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June 10th, 2008
Turkey's Tigers
Report Card: Turkey and EU Membership?: Separation of Church and State

Steven Cook
Council on Foreign Relations

Turkey is a secular state, but religion and state are not separate as in the United States. While Islam is not the official religion of the state (though 99.8 percent of Turks are Muslims), and Turks of all religions (there are small Jewish and Christian communities in Turkey) are free to worship as they please, the Turkish state is heavily involved in religion through the Chairmanship of Religious Affairs. This organization serves, in part, to ensure that religion, particularly Islam, remains within the realm of personal conscience and is not used for political purposes. Conservative Muslims have historically chafed under Turkish state secularism, which, for example, prevents women from wearing the hijab in a variety of settings including publicly supported universities and parliament. While critics argue that the headscarf ban violates freedom of expression, the European Court of Human Rights has upheld this practice.

One of the outstanding religious issues in Turkey is the status of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Constantinople, which for political reasons the Turks refer to as the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Fener (after the district in Istanbul where it is located). The Turkish government is accused of expropriating church property as well as obstructing the repair of churches, and in 1971 closed the Orthodox Halki Seminary on Heybeliada Island in the Sea of Marmara. Clearly, these issues will have to be addressed effectively before Turkey joins the European Union. Just as Turkey’s conservative Muslim community has recognized that E.U. membership is the best way to ensure that they can practice their religion as they please in the safest possible environment, the promise and incentive of joining Europe provides the best possible chance to resolve the issue of the Greek Orthodox Church.


Dr. John Brademas
President Emeritus of New York University

Another obstacle to Turkish membership in the European Union: the systematic efforts on the part of Turkey to undermine the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople (Istanbul), the seat of the religious leadership of Orthodox Christianity. Turkey has refused to comply with the Copenhagen criteria for joining the E.U. by denying the Patriarchate appropriate international recognition and the right of ecclesiastic succession. Nor have Turkish authorities permitted the reopening of the Orthodox School of Theology on Halki.

The Turkish government has ruled that only Turkish citizens can be clergy; consequently, the Orthodox community in Turkey has been reduced to only 2,000. When, 35 years ago, Turkey closed the Halki Seminary, it thereby denied the Patriarchate the capacity to train clergy and threatened its continued existence. In fact, since 2002, the Turkish government has confiscated 75 percent of the property of the Patriarchate.

Turkey has respected neither the human rights nor the property rights of the Ecumenical Patriarchate.

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