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Today is a day of both celebration and remembrance in America. The inauguration in Washington of Barack Hussein Obama for a second term as the 44th President of the United States of America coincides with MLK Day, the holiday of remembrance for American civil-rights icon Martin Luther King, Jr., who was assassinated in Tennessee in 1968 because of his non-violent campaign to ensure freedom and equality for all American citizens. For the first time in the country’s history, the invocation at the presidential inauguration will be delivered by a lay person and a woman, Myrlie Edgar-Williams, tireless civil-rights activist and widow of Medgar Evans, who was murdered in Mississippi in 1963 for championing school desegregation and voting rights for all American citizens.
There is almost a providential feel to today’s tableau of America, which conveys an inspirational message that the United States stands for universal human rights—rights intrinsic to every human being, regardless of race, gender, religion, or belief—and, likewise, that hatred manifested in violence in America is unlawful and will be met by justice for all. The moving symbolisms in today’s presidential inauguration should also remind the new administration that the legitimacy and security of the United States of America demands resolute commitment to the promotion of human rights in US foreign policy, both in terms of our own actions and in terms of our cooperation with those countries that we identify as allies. On this count, the Obama administration faces unpalatable realities and serious choice when it comes to the US relationship with Turkey.
Turkey’s actions and records on human rights offer an ugly contrast to the sacrifices and accomplishments remembered and celebrated today in America. In Turkey, religious minorities are subjected to state policies, whether by omission or commission, that earned the country a spot on the Countries of Particular Concern (CPC) list of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF). Turkey’s company on this list includes countries like Iran, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and China, all members of the world pantheon of most egregious violators of international religious freedom.
The treatment of Turkey’s Christian minorities is especially shocking and raises serious doubts about the suitability of Turkey as a model for Muslim democracies in the Middle East and North Africa. In fact, in a region where Christians are fast being cleansed from their historic lands of origin, Turkey is a standard-bearer in the eradication of its Christian populations. The estimated 1750 Greek Orthodox Christians remaining in Turkey today form less than .01 percent of that country’s total population of almost 80 million. Despite Ankara’s much ballyhooed announcement last week that the Turkish state will return 470 acres of forestlands to the Ayia Triada Monastery, the illegal confiscation of that land long ago from the Ecumenical Patriarchate and the 40-year shuttering of the Halki Theological Seminary leave no doubt about Turkey’s goal of erasing the living presence of Greek Orthodox Christians from Turkey.
The condition of Turkey’s Armenian Christian population (about 65,000, a remnant of the historic Armenian Orthodox population wiped out by the genocide marking the foundation of the Republic of Turkey) adds a charge to the indictment against Turkey as a model democracy. Ankara’s direct interference in the election of an interim Armenian Patriarch in 2010 mirrors the general pattern in government interference in the internal affairs of all religious communities—including the Sunni Muslim majority and sizeable minority of Alewites comprising about 20% of Turkey’s population. Two recent liturgical celebrations at the Armenian Orthodox Akhtamar Church in Van have been used as public relations spectacles by Ankara, in order to divert attention from the reality of its stranglehold on free worship for the country’s Christian minorities.
Today, in Turkey, Christian religious leaders describe themselves as “feeling crucified” and their communities as “endangered species.” The tragic results of Ankara’s policies to eradicate Christianity from its lands of origin are shockingly evident in the northern part of Cyprus under occupation by Turkey’s military since its invasion in 1974. The systematic looting, desecration, and destruction of the Greek Orthodox churches, monasteries, and cemeteries in Turkish-occupied Cyprus has been replicated in the Turkish military’s assaults on Roman Catholic, Armenian, and Maronite sites; in Turkish-occupied Cyprus, there are less than 450 Christians (the tiny enclave of elderly Greek Cypriots) remaining in the lands to which St. Andrew brought Christianity.
As for other civil liberties in Turkey, while Americans today are mindful of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s words that “our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter,” an avalanche of legal cases against journalists, intellectuals, and artists in Turkey shows Ankara’s unflinching efforts to silencing those who speak about things that matter for the application of universal human rights. This past week, Turkish police rounded up another group of journalists and lawyers suspected of sympathizing with violent groups and terrorists—code for journalists who write in support of civil and political rights for the Kurkish minority estimated at 20-25% of Turkey’s population. Article 301 of the Constitution exercises a chilling effect on freedom of speech and freedom of the press, by prohibiting “insults to the Turkish state.” Used mainly to muzzle non-Muslim minorities by the secularist Kemalists who ruled Turkey almost uninterruptedly until the general election of 2002, Article 301 is now being interpreted by the Islamist government of Prime Minister Erdogan to charge violations of free speech as blasphemy, a worrying trend that suggests the identification of insults to the Turkish state with insults to Islam.
The criminalization of dissent against citizens who dare speak about human rights—especially when these touch on freedom of conscience, belief, religion, speech, and press—explains why Turkey today continues to be identified by the International Committee to Protect Journalists, as well as Human Rights Watch, amongst others, as one of the world’s worst violators of speech and press freedoms. The blasphemy trial against renowned Turkish pianist Fazil Say will continue next month in Turkey, and meanwhile, last week marked the sixth anniversary of the murder of Hrant Dink, the Armenian editor of the Turkish-Armenian newspaper, who fearlessly advocated for equal rights for religious and ethnic minority rights and reconciliation in Turkey. International human rights organizations and some Turkish rights groups maintain that there is extensive evidence to implicate the Turkish government and the ruling Justice and Development Party (JDP) in Dink’s murder, but 18 defendants were acquitted and only 1 was convicted last year in what is widely seen as a kangaroo trial.
When Americans turn out their lights tonight after a day of celebration and remembrance, after a day honoring our democratic principles and process with the presidential inauguration and the MLK federal holiday, we would do well to recall the old adage that goes as follows: “tell me who your friends are and I’ll tell you who you are.” This simple saying should apply to the sophisticated practice of US foreign policy, especially when it comes to choosing our allies. The value of Turkey as an ally to the US as we champion human rights and protect our strategic interests cannot rely on military calculations alone.
The new administration in Washington should take universal human rights standards into account in assessing the future of US-Turkey relations.
Dr. Elizabeth H. Prodromou is the Director of International Affairs for the Hellenic American Leadership Council and Affiliate Scholar at Harvard University’s Center for European Studies.Back to top