European Court Rules Against Turkey’s Religion ID

Designation on identification cards used to discriminate on basis of religion.

ISTANBUL, February 5 (CDN) — A European court on Tuesday (Feb. 2) ordered Turkey to remove the religious affiliation section from citizens’ identification cards, calling the practice a violation of human rights.

Religious minorities and in particular Christian converts in Turkey have faced discrimination because of the mandatory religion declaration on their identification cards, which was enforced until 2006. Since then, citizens are allowed to leave the “Religion” section of their IDs blank.

The ruling by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) “is a good thing,” said Zekai Tanyar, president of the Turkish Protestant Alliance, citing prejudices against Christian converts.

“[Religion on the ID] can cost people their jobs,” he said. “It has been known to affect whether they get a job or not, how people look at them, whether they are accepted for a post or an application of some sort. Therefore I think [the ruling] is a good and appropriate thing.”

Tanyar said the same principles would apply in the case of Muslims living in a country that had prejudices against Muslims. For converts in Turkey having to state their religion on their ID cards, “in practice, and in people’s experience, it has been negative.” 

The ECHR ruling came after a Turkish Muslim national filed a petition challenging that his identification card stated his religion as “Alevi” and not Muslim. Alevis practice a form of Shia Islam that is different from that of the Sunni Muslim majority.

The court found in a 6-to-1 vote that any mention of religion on an identity card violated human rights. The country was found to be in violation of the European Convention of Human Rights – to which Turkey is a signatory – specifically Article 9, which deals with freedom of religion and belief; Article 6, which is related to due process; and Article 12, which prohibits discrimination.

The presence of the “religion” box on the Turkish national identification card obliges individuals to disclose, against their will, information concerning an aspect of their personal convictions, the court ruled.

Although the government argued that indication of religion on identity cards did not compel Turks to disclose their religious convictions, the ECHR found that the state was making assessments of the applicant’s faith, thus breaching its duty of neutrality and impartiality.

In a statement on the verdict this week, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that the ruling was in line with the government’s intentions.

“I don’t see the ECHR decision as abnormal,” he said, according to Turkish daily Taraf. “It’s not very important if it is removed.” 

The ECHR is independent of the European Union, which Turkey seeks to join. The rulings of the ECHR are binding for members of the Council of Europe, of which Turkey is a member, and must be implemented.

A Step in the Right Direction

Human rights lawyers welcomed the decision of the ECHR, saying it is a small step in the direction of democracy and secularism in Turkey.

“It is related to the general freedom of religion in our country,” said human rights lawyer Orhan Kemal Cengiz. “They assume everyone is Muslim and automatically write this on your ID card, so this is a good reminder that, first of all, everyone is not Muslim in this country, and second, that being a Muslim is not an indispensible part of being Turkish.”

The lawyer said the judgment would have positive implications for religious minorities in Turkey who are subject to intolerance from the majority Muslim population. 

In 2000 Turkey’s neighbor Greece, a majority Christian Orthodox country, lifted the religion section from national IDs in order to adhere to European human rights standards and conventions, causing tumult among nationals.

“In Turkey, Greece or whatever European country, racism or intolerance or xenophobia are not rare occurrences if [religion] is written on your card, and if you are a minority group it makes you open to racist, xenophobic or other intolerant behaviors,” said Cengiz. “There might be times that the [religious] declaration might be very dangerous.”

International Implications

It is not yet known what, if any, effect the ECHR decision could have on the rest of the Middle East.

Because of its history, economic power and strategic location, Turkey is seen as a leader in the region. Like Turkey, many Middle Eastern countries have a place for religious affiliation on their identification cards. Unlike Turkey, listing religious affiliation is mandatory in most of these countries and almost impossible to change, even under court order.

According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), religious identification is used as a tool to deny jobs and even basic rights or services to religious minorities in many Middle Eastern countries.

