Syriac Orthodox Church and Religious Affairs in Turkey

Author: Bugra Kalkan*

The news about Syriac Orthodox churches in Mardin, a historical multi-cultural city in the south-east Turkey, have shown again that how religious liberty is still so fragile in Turkey. According to the Agos Newspaper, after Mardin became a metropolitan municipality, its villages were officially turned into neighborhoods. And The Transfer, Liquidation and Redistribution Committee of the Mardin Governorate decided to transfer the properties of Syriac churches (approximately 50 churches and cemeteries) to the Treasury and then the right to use of those properties has been transferred to the Presidency of Religious Affairs (DIYANET).

So, what this legal/administrative change has to do with the properties of Syriac churches? Until 2002, minority (non-muslim) foundations didn’t have the right to acquire property in Turkey. So, most of the properties of those groups were owned by the public institutions. With the legal amendment in 2002, minority foundations have got the right to own properties, such as monasteries, synagogues or cemeteries owned, protected, maintained by religious minority groups for hundreds of years. But in practice, cadastral offices have not been very helpful to the minority groups to secure their property rights. That is why, many properties of minority of groups were owned by legal entity of the villages. So, when the legal change terminate the legal entity of the central villages of Mardin, the Committee did not see any reason not to transfer the properties historically owned by the religious minorities to the DIYANET!

For sure, Turkish government is responsible for this property violation. And many political groups have condemned the government for such an unethical act. Although condemning the government or making moral statements about religious freedom is necessary, it does not help us to understand this obviously dangerous policy in terms of the peaceful future of Turkey. As a matter of fact, AK Party governments have made many improvements considering the status and religious activities of minority groups in the last decade. And as you might guess, these reforms have been so far away from completed.

But, still, why on the earth, the government needed to violate the property rights of the Syriac churches? Is it because the DIYANET is out of financial resources and tries to find a way to boost its resources? Considering the fact that 2017 budget of the DIYANET is approximately 2 billion dollars financed by the taxes, a few monasteries would not make a difference for DIYANET. Is there any reason for the government to be afraid of 15 thousand Syriac in Turkey? To my knowledge they are peaceful citizens and the reason of the legal property transfer does not depend on any criminal activity. Does Islam allow Christians and Jews to practice their own religious beliefs? Well, the Islamic history and the Sharia is quite clear that the answer is yes. Do the religious minorities have better conditions before AK Party governments? Not really! These religious restrictions have been there since the beginning of the Republic. As I said before, even AK Party governments have made some legal changes to help religious minorities to practice their religious ceremonies and to claim rights over their community properties.

As I explained in my previous columns only liberal limited governments can guarantee and tolerate religious freedom. Since the foundation of the secular Republic, Islamic beliefs and practices have been severely regulated and centralized in order both to minimize the potential threat against newly established state and to indoctrinate believers to provide support for the new political regime. And the DIYANET has become the main instrument of the religious regulation. Not interestingly, both the supporters of the radical secularization and the conservative Muslims in Turkey are all agree upon the existence and the mission of the DIYANET. Of course the importance and the policy of the DIYANET changes with the different governments but the main purpose of it never changes. So, both secularists and religious people are afraid of the activities of the non-Muslim religious minorities. Because they think that religious liberty for non-Muslims will undermine the foundations of the state.

How can we solve the non-muslim religious minorities problems? Of course I do not have a definitive solution. But considering the path depended effects of the religious policies and bureaucracy in Turkey, the most possible solution is to integrate the religious minority groups into the religious system in Turkey. Since the members of the minority groups are tax-paying equal citizens of Turkey, the government has a duty to provide public services for the minority religions as well. I know that this solution is far from being perfect for a classical liberal but for now, it seems that this is the only feasible option. And integrating minority religious groups to the system might help to reform DIYANET through achieving more pluralism in the religious system.

(*) Dr. Bugra Kalkan is a professor of political science in Katip Celebi University, Izmir. He is also a senior academic fellow in the Association for Liberal Thinking, Turkey.