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US Report Highlights Threats to Religious Sites in Turkey

Religious Sites in Turkey
The new report documents incidents of vandalism and the destruction of religious properties in Turkey. Credit: USCIRF

A US report published last week criticizes Turkey for not doing enough to prevent threats to non-Muslim religious sites in the country.

The report of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) says that while the number and severity of violent attacks targeting religious sites—such as bombings and other terrorist methods—have decreased over the last decade, there has not been a similar decline in incidents of vandalism and the destruction of religious properties.

Titled “Examination of Threats to Religious Sites in Turkey”, the research demonstrates denominational differences in the threats and attacks faced by various religious communities, including the Greek Orthodox, in Turkey and evaluates the geographic variation in attitudes towards these communities and their religious sites.

Although efforts by the Turkish government and local authorities to restore select religious heritage sites represent an important positive step, such projects remain limited, it says.

It notes that “the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne also provided protection and freedom of worship for the remaining non-Muslim communities,” but that this protection and freedom of worship has often been sharply curtailed, not infrequently through action against sacred Christian sites.

Attacks against Greek Orthodox in Turkey

The report shows that the highest number of attacks on Greek Orthodox and other Orthodox churches occurred in the Marmara region of Istanbul, which is associated with the largest concentration of non-Muslim populations.

In addition, the report states that the seizure of property can be used as a form of retaliation, citing as an example the seizure of the Prince’s Greek Orthodox orphanage.

The particular orphanage was confiscated in 1964 by the Turkish authorities, who did not perform the necessary maintenance, thus leaving the building to suffer the wear and tear of time.

As noted, by the time the Ecumenical Patriarchate managed to regain ownership of the building through an appeal to the European Court of Human Rights, “however, after 60 years of abandonment, the building had sustained significant damage and fallen into disrepair.”

“The burden is on the Greek Orthodox community to repair and preserve the site at considerable financial cost,” the report added.

Overall, despite the decrease in bombings and terrorist attacks in the last decade, incidents of vandalism, destruction of religious property through arson, treasure hunting and the lack of prosecution of such incidents have increasingly affected Greek Orthodox and other Orthodox communities in Turkey, the report notes.

USCIRF will host a virtual event to discuss the findings of the report on Tuesday, November 28, 2023.

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