Remarks by Dr. Elizabeth H. Prodromou
Hellenic American Leadership Council, Dir. of International Affairs
Harvard University, Affiliate Scholar
Briefing on “The State of Religious Freedom and Human Rights Abuses in the Eastern Mediterranean”
Before the Congressional Caucus on Hellenic-Israeli Affairs of the United States House of Representatives
Rayburn House Office Building
May 15, 2012
Chairman Bilirakis and Chairman Deutch:
Good afternoon. Let me begin by thanking you and the Caucus for the invitation to brief you on the state of religious freedom and human rights (freedom of thought, conscience, and religion or belief) in the Eastern Mediterranean. As a former Commissioner and Vice Chair of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom and as a current member of the State Department’s Religion and Foreign Policy Working Group on Strategic Dialogue with Civil Society, I am especially concerned with the egregious violations in religious freedom in some countries of the Eastern Mediterranean. I particularly appreciate the opportunity to be able to brief you on these violations, against the backdrop of the April 30 release of 2013 Annual Report of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF).
As you know, the Eastern Mediterranean is a region of enormous geo-strategic importance for the United States. In this regional intersection of the three continents of Europe, Asia, and Africa, US foreign policy concerns of energy security, intelligence gathering, and counter-terrorism cannot be understood apart from religious freedom and human rights conditions. The stability and security of key US allies and stalwart friends, such as Israel, Greece, and the Republic of Cyprus, is affected by religious freedom and human rights conditions in the region, particularly given egregious violations in countries that have long been considered US allies (Egypt and Turkey) and given the regional spillover effects related to the civil war and sectarian violence that has shattered Syria.
Let me turn to the current state of freedom of thought, conscience, and religion or belief in three cases of special concern in the Eastern Mediterranean: Syria, Turkey, and Turkish-occupied Cyprus. I’d like to provide you with basic facts on the ground in these countries, and certainly, in the Q & A, I’d be glad to discuss possible US policy options to address religious freedom and human rights conditions in those cases.
Syria: Current State of Freedom of Thought, Conscience, and Religion or Belief
Conditions of religious freedom and human rights have degenerated precipitously since the Syrian uprising began over two years ago. The humanitarian crisis in Syria is colossal—almost 80,000 killed, more than 3.6 million internally displaced persons (IDPs), and approximately 1.3 million Syrian refugees (as well as Iraqi refugees from Syria) in neighboring countries.
The international community, including the ICRC, the UN Human Rights Council’s Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, and numerous NGOs, concur that the Assad regime has committed wholesale human rights violations, under the 1949 Geneva Conventions and Additional Protocol I, including extrajudicial killings, rape and torture. These human rights crimes have taken on a sectarian cast, given that the Alewite minority community, a heterodox offshoot of Shia Islam, dominates the Assad regime, while the opposition is overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim.
The conflict has all but eliminated Syria’s religious diversity, as the Christian minority which constitutes 10% of the Syrian population, has been, literally, caught in the crossfire of the Alewite-Sunni violence and as Muslim extremists have labeled Christians as Assad collaborators, simply for having attempted to maintain a neutral stance in what is a Muslim civil war. The ancient Christian cities of Aleppo and Homs have all but been emptied of Christians, who have taken refuge in Lebanon and Jordan (most avoid Turkey, given that country’s record of genocide against its Christian population). Most Syrian Christians see the choice now as one of leaving the country or of risking an uncertain and dangerous future.
One of the sharpest indicators of the targeting of religious minorities, and especially, Christian minorities, is the abduction of the Syriac Orthodox Archbishop of Aleppo, Yohanna Ibrahim, and the Greek Orthodox Archbishop of Aleppo, Boulos Yazigi three weeks ago by armed assailants who are believed to be part of the opposition fighting against the Assad regime. The two religious leaders remain missing, and most evidence points to the work of foreign fighters embedded in the radical opposition, led by the al Nusra Front (officially designated a terrorist organization by the US State Department), an organization that calls for the implementation of a Sharia state in Syria.
Chairman Bilirakis and Deutch, the hemorrhage of Christians from Syria, lands where they have lived for millennia, was prefigured by the earlier flight of Jews from Syria of the Assad dictatorship. And the current targeting of Christians by jihadi militants masquerading as opposition to the Assad dictatorship is a worrying sign for the future of Sunni and Alewite Syrians who do not subscribe to the extremist vision of an al Qaeda Sharia state in the Eastern Mediterranean.
