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American Scientist Suffers Under Turkey’s Faltering Rule of Law
Tuesday, September 19, 2017

By Everett Price,
Policy Advisor

From September 11 to September 22, 2017, the OSCE participating States meet in Warsaw, Poland, for the Human Dimension Implementation Meeting (HDIM).  The HDIM is Europe’s largest annual human rights event. Over the course of two weeks, the 57 participating States will discuss compliance with consensus-based commitments on full range of fundamental freedoms, democracy, tolerance and nondiscrimination, and humanitarian concerns.

This feature article on Turkey coincides with the September 19 session of HDIM 2017, which focuses on whether OSCE participating States are implementing their commitments related to rule of law. On September 11, the first day of the meeting, the Turkish delegation walked out to protest that an NGO it alleged has ties with the Gulen movement was allowed to register for HDIM.

A NASA scientist based in Houston, Texas has spent the last 14 months in a Turkish prison, caught in the same dragnet that has ensnared tens of thousands of Turkish nationals since the failed coup attempt that played out in Turkey during the night of July 15, 2016. The scale of the Turkish government’s crackdown since that chaotic night is difficult to comprehend, but this scientist’s story illustrates the kind of ordinary lives that the sweeping purges upended with only the slimmest of justifications.

A 37-year old dual citizen of the United States and Turkey, Serkan Golge is married to Kubra, also a dual US-Turkish national. The couple has two young sons, aged eight and one.  They have lived in a two-story home in a quiet suburb of Houston since 2013, when Serkan landed a contract as a senior research scientist at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, focusing on the effects of solar radiation on the astronauts aboard the International Space Station.

Serkan’s mind, once immersed in scientific observation and the boundless expanse of outer space, is now mostly trapped in the contemplation of his small prison cell and the national political drama that landed him there. For the past 14 months, he has been detained in Iskenderun prison on the Mediterranean coast of southeastern Turkey, 25 miles from the Syrian border—he has spent the last 12 months in solitary confinement, allowed outside his cell just one hour every day.

***

On the morning of July 23, eight days after the failed coup, Serkan and his family were wrapping up a month-long stay with his parents in Antakya, Turkey.

The surreal night of the coup attempt, including pitched street battles between rebel military units and civilians in Istanbul and Ankara, had seemed a world away to the Golges on vacation in Turkey’s southern Hatay province. But as Serkan and his family were loading up a car to go to the airport to begin their return trip to Houston, the coup’s aftermath arrived at their doorstep.

Plainclothes state security officials approached Serkan as he emerged from the house and detained him on suspicion of membership in the so-called “Fethullah Terrorist Organization” (FETO) that the Turkish government has accused of plotting the overthrow attempt. “FETO” is the pejorative term coined by the Turkish government for a major social and religious movement in Turkey led by the Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen who has lived in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania since 1999.

Once a political ally of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s conservative Justice and Development Party (AKP), the Gulen movement fell out with AKP officials in recent years as the movement asserted its independence in various state organs, particularly the courts. President Erdoğan perceived the Gulen movement as a threat and started to purge its allies in state ministries, followed by the private sector. It was no surprise to most observers when Erdoğan declared “FETO” responsible for the coup and moved to eviscerate every last remnant of the group in Turkish institutions, whether in the public sector, business, media, civil society, or education. 

Serkan is currently on trial and faces up to 15 years in jail if convicted of belonging to “FETO.” Yet the evidence that ostensibly links him to the organization, establishing his complicity in the coup and justifying his prolonged detention, is astonishingly thin. A distant disgruntled relative appears to have denounced Serkan to authorities to settle an old score relating to an inheritance dispute. Based on the relative’s statements, authorities arrested Serkan and raided his parents’ home where they seized upon a single one-dollar bill as evidence. Turkish authorities claim that Fethullah Gulen gave blessed American dollar bills to his followers; thus, national security trials around the country have scrutinized countless dollar bills in their deliberations.

