WCC Lauds Turkish Move to Protect Religious Minorities' Rights

A recent memo from Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan that calls for a better protection of the rights of the country's non-Muslim religious minorities has been welcomed by the World Council of Churches (WCC).

Erdogan's memo, which was published in the Official Gazette on May 13, declared an abolishment of discrimination against non-Muslim minorities, who have full rights under Turkish law, according to the PM.

"Within the framework of the principle of equality set forth in the Constitution, Turkish citizens who are non-Muslim minorities are, as all the citizens of the Republic of Turkey, inseparable pieces of the national culture and identity and also possessed of the opportunity to live and perpetuate their own identities and cultures," Erdogan wrote.

Commenting on the news, the Rev. Olav Fykse Tveit, general secretary of the WCC, said,"It is only fair that this new and positive development is commended by all those concerned about the situation of Christian and other non-Muslim religious minorities in Turkey."

"We hope local Turkish officials will expedite the application of this decree and thus bring about an improvement in the situation of communities which, as the Prime Minister has said, are an inseparable part of the Republic of Turkey and must feel fully valued as citizens of the country," Tveit said.

 "Of course, more needs to be done, but this is a sign that goes in the right direction," he added.

Christians, Jews, and other religious minorities make up only 0.2 percent of Turkey's 77-million-large population, which is mostly Sunni Muslim.

Notably, the country's capital is home to the Ecumenical Patriarchate, which guides some 300 million Orthodox Christians worldwide.

But while the Orthodox Church's presence in Turkey predates that of the Muslim community, the church says that they no longer feel welcome in the country, as government sanctions and other persecutions threaten not only their freedom to worship, but their very existence.

"We don't feel that we enjoy our full rights as Turkish citizens," Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew said in a December interview on 60 Minutes in December.

In particular, the Patriarchate's Theological School of Halki was closed in 1971 after Turkish authorities banned private higher education.

The school's closure has made it difficult for the church to train new priests and potential patriarchs, who under Turkish law must be born in Turkey.

But despite the difficulties faced by the Greek Orthodox in Turkey, the church keeps Halki preserved and in good condition – a fact that impressed Tveit during his visit to Istanbul in March.

"[I] was impressed by the fact that [Halki] has been maintained in complete repair and ready for the day when it will be allowed to reopen," commented Tveit. "And indeed we pray for this to happen soon."

Along with Greek Orthodox Christians, Turkey's Christian minority is also comprised of Armenian Orthodox Christians, Syrian Orthodox Christians, Protestants, Chaldean Catholics, and Jehovah's Witnesses.

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