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Religious freedom in Turkey and the role of religion in European politics

Religious freedom in Turkey and the role of religion in European politics

15/11/10
Ινστιτούτο Δημοκρατίας

Wilfried Martens

President of the European People’s Party and the Centre for European Studies, and former Prime Minister of Belgium
Νew Europe

For us Christian Democrats and many like-minded parties on the European Centre Right, the Christian concept of Man has been the point of departure in developing political ideas for one and a half centuries. This Christian concept says that each person is unique and irreplaceable, that people are both free and interdependent and that each man and woman have both the right and the duty to be fully responsible of their acts. Based on this, we have defined our fundamental values such as freedom, responsibility, equality, justice and solidarity. And based on this, we have worked out ideas like subsidiarity and a strong and integrated European Union. But we would never consider the Bible a political document, or doubt the necessity of structurally separating the state and religious communities.

Having said that, we recognize the positive contribution that faith-based concepts can make to wise and humane policy-making in other parts of the world. Turkey is such a case. We recognize the enormous progress Turkey has made on the way to EU membership since the European Council decision of 2000 to grant this country the status of candidate. Especially in the first years of the rule of Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), this progress referred not only to improved economic stability and enhanced economic growth rates. It also concerned the rule of law and the situation of ethnic and religious minorities. We believe that this  progress is due to the fact that the AKP, which has observer status in the European People’s Party, has managed rather well to draw positive inspiration from faith for the development of political ideas, without compromising the secular character of the Turkish state.

But in recent years I have gained the impression that the dynamism for reform, and the eagerness to strengthen the rights of minorities, especially religious minorities, have somehow diminished. It is still far easier to build a Mosque in any current EU member state than to build a Church anywhere in Turkey. Turkey’s over 60.000 Christians, most of them Armenian Orthodox, still face considerable hardships. Despite some recent progress in the possibility of creating Christian foundations that may own land, it is still very difficult to open up theological learning centres or to train priests in seminaries. This unequal status is not limited to Christians and Jews but also concerns the Alevite denomination (with several million members) within Islam which has no official recognition at all.

On all these points, tangible progress is possible. And it is necessary, in fact, if the EU accession negotiations are to advance. Sure enough, the question of the equal status of Christians and other religious minorities may not be the most pressing obstacle for the moment – the issue of Northern Cyprus, for example, is probably much more urgent and also more difficult to solve. But religious tolerance is particularly important to us Christian Democrats of the European Union.

This article would be incomplete without looking at the European Union itself, and the question of religious tolerance vis-à-vis the growing number of immigrants from Muslim countries. There is an intense debate on such phenomena as burqas, political radicalisation in some mosques, forced marriages and other aspects of what has come to be called “parallel societies”: collectives in which the central values of our societies, such as equal rights for men and women, are systematically disregarded. It is true that in recent elections in Sweden and the Netherlands, extremist political parties have used xenophobic arguments and impermissible generalisations about Muslims in order to attract votes. This is regrettable but cannot easily or quickly be changed within our democracies. All democrats must patiently and determinedly reject such ideas. But they must also make an effort to take the fears of our citizens seriously.

Two things are clear to me: first, the vast majority of Muslims in the EU does not live in “parallel societies”, and has no desire to do so. Second, societal discrimination of Muslims exists, just like there is hardly a country on earth without any de facto discrimination. But what is crucial here is that our governments are seriously trying to do something about this. That they are entering into structured dialogues with mosque organisations and faith-based Muslim NGOs. That they are developing schemes on how to integrate imam training and Islamic theology into European academia. And that they are, at the same time, becoming more determined in prosecuting criminal behaviour such as forced marriages, or incitement to violence by some imams.

I am deeply convinced that religion is and remains an excellent inspiration for the values on which political programs are built – no matter whether we speak about the member parties of the EPP in the European Union, or about the AKP in Turkey. But this only works if all existing religions in a given society can thrive and develop in a spirit of tolerance and mutual respect. 

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