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 

Avatar: Is this the Greatest Movie of all Time?

Avatar is the movie of the moment. This movie from James Cameron has been in the making for well over a decade and the hype surrounding the movie is amazing. Is this the greatest movie of all time? Critics would seem to suggest that it is and that it will break the box office record for the most money made by a movie, which is currently held by another James Cameron movie – Titanic.

Below are some trailers of the movie:

Lawyer Calls Turkish Christians’ Trial a ‘Scandal’

Evidence still absent in case for ‘insulting Turkishness and Islam.’

SILIVRI, Turkey, October 16 (CDN) — After three prosecution witnesses testified yesterday that they didn’t even know two Christians on trial for “insulting Turkishness and Islam,” a defense lawyer called the trial a “scandal.”

Speaking after yesterday’s hearing in the drawn-out trial, defense attorney Haydar Polat said the case’s initial acceptance by a state prosecutor in northwestern Turkey was based only on a written accusation from the local gendarmerie headquarters unaccompanied by any documentation.

“It’s a scandal,” Polat said. “It was a plot, a planned one, but a very unsuccessful plot, as there is no evidence.”

Turkish Christians Hakan Tastan and Turan Topal were arrested in October 2006; after a two-day investigation they were charged with allegedly slandering Turkishness and Islam while talking about their faith with three young men in Silivri, an hour’s drive west of Istanbul.

Even the three prosecution witnesses who appeared to testify at Thursday’s (Oct. 15) hearing failed to produce any evidence whatsoever against Tastan and Topal, who could be jailed for up to two years if convicted on three separate charges.

Yesterday’s three witnesses, all employed as office personnel for various court departments in Istanbul, testified that they had never met or heard of the two Christians on trial. The two court employees who had requested New Testaments testified that they had initiated the request themselves.

The first witness, a bailiff in a Petty Offenses Court in Istanbul for the past 28 years, declared he did not know the defendants or anyone else in the courtroom.

But he admitted that he had responded to a newspaper ad about 10 years ago to request a free New Testament. After telephoning the number to give his address, he said, the book arrived in the mail and is still in his home.

He also said he had never heard of the church mentioned in the indictment, although he had once gone to a wedding in a church in Istanbul’s Balikpazari district, where a large Armenian Orthodox church is located.

“This is the extent of what I know about this subject,” he concluded.

Fidgeting nervously, a second witness stated, “I am not at all acquainted with the defendants, nor do I know any of these participants. I was not a witness to any one of the matters in the indictment. I just go back and forth to my work at the Istanbul State Prosecutors’ office.”

The third person to testify reiterated that he also had no acquaintance with the defendants or anyone in the courtroom. But he stated under questioning that he had entered a website on the Internet some five or six years ago that offered a free New Testament.

“I don’t know or remember the website’s name or contents,” the witness said, “but after checking the box I was asked for some of my identity details, birth date, job, cell phone – I don’t remember exactly what.”

Noting that many shops and markets asked for the same kind of information, the witness said, “I don’t see any harm in that,” adding that he would not be an open person if he tried to hide all his personal details.

For the next hearing set for Jan. 28, 2010, the court has repeated its summons to three more prosecution witnesses who failed to appear yesterday: a woman employed in Istanbul’s security police headquarters and two armed forces personnel whose whereabouts had not yet been confirmed by the population bureau.

Case ‘Demands Acquittal’

Polat said after the hearing that even though the Justice Ministry gave permission in February for the case to continue under Turkey’s controversial Article 301, a loosely-defined law that criminalizes insulting the Turkish nation, “in my opinion the documents gathered in the file demand an acquittal.”

“There is no information, no document, no details, nothing,” Polat said. “There is just a video, showing the named people together, but what they are saying cannot be heard. It was shot in an open area, not a secret place, and there is no indication it was under any pressure.”

But prosecution lawyer Murat Inan told Compass, “Of course there is evidence. That’s why the Justice Ministry continued the case. This is a large ‘orgut’ [a term connoting an illegal and armed organization], and they need to be stopped from doing this propaganda here.”

At the close of the hearing, Inan told the court that there were missing issues concerning the judicial legality and activities of the “Bible research center” linked with the defendants that needed to be examined and exposed.

