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USCIRF 2023 Annual Report: Turkey

n 2022, religious freedom conditions in Turkey remained fairly consistent overall but did see some slight improvements. In June, the government finally released long-awaited regulations for religious minority foundations’ board member elections. The government’s failure to provide these regulations had prevented religious minority communities from electing foundation leadership for the last nine years. While the issuance of the regulations represented a positive development for the ability of some groups to operate, some critics panned the procedure as another means to “perpetuate state control” over non-Muslim communities. Although an April decision by the Constitutional Court ruled that schools’ refusal to exempt children from mandatory religious classes violated freedom of religion or belief, the government took no apparent action to remedy the situation. On the contrary, schools reportedly pushed Kurdish students who wanted to enroll in Kurdish language courses to take religious classes instead. During the year, the government also took no steps to grant legal personality to religious communities, permit conscientious objection to mandatory military service, or reopen the Theological School of Halki or any other seminary.

The Turkish government continued to discriminate against Alevis and refuse to recognize their places of worship, known as cemevis. In February, Alevis protested the government’s discriminatory policy of charging utility fees for their places of worship and not others, like mosques. That same month, President Recep Tayyip Erdog˘an announced that the government would reduce the fees by classifying cemevis as residences rather than commercial establishments, but notably it did not categorize them as places of worship. In October, President Erdog˘an announced the creation of a state-run “Alevi-Bektas¸i Culture and Cemevi Directorate” to allegedly address the community’s issues; however, many Alevis criticized the move as a means to subject Alevism to government authority and promote their assimilation to Sunni Islam. Alevis also continued to experience targeted violence throughout the year. In July, coinciding with the beginning of the holy month of Muharrem, several individuals conducted a string of attacks on Alevi places of worship and associations, with one assailant reportedly stabbing a woman who had to be hospitalized. Days later, two men physically assaulted Selami Sarıtas¸, the leader of an Istanbul cemevi.

Other religious communities, including Christians and Jews, also experienced instances of societal violence, intimidation, and the destruction or vandalization of their religious sites over the course of the year. In June, several persons attacked a Syriac family related to an alleged land dispute while the family hosted Syriac clergy members in their house. In July, vandals destroyed 36 headstones in the Jewish Hasköy cemetery in Istanbul. Remnants of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS)—which maintained a presence in Turkey—continued to pose a threat to religious minorities. Alleged ISIS members reportedly planned to carry out attacks on Alevis and an Ankara cemevi, and after the reporting period, additional plots to attack churches and synagogues also came to light.

The Turkish government continued to criminalize blasphemy or “insulting religious values” under Article 216(3) of the Penal Code, frequently levying such charges to crack down on criticism of the government and expression perceived as offensive to Islam. Throughout the year, numerous individuals and entities faced prosecution or investigation on criminal blasphemy charges, including Turkish pop singer Sezen Aksu and Swedish music streaming service Spotify.

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