His relative further testified to his suspicion that Serkan worked for the CIA. When questioned about this at trial, the relative acknowledged that his claim was based solely on the fact that Serkan lived in the United States. Authorities have also questioned Serkan about his college degree from a major Gulen-affiliated university that the government closed in 2016. He reminded authorities that he attended the university on a government-funded scholarship—a reminder of the ruling party’s formerly cozy relationship with the organization it now denounces as public enemy number one.

A dollar bill, a U.S. passport, and a college degree: this is the evidence that has landed an American citizen in solitary confinement for a year in Turkey.

***

Serkan’s experience reflects the plight of the tens of thousands of people arrested, imprisoned, or fired from their jobs for suspicion of involvement in the attempted coup. The state of emergency decrees that paved the way for these massive purges did not specify the criteria for detention and dismissal. As a result, baseless assertions about an individual’s suspected links to “FETO” have caused people to lose their jobs, be stripped of their professional licenses, or thrown in jail without even the most minimal due process.

In all, the government has detained more than 110,000 people, of whom 50,000 are under arrest. These detentions have swelled Turkey’s prison population and prompted the government last year to release 38,000 inmates just to make room for the influx. Reliable information is not available for the number of ongoing trials or convictions but last month the government issued a decree extending the maximum pre-trial detention period from five to seven years, underscoring how prolonged detention without conviction can serve as punishment itself.

Of the 140,000 people who lost their jobs, so far 30,000 have been allowed to return to work. Meanwhile, 80,000 people who lost jobs have appealed their cases to a temporary State of Emergency Procedures Investigation Commission established by Ankara in July 2017.

The case load created by the purges would strain the judicial system under normal circumstances, but the situation faced by the Turkish judiciary today is anything but normal.  Prior to the coup attempt, President Erdogan had already embarked on a campaign to extend his influence over the judicial branch and promote party loyalists within its ranks. In the coup’s aftermath, this campaign kicked into high gear. Since July 2016, President Erdogan dismissed more than 4,200 judges and prosecutors—approximately a quarter of the total—on suspicion of subversive loyalties.  Of the 900 new judges recruited as replacements in April, opposition leaders claim 800 have ties to the ruling party. 

The independence of the Turkish judiciary further eroded in April 2017 when a controversial nationwide referendum narrowly approved constitutional changes that increased the President’s influence over the Council of Judges and Prosecutors (CJP). The powerful CJP “oversees the appointment, promotion, transfer, disciplining, and dismissal” of judges. Under the newly enacted constitutional amendments, the President now appoints nearly half of the CJP and the Turkish parliament appoints the rest, easily giving the ruling party a majority on the council. 

Straining under the weight of an overwhelming case load and immense political pressure, Turkey’s judiciary appears to lack the capacity and capability to deliver timely and credible justice for Serkan Golge and thousands like him.

***

Back in Houston, the Golges’ house is now on the market. Kubra has opted to remain in Turkey, living with her in-laws in Antakya; she fears that even if the government let her and her sons out of the country it might not let them back in.  She covered the mortgage from abroad for the past year, but the mounting financial pressure was unsustainable. Her eldest son should have begun second grade this month at his local public school in Houston. He says he misses his old room, his books and toys.

She is able to visit Serkan once a week where she and the children can speak to him by phone through a glass pane. Once every two months, they can meet in person and embrace, always under the watchful gaze of prison guards. Serkan’s next trial date is set for October 13th. For now, the Golge’s homecoming in Houston is postponed indefinitely: every new hearing brings with it the hope of acquittal and the dread of an unjustified conviction. 

In May, the Helsinki Commission’s leadership, joined by the co-chairmen of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, sent a letter to President Trump urging him to raise Serkan’s case, among others, with President Erdogan during the latter’s official visit to Washington. The letter highlighted the cases of other American prisoners and a detained veteran Turkish employee of the U.S. Consulate in Adana accused of supporting a Kurdish terrorist organization. The letter further encouraged the President to seek consular access for U.S. diplomats to detained Americans in Turkey—a courtesy the government has so far denied them. The Commission will continue to highlight these and other cases in Turkey and urge Ankara to uphold its commitments as a participating State of the OSCE to human rights, democratic principles, and the rule of law.

