WASHINGTON (RNS) Turkey stands as a new and controversial addition to an annual list of the worst offenders of religious freedom released Tuesday (March 20) by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.
Four of nine commissioners objected to adding Turkey to the list of “Countries of Particular Concern” — a who’s who of dictatorships and closed societies — and a fifth commissioner is second-guessing his vote to include the NATO ally.
But some Greek Orthodox Americans are pleased with the decision, citing longtime abuses against Orthodox Christians in the historic heartland of Eastern Orthodoxy.
“Turkey hasn’t been tolerant,” said the Rev. Alexander Karloutsos, assistant to Archbishop Demetrios of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America.
Istanbul — formerly known as Constantinople — is the headquarters of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the spiritual leader of the world’s 250 million Eastern Orthodox Christians.
“Our seminary remains closed. We can’t educate our clergy. We don’t have a legal personality in Turkey and neither does the Catholic Church, Protestant churches, the Armenian Church, the Jewish community.”
Turkey’s ambassador in Washington decried the decision.
“Any unbiased eye will immediately realize that that’s not where Turkey belongs in the USCIRF annual report,” said Ambassador Namik Tan.
“The categorization of Turkey as a CPC list country not only damages the credibility and relevance of the USCIRF, but also raises serious questions about the political motivation that drives this exercise.”
Congress established the independent watchdog panel in 1998 to monitor religious freedom globally. It recommends countries to the State Department for inclusion on its own annual list of worst offenders, which is typically smaller.
This year, the commission’s list includes 16 countries, two of which are new: Turkey and Tajikistan.
The others are Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Uzbekistan, Egypt, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Turkmenistan and Vietnam.
The commission’s new report cites Turkey’s “systematic limitations on the freedom of religion or belief,” particularly in relation to the country’s non-Muslim religious minorities, and their rights to train clergy, offer religious education and maintain places of worship.
But the report also notes some areas in which Turkey has improved, including better protections for the property of non-Muslims — improvements the State Department has also noted in recent months.