Turkish press were conspicuously absent at yesterday’s hearing, and except for one representative of the Turkish Protestant churches, there were no observers present.

The first seven hearings in the trial had been mobbed by dozens of TV and print journalists, focused on ultranationalist lawyer Kemal Kerincsiz, who led a seven-member legal team for the prosecution.

But since the January 2008 jailing of Kerincsiz and Sevgi Erenerol, who had accompanied him to all the Silivri trials, Turkish media interest in the case has dwindled. The two are alleged co-conspirators in the massive Ergenekon cabal accused of planning to overthrow the Turkish government.

This week the European Commission’s new “Turkey 2009 Progress Report” spelled out concerns about the problems of Turkey’s non-Muslim communities.

“Missionaries are widely perceived as a threat to the integrity of the country and to the Muslim religion,” the Oct. 14 report stated. “Further efforts are needed to create an environment conducive to full respect of freedom of religion in particular.”

In specific reference to Tastan and Topal’s case, the report noted: “A court case against two missionaries in Silivri continued; it was also expanded after the Ministry of Justice allowed judicial proceedings under Article 301 of the Criminal Code.”

The Turkish constitution guarantees freedom of religion to all its citizens, and the nation’s legal codes specifically protect missionary activities.

“I trust our laws on this. But psychologically, our judges and prosecutors are not ready to implement this yet,” Polat said. “They look at Christian missionaries from their own viewpoint; they aren’t able to look at them in a balanced way.”

Report from Compass Direct News 


Another man killed, more houses and churches attacked in Orissa’s Kandhamal district.

NEW DELHI, September 16 (Compass Direct News) – A policeman was killed today, the body of another victim of Hindu extremist violence was discovered and more houses and churches burned in Orissa state’s Kandhamal district even as anti-Christian violence spread to at least five more states across India over the weekend.

Christians and churches were targeted in Karnataka, Kerala, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Jharkhand as fallout from violence in Orissa that began following the assassination of a Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council or VHP) leader, Laxmanananda Saraswati, and four of his disciples in Kandhamal district on August 23.

A mob of around 500 rioters today killed a policeman and burned down a police station in Orissa’s Kandhamal district, where Hindu extremists launched a spate of attacks three weeks ago blaming local Christians of killing Saraswati and his disciples. Maoists have claimed responsibility for the murders of the Hindu leaders.

“A large number of attackers armed with country-made guns and crude weapons gunned down a constable and set ablaze the police station at Gochapada early this morning,” Director General of Police Gopal Nanda told The Indian Express. Gochapada is 36 kilometers (22 miles) from Phulbani, the district headquarters of Kandhamal.

Police sources told the daily that the mob was demanding release of a man held by security personnel, but local residents felt the attack came in retaliation for police firing into a crowd in Kurtamgarh in Tumudibandh area, killing at least one person, on Saturday (Sept. 13).


Murder in Orissa

While the body of another person was found and at least 14 houses were burned on Sunday night (Sept. 14), a church and several houses were set ablaze on the previous day.

The Statesman newspaper reported that at least nine houses of Makabali village and five in Sanakbali village were torched in the Gunjibadi area. Authorities found the body of Purander Naik, who had fled to a relief camp where mainly Christians had taken refuge, in his village of Nilungia.

“The decomposed body of Naik was found by police near the Ratingia dam yesterday,” the newspaper reported yesterday. “Naik was at the G. Udayagiri relief camp for over 10 days but had left for his village to see the condition of his house and poultry. His family was at the relief camp. Apparently he was killed during his visit to the village.”

The Press Trust of India reported that while nine houses were torched in Toposi village, another house was burned in Dibadi village under the Raikia police station in Kandhamal.

The Rev. Ashis Parida of the Evangelical Fellowship of India (EFI) reported that more than 2,000 Hindu extremists set fire to a church belonging to the Church of North India (CNI) denomination and several houses of Christians in Kurtamgarh village on Saturday afternoon (Sept. 13). Kurtamgarh is about seven kilometers (four miles) from the ashram (religious center) of Hindu leader Saraswati.