“It’s a serious problem from a human rights point of view,” said Joe Stork, deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa for HRW, an international human rights organization. “It’s especially problematic when that requirement becomes a basis for discrimination.”

Stork said the identification cards shouldn’t have a listing for religion at all. He said the European decision may eventually be used in legal arguments in Middle Eastern courts, but it will be a long time before change is realized.

“It’s not like the Egyptian government is going to wake up in the morning and say, ‘Gee, let’s do that,’” Stork said.

Egypt in particular is notorious for using religion on IDs to systematically discriminate against Coptic Christians and converts to Christianity. While it takes a day to change one’s religion from Christianity to Islam on their ID, the reverse is virtually impossible. 

Report from Compass Direct News 


Former police commander, university researcher, suspected ringleader’s father testify.

MALATYA, Turkey, April 15 (Compass Direct News) – Two years after the murder of three Christians in this city in southeastern Turkey, lawyers at a hearing here on Monday (April 13) uncovered important information on the role that local security forces played in the slaughter.

At the 16th hearing of the murder case at the Malatya Third Criminal Court, plaintiff attorneys called a heavy slate of witnesses, including Mehmet Ulger, the gendarmerie commander of Malatya province during the April 2007 murders who was arrested on March 12 for his alleged connection to a political conspiracy, and Ruhi Abat, a theology instructor at the local Ismet Inonu University.

Two Turkish Christians, Necati Aydin and Ugur Yuksel, and a German Christian, Tilmann Geske, were tied up and stabbed to death at Zirve Publishing Co. offices on April 18, 2007. Plaintiff attorneys have moved the focus of the trial away from the five suspects – Salih Gurler, Cuma Ozdemir, Hamit Ceker, Abuzer Yildirim, and alleged ringleader Emre Gunaydin – to local officials believed to be liaisons or masterminds of the murders.

The retired gendarmerie commander and the theology researcher have suspected links to the crime. In January an anonymous letter sent to Turkish churches and obtained by the media claimed that then-commander Ulger instigated the murders and directed Abat to prepare arguments against missionary activity.

According to phone records, Abat made 1,415 telephone calls to gendarmerie intelligence forces in the six-month period prior to the 2007 murders. During his cross examination, he told the courtroom that the frequent contact resulted from gendarmerie requesting information on his research of local missionary activity.

Abat was part of a team of six researchers that focused on the social effects of missionary activity within the Malatya region.

“The information I gave the police and gendarmerie was aimed at answering the criticisms that missionaries had about Islam,” he said.

When plaintiff attorneys asked Ulger if this level of communication was typical, the former gendarmerie commander said that they communicated on other issues such as translating Arabic documents and further teaching engagements. But lawyers said this level of communication was unusual.

“He called the gendarmerie the equivalent of 10 times a day, seven days a week, which suggests something abnormal going on,” said plaintiff attorney Orhan Kemal Cengiz. “You wouldn’t talk that much to your mother.”

In a heated exchange at the end of the hearing, Ozkan Yucel, plaintiff attorney representing the families of the victims, pressed Ulger to answer whether he considered Christian missionary activity in Turkey to be a crime.

Avoiding a direct answer, Ulger said no such crime existed in Turkey’s penal system, but that gendarmerie classified such activity as “extreme right-wing.”

“The gendarmerie considers this to be the same [level of extremism] as radical Islamic activity,” he said.


Suspected Ringleader’s Family Testifies

Onur Dulkadir, a cousin and former classmate of Gunaydin, the suspected ringleader, testified on his interactions with Gunaydin and Malatya’s local Christian community prior to the murders.

Dulkadir claimed that a few months before the crime, he and Gunaydin attended a Christian meeting at a Malatya hotel where approximately 50 people were in attendance. He said they left when someone handed him a brochure about “missionary activity.”

Dulkadir told the court that after they left, Gunaydin said, “I am watching how they structure themselves,” and, “Very soon I am going to be rich.” In past hearings, Gunaydin claimed the Turkish state had promised him support if he would carry out the attacks successfully.

