the population agreed with the statement that religious people should be tolerant, 49 percent of those surveyed said they would either "absolutely" or "most likely" not support a political party that accepted people from another religion. But 20 percent of those surveyed said they had "very positive" or "positive" views of Christians - 13 percent "very positive," and 7 percent "positive."
Çarkoglu said the results of study could be attributed to the Turkish educational system, which mandates religious studies for both junior high school and high school students - classes in which Christians and Jews "are not even mentioned" or are portrayed as "the others," Çarkoglu said.
"That instills in these students a severe point of view of intolerance," he added.
The Rev. Dositheos Anagnostopoulos, speaking on behalf of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Istanbul, said that Greek Orthodox Christians are treated like second-class citizens in Turkey. He said that members of his church feel "pressured" but things have improved slowly over the years. Earlier this year, two Greek Orthodox cemeteries in Istanbul and one in Izmir were severely vandalized.
"There's still vandalism, but there haven't been any problems with physical threats lately," he said.
In Turkey, Christians face dual threats from a self-declared "secular" state and from members of the public who, according to the study, have become more observant in their Islamic faith. Christians are often seen as enemies of the state, enemies of Islam or traitors to Turkish culture.
A 2009 report on international religious freedom by the U.S. Department of State said that in Turkey, "No law explicitly prohibits religious speech or religious conversions; nevertheless, many prosecutors and police regarded religious speech and religious activism with suspicion. Christians engaged in religious advocacy were occasionally threatened or pressured by government and state officials. … Threats against non-Muslims created an atmosphere of pressure and diminished freedom for some non-Muslim communities."
At times in Turkey's history, the government has "manipulated public opinion" by putting forth the message that Turkish Christians are aligned with powers outside of the country that want to divide the nation, said Zekai Tanyar, a Turkish national who has been a Christian for more than 30 years. He is chairman of the Association of Protestant Churches (in Turkey).
"There are some who view that Christians are out to undermine the country, especially missionaries," he said.
In January 2007, Hrant Dink, editor-in-chief of the Armenian weekly Agos, was shot dead in Istanbul. Dink was a member of the Armenian Christian community in Turkey. Three months later, two Turkish Christians and a German Christian were murdered in Malatya. The accused killers in all four slayings have alleged links to Turkish nationalists. Two other Christians, converts from Islam, are standing trial charged with, among other things, "insulting Turkishness" and inciting hatred against Islam.
According to the U.S state department report, by law religious services in Turkey can only take place at worship sites approved by the government. And while the Sunni majority receives generous support from the government for its mosques, "[Non-Muslim groups] reported difficulties opening, maintaining, and operating houses of worship."
Tanyar of the Protestant association said that the anti-Christian persecution situation in Turkey has improved in some ways but gotten worse in others.
"People have gotten used to the idea that we exist, and certain laws have changed to accommodate us," he said. "On the other hand, acts of disinformation and violence have increased."
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