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The Iranian regime employs all of the levers of power to crush dissent, resorting in every form of persecution, even so far as execution. No effort is spared to silence opposition.” “Freedom denied” sums up the regime’s approach to fundamental human rights across the board, observed Chairman Brownback, “the tyrants in Tehran time and time again have shown a zeal for crushing outbreaks of free thought. Having come down hard on vestiges of independent media, the regime has pursued those who sought refuge on the Internet as a domain for democratic discussion.” Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-NJ) drew attention to the extensive economic ties between many European countries and Iran, suggesting that such interests influence policy toward Tehran. Smith also questioned the effectiveness of existing UN human rights structures and the need for major reform of the system. Dr. Jeff Gedmin, Director of the Aspen Institute Berlin, testifying before the Commission, noted the paradigm shift in U.S. foreign policy following the 9/11 terrorist attacks: “It’s changed our thinking about democracy, not only for the moral reasons, but because, as the president and others have said, the old realism, the old stability sort of policies didn't keep us safe, either. They weren’t fully moral, and they didn’t keep us safe.” Gedmin urged a more assertive approach toward Iran that would link the security approach and the human rights and democracy approach, and warned against concentrating on the former to the exclusion of the latter. Gedmin called for ensuring that promotion of democracy is part of any dialogue with the regime, while admitting that European commercial interests could complicate matters. In his testimony, Tom Melia, Deputy Executive Director of Freedom House, focused on the dynamics of democracy promotion more generally and efforts to foster related U.S. and European cooperation through the Trans-Atlantic Democracy Network initiative involving senior government officials and NGO activists from both sides of the Atlantic. He admitted that there are a variety of European perspectives on how best to encourage democratic change, contrasting “the more traditional Western European officials around Brussels and the newly arrived officials from Central and Eastern Europe….who are willing to be strong allies.” Citing the recently released report How Freedom is Won, Melia noted that broad civic engagement can speed democratic reform and that the absence of opposition violence in the struggle for change ultimately enhances the prospects for consolidation of democracy. Turning to Iran, he noted that the June 17th elections in that country “are not about filling the offices that matter in Iran.” Ms. Goli Ameri, Co-Founder of the Iran Democracy Project, addressed the complexities faced by Iranian-Americans who have thrived in the freedom and opportunity offered in the United States, and who hope that such liberties will be seen in Iran itself. She explained some of the differing approaches advocated within the community: “In my experience, there are three different views on U.S. policy towards Iran amongst Iranian-Americans. One group believes that the U.S. needs to take an active role and make regime change an official U.S. policy. The second group believes that freedom from decades of oppression can only come from the Iranian people themselves without any type of outside involvement.” Ameri continued, “In my travels, the majority of Iranian-Americans I met have a third, more considerate way in mind. They speak as concerned citizens of the United States and independent of political opposition groups or extremist political doctrines. They care about U.S. long-term interests as much as they care for their compatriots in Iran…Iranian-Americans support the promotion of a civil society and a civil movement in Iran. However, they want to ascertain that the format of support does not hurt the long-term security and interests of the United States, as well as not sully the mindset of the Iranian people towards the United States.” Ameri emphasized that Iranian-Americans, “differentiate between support for civic organizations and support for opposition groups, with the latter being of zero interest.” Dr. Karim Lahidji, an Iranian human rights activist since the late 1950s who fled Iran in 1979, pointed to contradictions that exist within the Islamic Republic of Iran, including the “farce” that the regime is somehow based on popular sovereignty. He noted that “power itself is dual in the sense that, on one hand, there is this [unelected] supreme guide, who is kind of a Superman, who supersedes over the other branches of government” and exercises “100 percent real executive power.” Under the current structures in place in Iran, Lahidji stressed, “the underlying and governing principle, it's not equality. It is discrimination that really rules” in which “the rights of the common citizen are different from the rights of Muslims, or the rights of non-Muslims are different from the rights of Muslims. Women don't have the same rights as men. But common people don't have the same rights as the clergy.” He concluded, “Under the present constitution, any reform of the power structure in the country that would lead to democracy or respect of human rights is impossible.” Manda Ervin, founder of the Alliance of Iranian Women, focused on the daily difficulties facing the average Iranian, including rising unemployment, unpaid workers, and other hardships that have spawned manifestations of civil disobedience that are in turn repressed by security and paramilitary forces. Hunger strikes and sit-ins by university students and journalists are common and are met with repression by the authorities. Citing arrests of activists, including members of the Alliance of Iranian Women, Ervin stated, “The regime of Iran practices gender apartheid and legal abuse of children. The constitution of this regime belongs to the 7th century and is unacceptable in the 21st century.” In an impassioned conclusion Ervin said, “the people of Iran need our support, our moral support, our standing in solidarity with them. They don't want words any more. They don't trust words. They want actions. They want United States and Europe to stand together against the regime of Iran.” The panelists repeatedly cited Iranian youth and the efforts of NGO activists as key elements in building a brighter future for Iran. The United States Helsinki Commission, an independent federal agency, by law monitors and encourages progress in implementing provisions of the Helsinki Accords. The Commission, created in 1976, is composed of nine Senators, nine Representatives and one official each from the Departments of State, Defense and Commerce.

