Turkey Needs to Change its Policy and Rhetoric Toward Religious Minorities | Opinion

Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan stunned his country's Christians and Jews by publicly using the slur "gavur" (infidel), a pejorative designation for non-Muslims, to criticize his political opposition. Such name-calling reflects the systematic discrimination Turkish Christians and Jews face, and can only accelerate their ongoing exodus from a land where they have lived for two millennia. Ankara needs to change not only its rhetoric but also its policy to reverse the alarming trends that have brought religious minority communities to the brink of extinction.

Erdogan's use of the slur was not a slip of the tongue; it represented deeply ingrained prejudices about non-Muslim minorities among Turkey's ruling circles. Back in 2016, then-deputy prime minister Numan Kurtulmus, who now serves as the deputy chair of Erdogan's Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party, said, "For us, independence is being able to call infidels 'gavur.'"

Kurtulmus's comment was a not-so-subtle reference to the Tanzimat reforms Ottoman Sultan Abdulmejid I introduced in 1839, which Muslim subjects of the empire resented for leading to a purported ban on using the slur "gavur" in addressing the empire's Christian and Jewish underlings. Today, many among Turkey's ruling Islamist-ultranationalist coalition believe that the Ottomans capitulated to the West by granting certain civil liberties to religious minorities in the 19th century, a trope that continues to fuel anti-minority sentiment and the portrayal of Christians and Jews as fifth columns in the service of Western meddling.

Pastor Andrew Brunson of North Carolina—who spent almost two years in a Turkish prison on false charges of military espionage, terrorism and coup plotting—became the public face of the harassment Christian faith leaders have experienced since the country's failed coup attempt in 2016. Among the long list of ludicrous accusations Brunson faced was the claim that he conspired to create a Christian-Kurdish state in Turkey. A secret witness testified that a member of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), whom Brunson had regularly invited to speak at church services, would cut a cake each week "with a PKK flag with a cross on [it]"—a bizarre accusation that made headlines even in mainstream Turkish newspapers.

Brunson was not the only Christian faith leader targeted by such government-orchestrated smear campaigns. Turkey's pro-government dailies also slandered the Greek Orthodox ecumenical patriarch with accusations of "plotting" the 2016 failed coup alongside the CIA, and went so far as to publish a fabricated Vatican passport to allege that the coup's alleged mastermind was a Catholic cardinal. A pro-government columnist claimed that the coup's instigator has a Jewish mother and an Armenian father, and is a member of the Catholic clerical hierarchy. Another suggested that coup plotters might be hiding in churches. As expected, hate crimes targeting churches and Christians spiked.

Erdogan
President of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan arrives to give a press conference after the cabinet meeting at the Presidential Complex in Ankara, Turkey, on September 21, 2020. Adem ALTAN / AFP/Getty

Although almost five years have passed since Turkey's abortive coup, the harassment of Christians has not waned. In fact, the deportation of Protestant faith leaders has picked up steam. Since 2016, Ankara has intensified its use of the N-82 code—designating foreign nationals as a national security threat—to deny entry or residence permits to Protestant faith leaders. Turkish authorities expelled 30 Protestants in 2020 and 35 the year before. More recently, Ankara started deporting foreign spouses of Turkish Protestant clergy, hoping the move would also drive out Turkish Protestants, who do not want the state to separate them from their loved ones.

The Turkish government also seems to be discouraging the return of members of various Eastern Christian denominations to their ancestral lands in the country's Kurdish-majority southeast. On April 8, a Turkish court imposed a 25-month prison sentence on Syriac Orthodox priest Sefer Bileçen, known as Father Aho, a longtime Istanbul resident who had returned to Mardin to become the caretaker of the 1,500-year-old Mor Yakub Monastery. Turkish authorities first arrested Father Aho in January 2020 on charges of "membership of a terrorist organization," but released him on parole after public pressure.

Two days after Father Aho's arrest, a Chaldean Catholic couple who had resettled in their ancestral village on the Turkish-Iraqi border disappeared. The mutilated body of the wife appeared two months later, but the husband remains missing, prompting the opposition's criticism of negligence and insufficient efforts on the part of Turkish authorities.

The Erdogan government's conversion of Hagia Sophia from a museum into a mosque last July was one of its most threatening moves with regard to Turkey's religious minorities. The Turkish president's evocation of the Ottoman "spirit of conquest" and officials' references to the "right of the sword" to legitimize the conversion of Hagia Sophia—as well as several other churches—have relegated Turkey's Christian citizens to the inferior status of conquered minorities. Elpidophoros, the archbishop of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America—and a native of Istanbul—warned last year that "a mentality of the conqueror, and claiming conqueror's rights...changes the relationship of the state to its citizens." He urged the Turkish state not to "have the mindset of the conqueror," adding, "I want to feel in my own country as an equal citizen."

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom stated in its 2021 Annual Report that "religious freedom conditions in Turkey continued to follow a troubling trajectory" and once again recommended that the country be listed on the State Department's Special Watch List for "engaging in or tolerating severe violations of religious freedom." It also raised the alarm over the hostile conditions for religious minorities in the areas Turkey and its Islamist proxies control in Syria.

As Ankara's policies swing back and forth between scapegoating of minorities and spectacles of tolerance that showcase the Turkish government's "generous" efforts to restore churches and synagogues, minority communities continue to dwindle, nearing extinction. If Turkey does not want to end up with well-maintained churches and synagogues that cater only to tourists—rather than to indigenous communities with two millennia of history—Ankara needs to bring an end to its prejudicial rhetoric and discriminatory policies.

Nadine Maenza is President of Patriot Voices where she focuses on religious freedom and working family policy. She also serves as a Commissioner on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. @nadinemaenza. Aykan Erdemir, is a former member of the Turkish parliament and senior director of the Turkey Program at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He also serves on Anti-Defamation League's Task Force on Middle East Minorities. @aykan_erdemir

The views expressed in this article are the writers' own.