Compass received reports that a Hindu extremist mob on Friday (Sept. 12) burned one church and a mission hostel in Mangapanga, Tumulibandh; three churches in Mundabali, Badipankha; and one church in Baringia in Phulbani. An estimated 40 houses were also destroyed on the same day by the intolerant Hindus.

The next afternoon a large Hindu extremist mob descended on Kurtamgarh, burning several houses and the CNI Church. Sources said the extremists were targeting the village headman of the area, a Christian whose house they destroyed.

A local source said that “while the mob was attacking the Christian homes and churches, the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) forces took notice of it and fired in the air to disperse the crowd. To their surprise the mob retaliated with gunfire aimed at the CRPF, which wounded two soldiers of the CRPF, one of whom was reported to be quite serious and had to be taken to Behrampur for his medical treatment.”

The CRPF forces retaliated with gunfire of their own, killing one person and injuring about 12. Early reports suggested that two people had died in the CRPF firing, but only one body was said to be recovered by the CRPF after the incident.

Krishan Kumar, district collector of Kandhamal, told media that on that day, “At least 400-500 people, some of them carrying firearms, attacked a man’s home and set it on fire at Kurtamgarh village.”

While the state government says 24 people, mainly Christian, have died in the Orissa violence, the All India Christian Council (AICC) maintained that 45 Christians were confirmed dead and five more were still missing.

According to the AICC, 14 districts of Orissa witnessed violence with Kandhamal as the epicenter. It reported at least 50,000 people from 300 villages have been affected by the violence, with hundreds still hiding in forests, and 4,000 houses and 115 churches burned or destroyed.


Death in Relief Camps

At least 20,000 people are in the 14 relief camps set up by the state government in Kandhamal. Two elderly persons and two children are known to have died in three of the relief camps.

The Statesman reported that while two ailing men, 75-year-old Sua Naik from Budrungia village and 66-year-old Kasipatra Naik from Tatamaha village, died at the Raikia relief camp, two children, one from the Phulbani camp and the other from G. Udayagiri camp, died during the week.

One of the children was reportedly a 10-year-old girl who had been hiding in the forest since the violence began who died from disease attained by being constantly on the run. The name of the girl was not known, but she was said to be from Kotgarh.

The Statesman also reported that the chief secretary of Orissa state, Ajit Tripathy, held a review meeting yesterday to discuss health and sanitation measures at the relief camps.

Orissa is ruled by a coalition of a regional party, Biju Janata Dal, and the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).


Attacks in Karnataka

Attacks were reported also from the southern state of Karnataka, where Hindu extremists ratcheted up hostilities after the state education ministry served show-cause notices to over 2,000 Christian schools in the state for staying shut on Aug. 29 to protest the violence against Christians in Orissa.

On Sunday (Sept. 14), Hindu extremists attacked several churches in Karnataka’s district of Dakshina Kannada, in Udupi and Chikmagalur, on the pretext that Christians were engaging in “forcible” conversions of Hindus to Christianity.

In Dakshina Kannada district, suspected extremists from the Bajrang Dal, VHP’s youth wing, attacked the Adoration Monastery near the Milagres Church on Falnir Road in Mangalore region.

“The 10-member group barged into the prayer hall and damaged the tabernacle, where the holy Eucharist is kept,” reported the Times of India. “They damaged windowpanes, furniture as well as the crucifix. Police said the same group attempted to vandalize another prayer hall in Kankanady, but were driven back.”

The daily added that Christians later gathered in large numbers in front of the Milagres Hall to protest the attacks, which resulted in a day-long stand off between the protestors, who reportedly hurled stones at the police, with officers using batons in return. Several vehicles were damaged in the tussle.

In Udupi district, three churches of the New Life Fellowship were attacked by suspected Bajrang Dal extremists while Sunday prayers were in progress, reported the daily. At least 15 Hindu extremists entered its prayer hall, attacking worshippers and ransacking the hall during the worship service. A music system and projector were damaged.

In Shiroor area, Hindu extremists attacked another prayer hall of the New Life Fellowship, burning a vehicle and striking some members of the congregation, including the pastor.