  • The “Yukos Affair” and Its Implications for Politics and Business in Russia

    Co-Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation, Hon. Chris Smith, addressed the subject of the rule of law in Russia and its relationship to business and politics in the context of Russia’s approaching chairmanship of the G-8 at the end of the year. An argument was made that the Yukos case was characterized by selective prosecution and blatant legal arbitrariness. The potential outcomes of Russia indifference or hostility to the rule of law were also addressed. Witnesses testifying at the briefing – including Leoni Nevzlin, Former Executive of Yukos Oil, and Peter Roudik, Senior Foreign Law Specialist for the Law Library of Congress – examined the deficiencies of Russia’s legal system and the shortcomings of the criminal justice reform that was supposedly implemented and completed successfully.

  • The Uzbekistan Crisis: Assessing the Impact and Next Steps

    This hearing focused on the protests in the Andijon that were met by a violent government response and the lack of meaningful democratization reform in Uzbekistan. The Commissioners touched on the lack of separation of powers in the government and the authoritarian governing institutions that cannot produce a reliable investigation into the violent government response to the protest. Human rights activists and journalists from Uzbekistan gave testimony on their experience of the oppressive leadership of the government and first-hand account of the horrific and bloody response by the government police to remove peaceful protestors. The hearing discussed what actions the United States can take, within the OSCE framework, to push for meaningful reform.

  • Russia: Human Rights and Political Prospects

    Mike McIntyre and other lawmakers evaluated the degree to which human rights were being respected in Russia in light of increasing authoritarian trends via so-called power institutions. The effect of the war in Chechnya on Russian society as a whole was also a topic of discussion. Valentin Gefter, General Director of the Human Rights Institute in Moscow spoke to several factors that had led to issues regarding human rights, including the situation of military conflict in Chechnya, protests initiated by individuals displeased with social and economic policies, and preventative action taken by the state.

