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 


Christian mother wins right to high court appeal regarding ruling that favored Muslim father.

ISTANBUL, February 20 (Compass Direct News) – Prosecutor General Abdel Meguid Mahmoud last week granted the mother of 14-year-old twins Andrew and Mario Medhat Ramses the right to appeal a custody decision awarding her sons to their Muslim father.

Muslim convert Medhat Ramses Labib gained custody of the boys last September, contrary to Article 20 of Egypt’s Personal Status Law, which states children should remain with their mother until age 15. The boys’ mother, Kamilia Lotfy Gaballah, won the right to appeal on Feb. 11.

“We all have a little bit of hope, new hope,” said George Ramses, the twins’ older brother. “Of course, they are a little afraid about everything, but generally they are excited.”

With support from the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), Gaballah will appeal the Family Court’s decision awarding custody to the father before the Court of Cassation. Family Court decisions are not usually given recourse to the Court of Cassation, one of Egypt’s highest courts, and require special referral from a public prosecutor.

EIPR Director Hossam Bahgat stressed that the Court of Cassation will be examining the law on which the decision was based, not the decision itself.

“The Court of Cassation will pronounce a decision on the legal rule that Christian children, when one of their parents converts to Islam, should be automatically moved to the Muslim parent’s custody,” he said. “So it is very important in terms of changing the legal rule, but according to the law it will not have a direct impact on Andrew and Mario themselves.”

Preliminary hearings are scheduled to begin on March 2.

The twins will celebrate their 15th birthday in June of this year. At 15, Egyptian children of divorcees have the legal right to choose which parent they want to live with. Ramses told Compass that he is skeptical about whether his brothers will be given this right.

“The whole law is that kids should spend the first 15 years with their mum, and then they get to choose who they want to live with,” Ramses said. “[Choosing] is the second part of the rule that was not applied to us, so we don’t know actually what will be the case.”

The boys’ father, Labib, converted to Islam in 1999 after divorcing Gaballah to marry another woman. In 2006 Labib altered the official religious status of the boys and later applied for custody.


Covenant Breaches

The boys are now at the center of two separate disputes, both of which have roots in the complex interaction between Islamic and secular law in Egypt: whether children should be automatically awarded to the Muslim parent, and whether they therefore should automatically convert to Islam.

Custody battles between Muslim fathers and Christian mothers have typically been instances where Islamic law has predominated over secular legislation. Sharia (Islamic law), which the Egyptian constitution declares as being the source of law, states that a non-Muslim should not have authority over a Muslim.

In the case of Andrew and Mario, this sharia provision meant that they should not be left under the jurisdiction of their non-Muslim mother. The automatic and compulsory conversion of the twins, following their father’s decision to become Muslim, is the second area of contention EIPR is working on behalf of Gaballah to resolve.

The issue once again shows the contradictory stances of Egyptian civil law, which reflects both freedom of religion and Islamic thought. A fatwa (religious edict) issued by Egypt’s Grand Mufti, Ali Gomaa, regarding the case of Andrew and Mario states, “The religion of the two children should follow their Muslim father’s, unless they change their religion with full will after puberty.”

Although this statement allows Andrew and Mario the right to choose their religion “after puberty,” conversion from Islam is not only extremely difficult in Egypt but also dangerous.

Egypt has ratified a number of human rights treaties allowing advocacy groups like EIPR recourse to international watchdogs and advisory bodies. One of these, the African Commission on Human and Peoples Rights (ACHPR), has agreed to examine the case. The commission has asked both parties to submit written statements by March in preparation for an initial hearing in May.

The European Union of Coptic Organisations for Human Rights (EUCOHR) has also weighed in, petitioning the European Parliament for help.

“We have gone to the European Parliament with a legal document detailing about 30 to 40 breaches of international covenants like the International Declaration of Human Rights,” said Ibrahim Habib, vice-chairman of EUCOHR.

Habib said he hopes involving international bodies such as these will raise the profile of the case and put pressure on the Egyptian judiciary to rule impartially. Such attention could also have positive implications for the much harassed Coptic community at large.

The report filed by EUCOHR and the U. S. Coptic Foundation for Legal Assistance, which explores violations of such pacts as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, ends with this statement:

“This is a call for justice and to save the two children from the coercion, persecution and injustice with which they are overburdened and, it is respectfully requested that a prompt action be taken to save those children and their future. Also, the annulment of the judgements against the two children is promptly requested.”  

Report from Compass Direct News


Judge ignores video evidence of officers’ unwarranted, violent attack on café.

ISTANBUL January 29 (Compass Direct News) – Following a brutal raid on six Christian brothers and their café because they had opened for business during Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting, a judge on Jan. 22 sentenced them to three years in prison with hard labor for resisting arrest and assaulting authorities.

Last September, 13 police officers raided the café in Port Sa’id, a city in Egypt’s Nile delta, overturning tables, breaking chairs and smashing glasses and hookah pipes, according to the Coptic Christians’ lawyer. They beat the brothers with sticks, leaving two with broken arms and a third needing 11 stitches for a head wound.

“The police attacked these people and assaulted them unjustifiably,” said Ramses el-Nagar, the Christians’ lawyer. “Police did not want to see people eating during Ramadan. This is unfair, because whatever people’s beliefs are, the law is something else and they should not be mixed.”

There is no law in Egypt under which the brothers could be prosecuted for opening their café during Ramadan. When they tried to defend their café, the brothers, all in their 30s, were arrested on Sept. 8 and charged with resisting arrest and assaulting authorities. They were held for 30 days before being released on bail, set at 12,000 Egyptian pounds (US$2,173).

At the trial last week, defense counsel showed a video of the incident shot by an onlooker as evidence of police brutality. The footage did not sway Judge Mohammed Hassan El-Mahmody, prompting some Coptic activists to claim religious zeal and prejudice as the true motives behind the convictions.

“The police very often pressure the Copts to accept unfair situations,” said El-Nagar. “Unfortunately, with the power of the police and Egypt being a police state, we don’t have the inclination to take the police to court.”

The names of the imprisoned Christian brothers are Ashraf Morris Ghatas; Magdy Morris Ghatas; Osama Morris Ghatas; Nabil Morris Ghatas; Walid Morris Ghatas; and Hany Morris Ghatas.

Ibrahim Habib, chairman of advocacy group United Copts of Great Britain, told Compass that Egypt needs to take certain steps for progress toward justice.

“What we would like to see is the government implementing the law, showing fairness, maintaining total separation between the state and religion, and removing the second article from the Egyptian constitution,” which makes Islamic law the source of statutory law, he said. “We would like to see Egypt free and treating all citizens equally.”

El-Nagar has 30 days to appeal the decision before the Court of Cassation, a high appeals tribunal. He said he plans to do so.  

Report from Compass Direct News