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Turkey disputes US religious freedom commission's assessment of Turkey

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CNA Staff, May 1, 2020 / 12:09 pm (CNA).- The Turkish foreign ministry on Wednesday rejected Turkey’s inclusion in a report by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, charging that the report comes from a “biased mindset”.

“The report contains baseless, unaccredited and vague allegations as in the past years while trying to portray isolated incidents as violations of religious freedoms through far-fetched accusations,” Hami Aksoy, a spokesperson for the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said April 29.

“The importance attached by Turkey to protect religious freedoms, including those of religious minorities, is expressed at the highest level by our Government officials. Our authorities make it clear that any harm to the religious freedoms of our citizens will not be tolerated,” Aksoy added.

In its 2020 report, USCIRF recommended that the State Department add Turkey, as well as 10 other countries, to a “Special Watch List” of countries where abuses of religious minorities are taking place, but not at a level as severe as in those designated as “countries of particular concern.”

The commission wrote that “religious freedom conditions in Turkey remained worrisome” in 2019, “with the perpetuation of restrictive and intrusive governmental policies on religious practice and a marked increase in incidents of vandalism and societal violence against religious minorities.”

It cited the Turkish government’s prevention of the election of board members for non-Muslim religious groups and its limitations on the election of the Armenian Patriarch of Constantinople.

The report added that Alevis, a group related to Shia Islam and the country’s largest religious minority, “remained unable to gain official recognition for their gathering houses (cemevleri) as places of worship or to exempt their children from compulsory religious classes, despite European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) rulings finding that these policies violated Alevis’ rights.”

According to the US commission, Turkish religious minorities “expressed concerns that governmental rhetoric and policies contributed to an increasingly hostile environment and implicitly encouraged acts of societal aggression and violence.”

The report also drew attention to the permission given for a museum, that was originally a Greek Orthodox church and later a mosque, to be reconverted into a mosque. It noted also that president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has called for the same thing to happen to the Hagia Sophia, which has the same history.

USCIRF also said the Turkish government has “continued to dismiss, detain, and arrest individuals affiliated with, or accused of affiliation with, the U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gülen, for alleged complicity in a July 2016 coup attempt or involvement in terrorist activity.”

Gülen has lived in the US since 1999, and is considered a terrorist by the Turkish government.

The Turkish foreign ministry charged that Gülen’s mention in the report “amounts to deliberately turning a blind eye” to the coup attempt, and added: “We invite the US authorities to earnestly examine the evidence we have provided” about the Gülen movement “and to engage in effective cooperation in line with the spirit of alliance in order to reveal the true nature of this terrorist organization.”

Aksoy added that the recommendation of adding Turkey to a “special watch list” for religious freedom “is a clear indication of the biased mindset behind it and the circles under whose influence it was drawn up.”

“In the report that is supposed to include global trends that threaten religious freedoms, the Commission does not mention a single word about xenophobia, Islamophobia and discrimination on religious grounds that is on the rise in the West and the US,” Aksoy stated.

“This clearly reveals that the purpose of the report is not to protect religious rights and freedoms. It is clear that the Commission, which has been accused of being anti-Muslim in the past, has drawn up this report based on its unwarranted agenda and priorities under the influence of circles that are hostile to Turkey, rather than objective criteria. We recommend the authors of this report to look in the mirror and engage in self-criticism.”

Earlier this year, Turkish authorities arrested a Syriac Orthodox priest on terrorism charges after he provided bread and water to members of a Kurdish separatist group that has been deemed illegal.

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