The 2013 Annual Report of the USCIRF did not designate Syria a CPC, although a recently published USCIRF Special Report on Protecting and Promoting Religious Freedom in Syria suggested this possibility.
And, regrettably, as of this briefing today, the USCIRF has been totally silent on the abduction of the two Orthodox Christian Archbishops.
Turkey & Turkish-Occupied Cyprus: Current State of Religious Freedom & Human Rights
Religious freedom and human rights conditions in Turkey and Turkish-occupied Cyprus continue to be defined by egregious and systematic violations, despite the recent decision of the USCIRF in its 2013 Annual Report to give Turkey what amounts to a free pass on its religious freedom violations.
Whereas the 2012 USCIRF Annual Report had identified “the Turkish government‘s systematic and egregious limitations on the freedom of religion or belief that affect all religious communities in Turkey, and particularly threaten the country‘s non-Muslim religious minorities,” as the basis for designating Turkey a Country of Particular Concern (CPC), there was an unprecedented two-tier upgrade of Turkey in the 2013 Annual Report, across Watch List and to the Other Countries and Regions Monitored category—based on the position that “Turkey is moving in a positive direction with regard to religious freedom.”
This position, Chairman Bilirakis and Deutch, is patently false, if one takes a look at the facts on the ground in Turkey. Indeed, only this past week, Turkish officials confirmed the discovery of an assassination plot against Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew; an investigation is now underway, with one suspect detained and another two suspects at large, in a plot that was designed to murder the Ecumenical Patriarch on May 29, the date marking the 560th anniversary of the conquest of Constantinople by the Ottoman Turks.
More broadly, the persecution of the Ecumenical Patriarch and the Greek Orthodox Christian minority in Turkey has continued unabated over the last year. The Greek Orthodox theological school of Halki remains closed, despite the regular repetition by Turkish officials to reopen the school 42 years after its closing. The Turkish government also continues to reject the Ecumenicity of the Ecumenical Patriarch and insists that future candidates for the Greek Orthodox hierarchy and position of the Patriarch be Turkish citizens. (Incidentally, there is no such requirement in the Turkish constitution; instead, Turkey puts forward this claim based on a law on the books for the municipality of Istanbul, which says that all employees of the municipality be citizens; so, by this logic, Turkey considers the Ecumenical Patriarch and members of the Patriarchal Synod to be “employess of the Istanbul municipality).
Given the precipitous decline in the number of Greek Orthodox Christians in Turkey to between 1,700 and 2,000, and the termination of any option for training clergy at Halki, the government of Turkey has effectively designed a formula aimed at the eradication of this ancient Christian community and Patriarchate.
In general, Christians in Turkey continue to face a range of restrictions and violations of their rights of freedom of belief, worship, and practice. Emblematic examples include the failure of the of Turkish to return the entire territory of the Mor Gabriel Monastery to the Syriac Orthodox Church, as well as delays in permitting the Syriac community to construct another church for their use; and Protestant and Roman Catholic Christians continue to face restrictions under the foundations laws in the use of their foundation properties for religious activities, which effectively prevents them from publicly practicing their faith. Hate crimes against Armenian Orthodox Christians continue seven years after the murder of Armenian journalist and human rights activist Hrant Dink. Armenian Orthodox Christians report rising fears in the climate of impunity against them, given cases like the recent murder of an 84-year-old Armenian woman who was found dead in her Istanbul home with a cross carved into her chest.
The Turkish government has moved aggressively to send a message that Christian worship is unwelcome in Turkey, given the conversion of the 13th-century Greek Orthodox Church of Aghia Sophia in Trabzon into a mosque, along with threats to hold a referendum on changing the great Byzantine Orthodox Cathedral of Aghia Sophia in Istanbul into a functioning mosque.
The Jewish minority in Turkey also faces increasing state and societal expressions of anti-Semitism, a turn away from the historical trendline of outward tolerance towards Jews in Turkey. Prime Minister Erdogan and members of his government have been consistent in their insidious use of anti-Semitic language and tropes. The most recent example is the Turkish Prime Minister’s reference to Zionism as a crime against humanity, at a UN conference on tolerance this past April; this follows on his claims about the participation of Turkish Jews in the Israeli Defense Force actions on the Mavi Marmari flotilla incident. The Turkish government’s suggestion that Turkish Jews have a dual loyalty to Turkey and Israel has intensified a climate of hatred towards Jews in Turkey.