  • Meeting the Demographic Challenge and the Impact of Migration

    By Erika Schlager, Commission Counsel for International Law The thirteenth meeting of the Economic Forum of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe convened in Prague, the Czech Republic, from May 23-27, 2005.  This year, Forum participants from 52 of the 55 OSCE participating States met under the broad theme of “Demographic Trends, Migration and Integrating Persons belonging to National Minorities:  Ensuring Security and Sustainable Development in the OSCE Area.” [1] Stephan Minikes, U.S. Ambassador to the OSCE, summarized the factors that drove the meeting’s focus on demographic, migration and related population issues: “Given current demographic trends in much of the OSCE space, an increasing number of states will have to deal with migration on a larger scale.  In many countries, the decline in workforce due to aging and shrinking populations cannot be arrested or reversed quickly enough through increased fertility.  To maintain quality of life, sustainable development and support pension schemes, many countries will have to open their labor markets, and quickly.  Inviting immigrants will force states not only to integrate them, but also to evaluate their immigration policies . . . .” The Economic Forum, replicating what has been a growing trans-Atlantic public debate, gave particular attention to efforts to increase birthrates and to enhance migration from other regions that – for now – are experiencing population growth (at least relative to job availability). With respect to the goal of increasing the birthrate, no single policy prescription emerged from the discussions.  The Norwegian delegation described grass-roots driven policy changes that contributed to raising the birth rate in Norway – although it was only raised to 1.8 percent, still below replacement levels.  A number of other speakers highlighted the need to develop policies to help women juggle both careers and parenting.  In closing remarks, the U.S. delegation observed, “[w]hile we do not dispute this need, we believe that it is equally critical to keep in mind the parenting role of men as well.” Conspicuously absent from the discussion was consideration of data on ethnic groups within countries.  In several countries, for example, the demographic trend in the Romani minority differs from the ethnic majority: Romani communities often have a higher birth rate, shorter life-span and higher infant mortality.  Nevertheless, although there is a Europe-wide demographic crisis, a few public officials in several countries, perhaps reflecting widespread social antagonisms toward the Romani community, argued for targeted programs to reduce the Romani birth rate. In the discussion of migration trends, the economic and environmental factors that lead people to migrate were examined, as well as the implications of such migrations for both the countries that send and receive migrant populations.  A few countries, including Albania, Armenia and Tajikistan, spoke from the perspective of a sending country, touching on both the positive (e.g., remittances) and negative (e.g., brain drain) aspects of population outflows. Other sessions of the Prague Forum addressed population developments, including: Environment and migration; Providing services for migrants; Awareness raising and economic integration in countries of destination; Economic and social integration of national minorities; and Principles of integration of national minorities. Four side events were held concurrently with the working sessions.  They were: Migration and economic development of the sending countries (an event held with the OSCE Mediterranean Partners for Cooperation); Implementing the Roma and Sinti Action Plan (economic and social aspects); The OSCE’s Anti-trafficking Program; and The Labor Migration Project in Armenia. In his closing remarks, a representative of the Slovenian Chair-in-Office (CIO) noted a few suggestions that might serve as the basis for further OSCE work, including: Developing an action plan on migration issues; Formulating a statement of principles that might be adopted at the OSCE Ministerial in December; Developing a handbook on managing migration;  and, Establishing an advisory group on migration issues under the umbrella of the OSCE  Economic and Environmental Activities Coordinator.  The CIO representative noted that some of the recommendations went beyond the OSCE’s framework and mandate.  In addition, during the discussions, a few countries (notably Turkey and France) noted that some speakers had advocated policy approaches that would not be acceptable to their capitals.  Accordingly, it remains to be determined whether a consensus will be established for moving forward on any of these specific suggestions. The United States Helsinki Commission, an independent federal agency, by law monitors and encourages progress in implementing provisions of the Helsinki Accords. The Commission, created in 1976, is composed of nine Senators, nine Representatives and one official each from the Departments of State, Defense and Commerce. U.S. DELEGATION: Stephan M. Minikes, U.S. Ambassador to the OSCE Susan F. Martin, Professor at Georgetown University and Executive Director of the Institute for             the Study of International Migration at Georgetown University Ellen Thrasher, Associate Administrator, U.S. Small Business Administration Katherine A. Brucher, Deputy Political Counselor, U.S. Mission to the OSCE Robert Carlson, Political Officer, U.S. Mission to the OSCE Susan Archer, OSCE Desk Officer, U.S. Department of State Erika Schlager, Counsel for International Law, Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe  [1] (The three countries which had no representation during the course of the week were Andorra, Macedonia and Uzbekistan.)

