According to a scholar of comparative religion, Christians in Turkey are being persecuted by the Turkish government, in part to distract attention from its recent setbacks in foreign policy.
Alexander Görlach, a senior fellow with the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs, said that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan needs a distraction from his failures, and Christians can provide just that.
“While the world is busy fighting the COVID-19 pandemic, dealing with mass unemployment and a global recession, the Turkish government is taking advantage of the situation to further pressure minorities,” Görlach said in a June 23 opinion piece for Deutsche Welle, a German public broadcaster.
His assessment of the plight of Turkish Christians, one of the oldest populations of Christians in the world, comes after years of systemic discimination against minorities. Minorities make up 0.2% of the Turkish population, according to the 2020 United States Commission on International Religious Freedom report on Turkey. The vast majority of the population, including Erdogan, are Sunni Muslims.
Although the Turkish constitution “guarantees the freedom of conscience, religious belief, and conviction” and designates the country a “secular state,” according to USCIRF Erdogan’s administration uses an Islamic nationist rhetoric to discriminate against minorities.
Contrary to Turkey’s claim to a secular status, the government includes both the Directorate of Religious Affairs, which supervises Muslim practices in the country, and the General Directorate of Foundations, which manages the activities of minority religious groups.
Precipitating the USCIRF designation of Turkey to the “Special Watch List” for offenses against religious freedom, the Turkish government barred the elections of non-Muslim groups from taking place, leaving some religious groups without leaders.
One such group, the Armenian Apostolic Church, was left without a functioning Patriarch of Constantinople for 11 years while the government blocked their elections, according to the USCIRF report.
Religious rights groups were also alarmed when officials arrested Fr. Sefer Bileçen, a Syriac Orthodox priest, on terrorism charges after he gave bread and water to members of an illegal Kurdish separatist group, in January. Although the priest said that he felt it was his Christian duty to help those who come to the monastery door, he faced charges of “helping and abetting” terrorists, and at least seven and a half years in prison.
In addition, the Turkish government has appropriated many Chirstians’ land after they fled from the area during the recent Turkish military offensive. As they return, they find that they have nowhere to settle.
Turkish leaders said that Turkey’s designation to the USCIRF Special Watch List is unwarranted.
Hami Aksoy, a spokesperson for the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, claimed that the designation itself reveals an anti-Muslim bias underlying USCIRF.
“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,” Aksoy said. “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.”
When the United States retreated from Syria in 2019, Christians in the Middle East feared threats from Turkey.
“We are gravely concerned regarding the recent draw down of the U.S. presence in Iraq,” Chaldean Archbishop Bashar Warda of Ebril said. He was one of the leading voices on behalf of displaced Christians in the Middle East. Without the U.S. presence in Iraq, he and many others feared persecution by Islamic nationalist groups.
U.S. Vice President Mark Pence was confident that even without the U.S. presence in Iraq, the U.S. would be able to continue to protect religious minorities in the Middle East.
“The United States will work hand in hand from this day forward with faith-based groups and private organizations to help those who are persecuted for their faith. This is the moment, now is the time, and America will support these people in their hour of need,” Pence said.
Görlach, who wrote the opinion piece detailing the threat that the Turkish government poses to Christians, is not so confident.
“Step by step, using a nationalist and Islamic rhetoric, Turkey’s Christians are becoming a welcome scapegoat for Ankara,” said Görlach. “Erdogan has miscalculated on various fronts in Syria and Libya, and is now looking for someone to serve as a distraction.”