The Alewite minority in Turkey, which comprises between 20-25% of the population, continue to experience violations of religious freedom. The Turkish government continued to impose legal prohibitions on registration of Alewite places of worship as cemevis. And there was no legal or constitutional resolution of Alewite requests for consistent application of an alternative to compulsory religious education classes in Islam in public primary and secondary schools. State-funded construction of Hanafi Sunni Mosques in Alevi villages also continued unabated.
Broader human rights violations continue to be reported by rights groups in Turkey. The July 2012 judicial package that had been expected to address the prosecutorial abuses that make Turkey one of the world’s worst violators of freedom of expression did not make adjustments. Instead, the Turkish government resorted with greater frequency to the use of Article 216/3 of the Turkish penal code as a blasphemy law, indicated by the conviction of virtuoso pianist Fazil Say for postings to his Twitter account that the government deemed insulting to Islam.
Although Turkey’s Constitutional Reconciliation Commission (AUK/CPC) has currently drafted the fourth version of the new Constitution, human rights experts in Turkey report that that there has been no progress on the whole range of issues that would potentially improve affect the religious freedom rights of the country’s religious minorities. This is despite the fact that representatives of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, the Syriac Orthodox Patriarchate, the Chief Rabbinate, and the Alewite communities submitted proposals to a sub-committee of the AUK/CPC. Overall, the pace and content of the Constitutional reform process in Turkey suggests that the Turkish government is unwilling to remedy the human rights and religious freedom violations that earned it a CPC designation by the USCIRF in 2012 and a facts-ignoring, political upgrade in 2013.
Turning to Turkish-occupied Cyprus, let me be succinct: The extent of violations of religious freedom targeted at the non-Muslim, Christian minorities (overwhelming Greek Orthodox, but including, as well, Armenian Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Maronite Christians) is unrivalled in any part of the Eastern Mediterranean. Turkey, with assistance from the Turkish-Cypriot local administration, has conducted a systematic, deliberate, comprehensive policy of religious cleansing against Christians, in Turkish-occupied Cyprus, such that all traces of living Christians and the religious and cultural history of Christianity, are being expunged in the occupation zone.
A few facts are illustrative, many of which were reported by the USCIRF on its visit to occupied Cyprus in 2011 and which were reported in detail in the 2012 Report of the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief on his mission to Cyprus.
There has been no progress on rehabilitation of the more than 500 churches, monasteries, and religious sites desecrated in the occupation zone. The impunity associated with such acts of destruction and vandalism is aggravated by the presence of plainclothes security personnel taking photographs of the enclaved Greek Orthodox Christians when they attend church services. The UN Special Rapporteur’s report notes such surveillance when he met with Armenian Orthodox Christians; the Armenian monastery in Halefka remains in a state of dangerous disrepair because the Turkish authorities refuse to permit its restoration. Religious leaders from all Christian communities are prevented from freely crossing the Green Line to visit and minister to the enclaved population, due to a suffocating permission process that is defined by arbitrary decisionmaking on the part of the Turkish-Cypriot authorities and by default, with final decisionmaking in the hands of the Turkish military. For over one year, the Bishop of Karpass, where the Greek Orthodox enclaved reside, has been placed on a permanent “stop list” that prevents him from serving the Christians under his religious jurisdiction.
Christians who cross the Green Line are not permitted to rehabilitate their churches, cemeteries, and other religious sites. Maronites do not have access to many of their religious sites, because they are located within Turkish military compounds, and the only Jewish cemetery in the occupation zone remains off limits to Jews because it is located inside the limits of a Turkish military base.
The impact of Turkey’s full control over the occupied north and, therefore, responsibility for religious freedom violations, extends to the Turkish Cypriots, as well. The UN Special Rapporteur noted in his report that the Turkish Cypriots have been subjected to compulsory religious education in their schools. This is part of the effort to Islamicize the occupied part of the island simultaneous with the cleansing of any Christian presence there.
To conclude, freedom of thought, conscience, and religion or belief is a universal human right and its vigorous protection for all citizens in the cases that I have mentioned will be a yardstick of political reform in Turkey and a requirement for the transition to a non-violent, post-Assad Syria. Given this sobering picture of what amounts to a religious freedom and human rights emergency in some parts of the Eastern Mediterranean, the question remains about how the US can help. We can discuss specific policy options in the question and answer, but above all, I would emphasize a single point: namely, that it is in the moral and strategic interest of the USA to advocate relentlessly, in private meetings, public diplomacy, and via our international aid policies, for the protection of this right for all those living in the Eastern Mediterranean.
Thank you for your attention.