  • 90th Commemoration of the Armenian Genocide

    Mr. Speaker, today we mark the 90th anniversary of the beginning of the Armenian Genocide. Every year we participate in this solemn commemoration but this year it has a special significance.  For the families of the victims and the survivors, the horrors of that bygone era remain so painful that it is hard to believe how much time has passed. The passage of years has not dimmed the memory or eased the grief. Not a relative or friend has been forgotten, nor have fond memories of native cities faded away.  Moreover, no accounting for mass murder has been made. Though many governments and legislative bodies around the world have recognized the Armenian Genocide, the Turkish Government consistently refuses to acknowledge what happened. For Armenians everywhere, Turkey's policy of aggressive denial sharpens the feeling of loss, embittering the lives of those who miraculously survived.  Today, those of us without Armenian blood share the sorrow of Armenians everywhere. I had the privilege in September 2000 of chairing hearings on the Armenian Genocide in the Subcommittee on International Operations and Human Rights of the International Relations Committee. The reading I have done over the years, which has included detailed descriptions of the atrocities, shock me. But, I am resolved to speak about this issue, loudly and often.  The Armenian Genocide has significance for all of us. It created a monstrous precedent which launched a century of genocides. In numerous countries and cultures, an ethnic group that controlled the state has used its instruments of coercion to slaughter members of a minority group, religion or class. It is enough to recall Adolf Hitler's smug remark, "Who remembers the Armenians?'' to grasp the universality of what happened to the Armenians.  Much has changed in the world since the mass, planned murder in 1915--two world wars, the fall of the Ottoman, Habsburg and Romanov Empires, the rise of the American superpower and most recently, the fall of the Soviet Union. One would have thought that we would have grown wiser over the years. Alas, we have not learned the appropriate lessons from the 20th century's first genocide. Just a few years after Rwanda, at this very moment, another genocide is taking place in Darfur. Yet, instead of mounting a united response, the international community has waffled or slithered away from responsibility, as hundreds of thousands are slaughtered.  The record of man's inhumanity to man is awful enough to produce a feeling of resignation. But we must fight that tendency. We must continue to remind the world of what occurred in 1915 and keep calling on Turkey to won up. We must not restrain ourselves from speaking of the Armenian Genocide. Along with many of my colleagues, I urge President Bush to speak the truth to Ankara, which needs to come to terms with its own past.  As this somber time, I want to note one optimistic point: OSCE negotiators are guardedly hopeful about the prospects of resolving the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. True, we have experienced such moments before and should not get our hopes up. Still, I am encouraged to hear that there is at least some reason for hope. We all pray for a peaceful solution to this conflict, which has caused over 30,000 deaths and many more casualties. Next year, when we once again commemorate the Genocide of the Armenians, I hope their descendants will be living in peace with their neighbors, building a democratic, prosperous country that will be a light unto the world.

  • Unrest in Uzbekistan: Crisis and Prospects

    This briefing, held in the wake of protests in the town of Andijon in eastern Uzbekistan that were violently put down by Uzbek troops on May 13, examined the crisis in Uzbekistan and U.S. policy options toward the regime of President Islam Karimov. The Uzbek regime has long been listed as an abuser of human rights. Among those participating in the briefing were: H.E. Samuel Zbogar, Ambassador of Slovenia and representative of the OSCE Chairman-in-Office; Dr. Abdurahim Polat, Chairman of the Uzbek opposition Birlik Party; Mr. Michael Cromartie, Commissioner of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom; Dr. Martha Brill Olcott, Senior Associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace; and Mr. Daniel Kimmage, Central Asia Analyst for Radio free Europe/Radio Liberty. The participants called for Uzbekistan to strive to resolve this situation peacefully, and continue to meet its commitments as a participating State in the OSCE.

  • Unregistered Religious Groups in Russia

    This hearing focused the disfranchisement of religious minorities Russia.  In several cases, authorities unfairly targeted religious groups with excessive force and threatened their right to worship. The hearing examined these cases and what the OSCE and U.S. have done in response. The witness John V. Hanford, III, Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, gave testimony about specific measures the State Department has in place in Moscow for addressing this issue and what the administration of President Bush has done to respond directly to these violations.

  • Religious Freedom in Turkey

    Helsinki Commission Staff Advisor, Elizabeth Pryor, presented an opportunity for discussion on the situation faced by Muslims, Protestants, members of the Armenian Orthodox Church, and the Jewish community in the Republic of Turkey. Numerous injustices that occurred in spite of significant steps taken by the government to improve conditions for the enjoyment of religious liberty were addressed. Witnesses testifying at the hearing – including Marve Kavakci, Former Member of the Turkish Grand National Assembly; Rev. Fr. Vertanes Kalayjian, Pastor of St. Mary Armenian Apostolic Church and Representative of the Eastern Diocese of the Armenian Apostolic Church of America; Van Krikorian, Founding Member of the Turkish-Armenian Reconciliation Commission; Jeff King, President of the International Christian Concern; and Barry Jacobs, Director of Strategic Studies for the Office of Government and International Affairs  American Jewish Committee – presented testimonies regarding personal experiences with religious injustice in an effort to encourage Congress to urge Turkish officials to adhere to principles of religious freedoms.

