European Human Rights Court Rules in Favor of Turkish Church

Christians hope decision will lead to greater religious freedom.

ISTANBUL, December 18 (CDN) — In a decision many hope will lead to greater religious freedom in Turkey, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) found that a Turkish court ruling barring a church from starting a foundation violated the congregation’s right to freedom of association.

Orhan Kemal Cengiz, a Turkish attorney and legal advisor for the litigants, said the decision earlier this year was the first time the ECHR has held that religious organizations have a right to exist in Turkey. Other issues the court addressed dealt with organizations’ rights to own property, he said.

Cengiz added that this case is just the first of many needed to correct conflicts within the Turkish legal system in regard to freedom of association, known in Turkey as the concept of “legal personality.”

“This case is a significant victory, but it is the first case in a long line of cases to come,” Cengiz said.

Ihsan Ozbek, pastor of Kurtulus Church in northeast Turkey, which set out to establish the foundation, said he was pleased with the court’s decision.

“It’s a good thing to have that decision,” he said. “It will help future churches and Christian organizations.”

On Dec. 21, 2000, Ozbek and 15 other Turkish nationals applied to a court in Ankara to form the “Foundation of Liberation Churches,” to provide assistance to victims of disasters. The court referred the matter to the Directorate General of Foundations, which opposed it because, according to its interpretation of the organization’s constitution, the foundation sought to help only other Protestants. Such a purpose would be in violation of the Turkish civil code, which states that establishing a foundation to assist a specific community at the exclusion of others was prohibited.

On Jan. 22, 2002, the church group appealed the decision to the higher Court of Cassation. They agreed that the constitution should be changed to more accurately reflect the true nature of the organization, which was to give assistance to victims of natural disasters regardless of their spiritual beliefs. In February of the same year, the court rejected their appeal.

Later that year, on Aug. 29, 2002, under the guidance of Cengiz, the group appealed the decision to the ECHR. Founded in 1959 by the European Convention on Human Rights, the ECHR is the highest civil human rights court in Europe. Of the 47 countries that are signatories to the convention, Turkey accounts for more that 11 percent of the court’s caseload.

On Oct. 11, 2005 the court agreed to hear the case. More than four years later, on June 10, it publicly issued a verdict.

In its decision, the court unanimously found that the Turkish Courts’ “refusal to register the foundation, although permitted under Turkish law, had not been necessary in a democratic society, and that there had been a violation of Article 11.”

Article 11 of the convention deals with the rights of people to associate and assemble with others.

“The applicants had been willing to amend the constitution of their foundation both to reflect their true aims and to comply with the legal requirements for registration,” the court decision stated. “However, by not allowing them time to do this – something they had done in a similar case – the Court of Cassation had prevented them from setting up a foundation that would have had legal status.”

The decision was issued by seven judges, one of them Turkish. The court awarded 2,500 euros (US$3,600) to each of the 16 members of the group, in addition to 5,200 euros (US$7,490) to the group as a whole.

After being forbidden to open a foundation, the Protestant group opened an association in 2004, after Turkish law had been amended allowing them to do so. Foundations and associations in Turkey differ mostly in their ability to collect and distribute money. The aims of the association were similar to that of the proposed foundation, with the exception of reference to supporting one particular community.

Ozbek said the directorate’s office has been the main obstacle in preventing people from forming Christian foundations.

“Now that they have the decision, they will be forced to say yes,” he said.

Report from Compass Direct News 

Seizure of 15,000 Bibles in Malaysia Stuns Christians

Imports confiscated for using “Allah,” a forbidden word for non-Muslims.

FRESNO, Calif., November 7 (CDN) — Malaysian port and customs authorities have seized at least 15,000 Bibles in recent months because the word “Allah” for God appears in them.

Some 10,000 of the Bahasa Malaysia-language Bibles, which were printed in Indonesia, are in Kuching, capital of Sarawak in East Malaysia, and another 5,000 copies are in Kelang near Kuala Lumpur.

The Christian Federation of Malaysia (CFM) on Wednesday (Nov. 4) called for the immediate release of the confiscated Bibles. At the same time, CFM Executive Secretary Tan Kong Beng told Compass that the federation is striving for amicable relations with government authorities.

“We are open to and desire further discussion with officials so that this problem can be resolved,” the CFM official said.

The CFM officially represents the three major Christian groups in the country: The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Malaysia, the Council of Churches of Malaysia, and the National Evangelical Christian Fellowship Malaysia.

A strong Christian community in Indonesia, estimated 37 million by Operation World, has long produced large amounts of literature for export to Malaysia. In 2005 the government of Malaysia agreed to allow the use of “Allah” in non-Muslim literature, according to CFM.

“The government and CFM have exchanged letters on this matter previously,” reads the CFM statement, “and we have a written agreement in December 2005 that Bahasa Malaysia Bibles can be distributed so long as the symbol of the cross and the words ‘A Christian publication’ are printed on the front page.”

With the exception of the temporary suspension of publication of the Roman Catholic Herald newspaper in 2007 and the ongoing court battle over the weekly’s use of “Allah,” few problems were encountered in the policy. This past March, however, authorities suddenly began seizing CDs, Sunday school materials, and Bibles containing the word “Allah.”

Church leaders were stunned that no one had informed them of a change in policy. Quiet negotiations failed to resolve the situation, and several lawsuits began working their way through the court system. These suits challenge the right of the Minister of Home Affairs to restrict the use of “Allah” and to limit freedom of religion.