Gunaydin’s father, Mustafa Gunaydin, testified at the hearing that he didn’t believe his son had led the group of five to commit the grisly murder of the three Christians, two of them converts from Islam.

“I went once a week to the jail to see my son, and every time I spoke with my son I tried to bring out the identity of those behind the murders,” said Mustafa Gunaydin. “He swore to me there was nobody behind it . . . I still believe my son couldn’t have done anything. My child is afraid of blood.”

Mustafa Gunaydin works as a technician at Ismet Inonu University. Plaintiff attorneys asked him if he was acquainted with professor Fatih Hilmioglu, recently jailed in a mass arrest of professors associated with a national conspiracy known as Ergenekon. He replied that he knew Hilmioglu, but that he also knew about 70 percent of the university personnel and did not have a close friendship with the arrested professor.

The prosecuting attorneys have frequently contended that Ergenekon, a loose collection of ultra-nationalist generals, businessmen, mafia and journalists who planned to engineer domestic chaos and overthrow the Turkish government, instigated Emre Gunaydin to commit the murders.

Ulger was arrested as part of the Turkish state’s investigations into Ergenekon.


Cryptic Comments

Among Emre Gunaydin’s most prominent suspect links to Ergenekon is his jailed former co-worker Varol Bulent Aral, who was arrested in February for being a possible liaison between the five youths on trial for the murders and the true masterminds.

Hamit Ozpolat, owner of a newspaper and radio station in Adiyaman, testified at the hearing that Aral made cryptic comments in regard to his connections with the criminal organization. When Aral approached Ozpolat for a job at one of his news outlets, he declined his application, which he said resulted in Aral shouting threats against him. When police came, Ozpolat testified, Aral shouted, “You can’t do anything to me, I am a member of the deep state.”

Plaintiff attorneys have suspected a connection between the Malatya murder case and Ergenekon for several months, attempting to merge the two cases since last August.

But in a strange turn, the National Intelligence Agency (MIT) has issued a report claiming that Ergenekon and Christian missionary agencies were working together to destroy the Turkish nation. This claim would seem to contradict older Ergenekon documents that make reference to church members in Izmir, Mersin and Trabzon, three Turkish cities where Christians were attacked or killed in the following years.

Malatya plaintiff attorneys told Compass the theory of Christians wanting to destroy Turkey exists in the national consciousness but has no basis in reality.

“One of the core activities of Ergenekon is to struggle against missionary activity,” plaintiff attorney Cengiz said. “They are very hostile against missionary activities, as they see them as an extension of the external enemies in Turkey.”

On Monday (April 13), police raided the home of professor Turkan Saylan, 74-year old president of the Association for Support of Progressive Life (CYDD) and a cancer patient. The seven-hour raid took place on the basis of a MIT report stating her organization had received funds from the American Board, the oldest organization in Turkey with missionary status. The American Board is known in Turkey for building schools and hospitals and funding development projects.

Police reportedly raided her home and office in an attempt to find information linking CYDD finances to the American Board and proselytizing activities. Saylan’s organization has opened three court cases against MIT for past accusations of missionary activities.

In an online report published by Haber50 today, Saylan said that her premises were raided as retaliation for the cases opened against MIT, which for years has been trying to destroy her organization’s reputation in the press.

In addition, the report says Yasar Yaser, president of the Health and Education Association (SEV), used her organization’s printing press in order to produce Bibles.

“The terrible truth is some media, including some Muslim newspapers, were very eager to cover this story,” plaintiff attorney Cengiz said. He emphasized that suspicions of Christian groups in Turkey having such a subversive agenda were baseless.

This Saturday (April 18) will mark the second anniversary of the stabbing deaths of the three Christians. Churches across Turkey will commemorate the event through special services, and the Turkish Protestant Alliance has designated the day as an international day of prayer.

The next hearing of the case is scheduled to take place on May 22.

Report from Compass News Direct