  • Ankara's Efforts to Undermine the Greek Orthodox Church in Turkey

    By Chadwick R. Gore Staff Advisor The Helsinki Commission briefing, “The Greek Orthodox Church in Turkey: A Victim of Systematic Expropriation” was held on March 16, 2005. The ecumenical panel of experts included: Archbishop Demetrios, Primate of the Greek Orthodox Church in America and Exarch of the Ecumenical Patriarch; Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, Archbishop of Washington; Rabbi Arthur Schneier, President of the Appeal of Conscience Foundation; Dr. Anthony Limberakis, National Commander of the Archons of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of the Order of St. Andrew the Apostle; and Dr. Bob Edgar, General Secretary of the National Council of Churches. Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-NJ) opened the briefing and Commission Senior Advisor Elizabeth B. Pryor moderated. Co-Chairman Smith described the issue of the status of the Orthodox Church in Turkey as “black and white.” Turkey’s practice of property seizures, continuous impediments to land ownership and church repairs, and the denial of legal status for the Ecumenical Patriarchate are all in direct contradiction to Ankara’s OSCE commitments. While the current government has initiated a broad regime of reforms, Co-Chairman Smith encouraged the government to do more. “Turkey has a proud history of religious tolerance, but current government policies appear targeted to bring about the eventual exodus of Greek Orthodoxy from Turkey entirely,” said Rep. Smith. “I urge the Government of Turkey to continue with its good reform program, take actions to support its Orthodox citizens, and to bring its laws and policies into conformity with OSCE commitments.” Archbishop Demetrios provided a detailed account of the maltreatment of the Greek Orthodox Church in Turkey. Since the government-provoked riots against the Greek Orthodox minority in 1955 – when the community numbered around 100,000 – the Church has been reduced to its present day remnant of 3,000 believers or less. The survival of this minority has been threatened by the continued closure of the Halki Theological School. This seminary, which was closed in 1971 on the pretext that privately run institutions were no longer legal, was the only school in the country for the training of Orthodox clergy. The continued closure means the Greek Orthodox Church in Turkey is unable to train new clergy in-country. The Archbishop also detailed cases of government confiscation of other church property. The two most significant accounts of such seizure are a recent Supreme Court ruling allowing the government to take possession of an historic orphanage on the island of Pringipo, and the expropriation of 152 properties of the Balukli Hospital in Istanbul. In addition, Demetrios noted that the government does not recognize the word “ecumenical” in the Ecumenical Patriarchate, thus denying the principal body of the church legal status. Rabbi Schneier relayed his experiences from multiple trips to Turkey speaking in support of the Greek Orthodox Church in crisis. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Turkey was thought to be a model of peaceful, religious coexistence for countries of Central Asia. In 1991, Rabbi Schneier met with the Patriarch and proposed a “Peace and Tolerance Conference.” The conference, which occurred in 1994, was widely supported by various religions and seemed to set a new tone for religious tolerance in Turkey and the region. Schneier urged the Turkish Government to take advantage of the world-wide respect that the Ecumenical Patriarchate has gained as a religious institution that preaches tolerance and fosters inter-religious cooperation. In conclusion, Rabbi Scheiner admonished the Turkish Government “to live and let live.” Dr. Limberakis detailed the various religious liberty violations he had personally witnessed on several trips to Turkey. He provided charts, showing that in 1936 the Greek Orthodox Church owned more than 8,000 properties. By 1999, its holdings had been reduced to about 2,000 places and today that number is less than 500. For the properties the church retains, the government has been slow or non-responsive in issuing building permits and allowing for repairs. The Church of the Virgin Mary, which was severely damaged in the 2003 terrorist bombings in Istanbul, waited more than a year for the building permits to rebuild. Limberakis categorized this as “emblematic of the modus operandi of the Government of Turkey.” Limberakis also discussed the Balukli Hospital and Home for the Aged. In addition to having some of its properties seized, the government has recently informed the hospital that it is subject to a 42% retroactive tax dating back to 1999. He recounted how he was assured by government leaders in February 2004 that the Halki Seminary would reopen and that it