“To withhold the use of the Bahasa Malaysia Bibles is an infringement of Article 11 of the Federal Constitution, which gives every Malaysian the right to profess his/her faith as well as to practice it,” according to the CFM.

A government official in Malaysia was unavailable for comment. Officially, the government says only that use of the word “Allah” by non-Muslims could create “confusion” among Muslims.

The Kuala Lumpur High Court in Malaysia was scheduled to determine the legality of the word “Allah” in non-Muslim literature on July 7 but postponed the decision. The Herald newspaper had been allowed to use the term until a final court decision was to be handed down, but the Kuala Lumpur High Court on May 30 overturned that brief reprieve. 

The Rev. Lawrence Andrew, editor of the Herald, has cited examples from Malay dictionaries going back to the 17th century that use “Allah” as the vernacular translation for God. He has also noted that “Allah” is an Arabic term derived from the same roots as the Hebrew Elohim, and that the word pre-dates Muhammad, Islam’s prophet.

The Herald has a circulation of 13,000 and an estimated readership of 50,000. The newspaper is sold in Catholic churches and is not available from newsstands.

While the issue is tied up in the courts, many are hoping for a more harmonious solution to the problem. Both Indonesia and Malaysia use variations of Malay as their national languages, and all translations of the Bible in both countries used “Allah” for God until Malaysian authorities decided in the past few years that it was an Islamic term that should be used only by Muslims. In so doing, Malaysia effectively shut off the importation of Christian literature from Indonesia.

Malaysia’s population is about 60 percent Muslim, 19 percent Buddhist and 9 percent Christian. About 6 percent are Hindu, with 2.6 percent of the population adhering to Confucianism, Taoism and other traditional Chinese religions.

Report from Compass Direct News 


Copt who became Muslim, then returned to Christ, gets ‘new’ faith officially recognized.

ISTANBUL, January 8 (Compass Direct News) – An Egyptian convert to Christianity who spent 31 years officially identified as a Muslim has won a rare legal victory to be officially registered in his “new” faith.

An Alexandrian administrative court awarded Fathi Labib Yousef the right to register as a Christian at a Dec. 20 hearing in the Mediterranean coastal city.

Yousef, in his early 60s, was raised Coptic but converted to Islam in 1974 in order to divorce his Christian wife. Becoming Muslim typically allows for an easy nullification of marriage to a non-Muslim within sharia (Islamic law), and conversion is often employed for this reason by both men and women in Islamic countries.

He reverted to Christianity in 2005 after an Orthodox clerical council gave its official permission, according to the advocacy group US Copts Association.

Yousef applied to the civil registry to acknowledge his change of religion the same year. But the government refused to acknowledge his re-conversion, so he filed a lawsuit against the Egyptian prime minister, interior minister and Civil Status Organization chairman.

The court awarded him the right to revert to Christianity since it is his right according to Egyptian civil law, said Peter Ramses, an attorney familiar with Yousef’s case.

Ramses said this case is an important development for Egypt to live up to freedoms promised in the constitution. Unfortunately this verdict does not represent a legal sea change, he said, but rather the correct decision of an individual judge.

“We only have some judges giving these decisions,” he said. “In Egypt we have many judges who don’t work by the law, but by sharia.”

And Yousef is not assured that his official religious identity will stand. His attorney, Joseph Malak, said other Egyptian Christians have won the right to return to Christianity only to see government officials stop implementation.

“The stumbling block is the police or civil registry office could refuse to carry it out on paper,” he said. Other measures that could block implementation, he said, include appeals against the decision by courts “infiltrated by Muslim fundamentalist ideologies.”

Last year Egypt’s top administrative court allowed 12 converts to Islam to return to Christianity, but the decision was appealed before the country’s Supreme Constitutional Court.

The court was going to rule in November concerning the legality of reversion to Christianity, but its decision has been postponed indefinitely. If the court had upheld the decision, Egyptian converts to Islam would have had the constitutional right to return to Christianity.

But for now, victories such as Yousef’s depend on the will of each judge.

“It means every judge issues a ruling at their own discretion, [even though] the law in existence is in favor of these people,” said Samia Sidhom, English editor of Egyptian Christian weekly Watani.

Changing an official religious identity from Islam to any other religion in Egypt is extremely difficult. While Article 47 of Egypt’s civil law gives citizens the right to choose their religion, Article II of the Egyptian constitution enshrines sharia as the source of Egyptian law.

Traditional interpretation of sharia calls for the death of Islamic “apostates,” or those who leave Islam, but in Egypt legal authorities give somewhat more flexibility to those born and raised as Christians before converting to Islam.

Yousef decided to return to Christianity as a matter of religious belief and doubts about Islam, his lawyer said.

Ramses said he hopes to see more decisions in favor of Christians wanting to revert to their religion. He said many in Egypt convert to Islam not for religious reasons, but to secure a divorce, attain higher social status or marry a Muslim.

Religious reversion cases are difficult to win, but far more difficult is for Muslim-born converts to Christianity to officially change their religion, although a few have tried. One such person is Maher Ahmad El-Mo’otahssem Bellah El-Gohary, a convert with an open case at the State Council Court to replace the word “Muslim” on his identification card with “Christian.”

El-Gohary, 56, has been a Christian for 34 years. His case is only the second of his kind in Egypt. Muhammad Hegazy filed the first in August 2007, but his case was denied in a January 2008 court ruling that declared it contrary to Islamic law for a Muslim to leave his religion.  

Report from Compass Direct News