The daily reported another attack on a church in Mudur, near Kollur, resulted in damaged materials. It added that police prevented yet another such attack in prayer halls of the New Life Fellowship in Kaup and Karkala areas.

In Chikmagalur district, extremists attacked three churches and the house of a new convert. “In one incident, 15 activists came in a vehicle and barged into Harvest India church in Makkikoppa near Jayapura in Koppa Taluka [Block] in the morning and assaulted a parishioner and the Protestant pastor,” the daily reported. “They broke the window panes and the plastic chairs.”

On Sunday night (Sept. 14), a mob attacked a prayer hall in the Padavu Pre-University College on the Mangalore-Udupi Road.

Yesterday morning, Hindu extremists attacked a shop in Kalladka village and the St. Ann’s Friary Grotto near Canara College, about 25 kilometers (almost 16 miles) from Mangalore, in two separate incidents. A Christian prayer hall in Chickballapur district, about 50 kilometers (31 miles) from Bangalore, also was attacked.

Some Christians reportedly retaliated by targeting policemen in different parts of Dakshina Kannada district. At least four policemen were injured, with one reportedly stabbed yesterday.

According to Indo-Asian News Service (IANS), police arrested about 100 people, almost all Christians, for staging allegedly violent protests.

Hindu extremists also attacked churches in Belthangady, Moodabidri, Koloor, Kodaikal, Hemanagatta, Kadur and Puttur, Kundapur and Balehanoor. All together 18 churches and prayer halls in and around Mangalore and in Udipi and Chikmaglur districts were attacked on Sunday (Sept. 14).

Police reportedly had arrested seven Bajrang Dal members by Sunday night. Schools and shops remained shut in Mangalore yesterday in protest, and vehicles were kept off the roads. Christians continued to protest, and in some places police had to fire tear gas shells to maintain order. A curfew was imposed in Mangalore as well.

But that did not stop Hindu extremists from throwing stones at a church in Mangalore yesterday morning, in spite of an order the previous day banning assembly of more than five people for three days. Chief Minister B.S. Yeddyurappa stoked fires by stating, “There is no room for forcible conversion in democracy. No one should indulge in it.”

Asked what action he was going to take against the Bajrang Dal during a press conference yesterday evening, the chief minister said only, “Whoever was involved in this act will be arrested very soon.”

But he was quick to blame church groups, saying “No one has the right to insult any other religion. As we know some community called ‘New Life’ is converting people, we have asked the bishop to support us in this regard. But as per the bishop, New Life is not under his control and the bishop is not the in charge of this community.”

There was little to suggest the involvement of New Life Fellowship churches in forced conversion. NDTV 24X7, a national television news channel reported that “so far there seems to be little evidence that New Life is carrying out forcible conversions.”

A team from the National Commission for Minorities (NCM) will reportedly make an on-the-spot assessment of attacks on churches and prayer halls in different parts of Karnataka and submit its report to the federal government. Members will visit churches damaged in attacks in Dakshina Kannada, Udupi and Chikmagalur districts, as well as Mangalore.

Bajrang Dal representatives unabashedly admitted to the violence that was carried out on Sunday (Sept. 14), telling NDTV 24X7 that they are targeting evangelical groups in and around Mangalore.


Violence in Other States

In the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, Bajrang Dal extremists on Sunday (Sept. 14) attacked two pastors in Kanpur district, accusing them of beating their supporters, reported IANS.

Govindnagar police station inspector N.K. Singh told IANS that the pastor of the New India Church of God, Jitendra Singh, approached officers late Sunday night and submitted a written complaint against Ram Babu Bajpai, a local leader of the Bajrang Dal.

Pastor Singh said Bajpai, along with a large number of his supporters, attacked him in the church compound in the presence of his wife, Helena Singh, and fellow pastor Anil Gilbert.


Both sides filed complaints

According to the complaint by the Hindu extremists, “The Bajrang Dal has alleged that the church was involved in converting Hindus to Christianity by offering them money, and the pastors attacked them when its activists opposed the practice,” IANS added.