would possibly be operational for the 2004-2005 school year. September 2004 came and no progress was made. In a meeting in December 2004, the issue was discussed with Turkish officials but no further assurances were given. Dr. Edgar began his testimony by stressing the importance of the Ecumenical Patriarch, not only to Orthodox believers, but to Christians around the world for thousands of years. Istanbul has retained “its place of ecclesiastical prominence among the Orthodox Churches and its place of honor throughout the entire Christian world.” Edgar lauded the Ecumenical Patriarch as the “symbolic leader of the world’s 250 million Orthodox Christians.” Edgar discussed how the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, which formally recognized the Greek Orthodox community as a minority in Turkey, guarantees the community’s rights. The Turkish Constitution states that religious liberties are to be enjoyed by all. Though the government has made promises, the implementation is lacking. Cardinal McCarrick agreed with others in saying that the Turkish Government greatly misunderstands the importance of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. He said, “Turkey, one would hope, would be so proud to have among its citizens and among its religious leaders one whose influence is felt not only beyond its borders, but throughout the world.” He discussed Pope John Paul II’s tremendous respect and honor for Patriarch Bartholomew, the current Ecumenical Patriarch and leader of the Orthodox Church. McCarrick briefly mentioned Turkey’s Law on Foundations which has created difficulties for non-Muslim religious communities. He reported that revenues from property transactions were often frozen and that religious institutions were often required to pay corporate taxes. Over the years members of the Helsinki Commission have been consistent and vocal advocates for the Greek Orthodox Church, as well as other religious groups experiencing problems in Turkey, be they Muslim, Christian or other. The briefing made it clear the Government of Turkey needs to take several positive steps to fulfill the Helsinki commitments regarding freedoms of religion and assembly which it has freely accepted. First, the apparent systematic expropriation of the properties of the Greek Orthodox Church ascribed as legal under the foundation laws of Turkey must cease. While such actions may be legal they are clearly wrong and prevent Turkey from fulfilling its basic Helsinki commitments. One can easily perceive sinister motives in the application of these laws regarding religious institutions—they appear to have as their goal the eradication of the Greek Orthodox from all of Turkey. Turkey needs to remove religious institutions from under these laws and free religious institutions from their burden. Second, Turkey needs to appreciate that freedom of the spirit is not a threat to the state. Allowing such freedom actually enhances one’s commitment to and love of country. The current system erodes the fundamental glue that keeps citizens proud of their lineage. And, finally, Turkey needs to look outward to the modern world to realize that the great democracies not only allow freedom of religion and assembly, accompanied by speech rights, but encourage them. Both the state and the citizen will grow better in the light of openness, acceptance and tolerance. This briefing was the first in a series of three, with the second briefing focusing on the Turkish Government’s treatment of other religious communities in the country. The last event will be with representatives of the Turkish Government in Ankara, addressing a variety of issues including those discussed in the first two briefings. United States Helsinki Commission intern Alesha Guruswamy contributed to this article.

  • The Greek Orthodox Church in Turkey: A Victim of Systematic Expropriation

    In this briefing, Co-Chairman Smith described the issue of the status of the Orthodox Church in Turkey and condemned Turkey’s practice of property seizures; continuous impediments to land ownership and church repairs; and the denial of legal status for the Ecumenical Patriarchate as direct contradictions to Ankara’s OSCE commitments. The progress that the Government of Turkey has made in its reform program as well as the actions that should be taken in the future to support its Orthodox citizens and to bring its laws and policies into conformity with OSCE commitments was also discussed. Witnesses providing testimony at the briefing addressed a range of topics, including the confiscation of church property and other religious liberty violations undertaken by the government. A combination of personal experience and historical evidence was used by the witnesses to illuminate these violations and present suggestions for improving religious liberty in the future.

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