Religious intolerance another contentious point in relations between US, Turkey

TURKISH PRESIDENT Tayyip Erdogan attends a ceremony at the mausoleum of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk last year (photo credit: REUTERS/UMIT BEKTAS)
TURKISH PRESIDENT Tayyip Erdogan attends a ceremony at the mausoleum of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk last year
(photo credit: REUTERS/UMIT BEKTAS)
Turkey’s democratic reputation is rapidly deteriorating, all thanks to its unyielding president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Since the July 2016 coup, which failed to oust Erdogan, his grip on the country’s institutions has only strengthened. Aside from targeting Turkish dissidents, Kurdish minorities, academics, journalists and any individual or organization that criticizes his form of governance, Erdogan has also greatly invested in targeting the country’s religious minorities.
According to the Turkish government, the country is 99.8% Muslim. The true picture is far more diverse. Some 15%-25% of Turks identify as Alevi, a non-Sunni branch of Islam. Turkey comprises a diverse array of other non-Muslim faiths which include Armenian Apostolic, Bahá’í, Bulgarian Orthodox, Jehovah’s Witness, Jewish, Protestant, Roman Catholic, Syriac Catholic and Syriac Orthodox. Additionally, there are also agnostics, deists and atheists who are unaccounted for by the government.
According to the 2019 US Commission on International Religious Freedom annual report, Turkey is considered a Tier 2 state. The commission defines this as “nations in which the violations engaged in or tolerated by the government during 2018 are serious and characterized by at least one of the elements of the ‘systematic, ongoing and egregious’ CPC [countries of particular concern] standard” under the International Religious Freedom Act.
Despite the release earlier this year of American Pastor Andrew Brunson after being detained for two years on phony charges, religious freedom continues to decline. According to Turkish government officials, Brunson was accused of forming an independent Kurdish state and having ties with Kurds by attempting to Christianize them. These allegations were a farce. He was doing his job in a country he was familiar with for more than two decades. Upon his release, Brunson said, “I have many friends in prison in Turkey now who should not be in prison. And many families have been destroyed.”
The government targets not only Christians, but antisemitism is also on the rise. Burhan Kuzu, a senior official with the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), tweeted in 2018: “Jewish families managed the world” and “US presidents Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy were killed by Zionists.” Anti-Israel, antisemitic, and anti-Christian rhetoric dominates the leadership ranks of the ruling AKP Party.
The US Commission on International Religious Freedom has scheduled a hearing led by Sen. Thom Tillis, who paved the way in pressuring Erdogan’s government to release Brunson. The hearing will highlight that the Turkish government “does not recognize Alevis as a religious group, deems their houses of worship illegitimate, and refuses to exempt their children from compulsory religious classes in school. Government officials and pro-government groups continue to direct hate speech toward Christians, and antisemitic rhetoric toward Jews. The Armenian Apostolic Church has been prevented from holding patriarchal elections since 2010, and the Greek Orthodox Church is still awaiting the return of properties forcibly seized and the reopening of its historic Halki Seminary.”
So, what does this mean for US-Turkish relations? It demonstrates that the dispute between the two NATO allies goes beyond the sale of S-400 missiles. Turkey is simply no longer behaving, through its actions, policies and rhetoric, like a democratic nation. US policy-makers and the administration must look at Turkey beyond our military partnership, a pact that is already struggling.
When approaching Turkey, it is vital to look at the entirety of its violations. This is no longer the NATO ally with which Americans are familiar. This new Turkey is ruled by a dictator who is unlikely to give up power anytime soon. The world witnessed this as he lost the elections in Istanbul. The United States is in a unique position to set an example – to prove that no matter who our allies are, American values will always come out on top, and that we will always hold accountable those who pose a threat to religious freedom.
The writer is an adviser to Freedom to Believe and the director of external relations at Allegiance Strategies, LLC.