In the north-central state of Madhya Pradesh, at 1:30 p.m. today five unidentified people carrying air guns shot a guard of the Caramel Convent in Banduha village (under the Ghatia police station) in Ujjain district, Madhya Pradesh state. Father Anand Muttungal of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Madhya Pradesh state reported that Amar Singh’s injuries were not fatal.

Fr. Muttungal said that the culprits asked Singh to call the nuns, and when he told them they were away the assailants beat and shot him.

Hindu extremists in Madhya Pradesh also burned the 80-year-old Masihi Mandir church of the CNI denomination in Chhawni (Cantonment) area of Indore city at 10:30 p.m. on Saturday (Sept. 13), reported EFI.

“The fire was spotted by a few onlookers, who managed to extinguish it quickly,” EFI reported. “The doors, windows and other wooden material were burned.”

In the southern state of Kerala, on Sunday night (Sept. 14) Hindu extremists attacked the Jaya Mata Convent School, a Christian kindergarten that doubled as a church in Kottakkani area in Kasargode district under the Catholic diocese of Teleicherry, reported the Times of India.


The Hindu extremists launched the attack to protest conversions

“On Monday morning, we saw the glass panes of a box containing the figure of Mother Mary, as well as window panes of the school, smashed,” Vicar Antony Punnoor told the daily. “It seemed someone had hurled stones.”

The Kerala state interior minister, Kodiyeri Balakrishnan, told the daily that the incident would be investigated.

“Cops would also examine if the attack had any link with such incidents in Karnataka,” he reportedly said. “No one will be allowed to create communal riots in the state.”

In the western state of Jharkhand, Hindu villagers attacked Christians of a Believers’ Church and pressured them to “reconvert” to Hinduism in Talatad village (under Patratu police station) in Hazaribagh district on Sunday (Sept. 14), reported the Christian Legal Association.

Pastor Cyril Tamgaria and 18 others were worshiping in the house of Badhi Oraon when Hindu extremists surrounded the house. They beat them, took them forcibly to a temple in a nearby jungle and asked them to “return” to their old faith. Local Christians reported the incident to police, however, and officers freed the Christians.

The Rev. Dr. Babu Joseph, spokesperson of the Catholic Church in India, said in a statement that the Christian community in India has been conducting itself in a peaceful manner throughout the ordeals, and “even under extreme provocation it has exercised restraint.”

“It is not to be construed as weakness,” he said, “but a preferred option based on sound principles of civilized living.”

Joseph added that the community continued to render its services to all sectors of society without discrimination.

“Nevertheless, baseless allegations of fraudulent conversion have long been hurled at it by certain vested interests whose chief agenda seems to be social polarization on the lines of religious beliefs,” he said. “We, as responsible citizens of India, will not succumb to their divisive tactics, but continue to work, in the spirit of Christ our master, for the unity, integrity and progress of the nation.”


Women’s Group Pans Official Assessment of Orissa

Dismissing claims by government officials, the National Federation of Indian Women (NFIW) reported that their findings from a visit to Orissa’s Kandhamal district last week did match statements made by the central and state governments before the Supreme Court.

Annie Raja, general secretary of the NFIW, told media that the team she led to the riot-torn district Sept. 9-12 concluded that a judicial inquiry was inadequate to uncover abuses.

The NFIW demanded a Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) probe into the killing of Laxmanananda Saraswati and subsequent riots in Kandhamal district. The organization’s report notes that the situation in the district was tense and a sense of security was absent among the Christian minority community.

Calling conditions in the relief camps “pathetic,” with about 20,000 people living with inadequate medical facilities, Raja reportedly said that camps with more than 700 children and around 30 pregnant women did not have a pediatrician or a gynecologist.

The NFIW demanded that civil society organizations and women’s organizations be allowed to participate in relief and rehabilitation operations.

Orissa officials have asked the central government to allow the state to retain central and paramilitary forces until the end of October in light of approaching festivals.

Home Secretary T.K. Mishra has described the situation in Kandhamal as “satisfactory” and requested the recall of the Border Security Force, as “they did not fit into the situation” in Orissa. He added, however, that the state needed Central Reserve Police Force and Rapid Action Force personnel to deal with any rioting. He also acknowledged that sporadic violence was taking place in some villages of the Kandhamal district.

Report from Compass Direct News