The 2016 constitution provides for freedom of conscience and worship. The constitution declares Islam to be the state religion and prohibits state institutions from behaving in a manner incompatible with Islam. The law grants all individuals the right to practice their religion if they respect public order and regulations. Offending or insulting any religion is a criminal offense. Proselytizing to Muslims by non-Muslims is a crime. In a constitutional referendum passed on November 1 and effective December 30, voters approved a new constitution that removes language providing for “freedom of conscience.” Christian leaders expressed concern the change could lead to greater government persecution of religious minorities. In April, the government passed a hate speech law outlawing all forms of expression that propagate, encourage, or justify discrimination. Expression related to religious belief or affiliation, however, was not among the categories covered by the law. In October, authorities sentenced an Ahmadi Muslim leader to two years’ imprisonment on “unauthorized gathering” charges that followed a 2018 meeting between Ahmadi leaders and police officers in Constantine. On December 22, a court in Tizi Ouzou sentenced four Ahmadis to two months’ suspended sentences and 20,000-dinar ($150) fines while releasing 27 other Ahmadis whom authorities arrested in November. Lawyers for the Ahmadis said their clients were arrested for “disseminating leaflets with the aim of undermining the national interest, the occupation of a building for the practice of worship in a secret manner without authorization, collecting funds and donations without authorization, and preaching inside a building without authorization and without approval.” There were 220 cases pertaining to Ahmadi Muslims pending with the Supreme Court at year’s end, mostly involving unauthorized gatherings. Ahmadi religious leaders said the government continued to be unresponsive to religious groups’ requests to register or reregister. The Ministry of Justice completed, but did not release, an investigation into the 2019 death following a 60-day hunger strike in pretrial detention of Ibadi Muslim human rights activist Kamel Eddine Fekhar. A court sentenced a prominent opposition leader active in mass popular demonstrations (known as the hirak) to 10 years in prison and a fine of 10 million dinars ($75,600) on charges of denigrating Islam following a raid on his house, during which police found a damaged Quran. The 18 Christian churches affiliated with the Protestant Church of Algeria (EPA) and closed by the government since 2017 all remain closed. Catholic foreign religious workers faced visa delays and refusals that hindered the Church’s work. Catholic leaders in Algiers reported the government refused to renew the residency permit of a Catholic priest in Tamanrasset, citing a meeting with foreign officials.
Some Christian leaders and congregants spoke of family members abusing Muslims who converted to or expressed an interest in Christianity. Individuals engaged in religious practice other than Sunni Islam reported they had experienced threats and intolerance, including in the media. In April, the press reported that the former head of the Algerian Renewal Party, Noureddine Boukrouh, called for a suspension of Ramadan fasting in a Facebook post because it “poses a health risk and contributes to the outbreak of the coronavirus.” Boukrouh later reported that his posting subjected him to “criticisms, insults, and death threats.” Media sometimes criticized Ahmadi Islam and Shia Islam as “sects” or “deviations” from Islam or as “foreign.” Ahmadi leaders said news outlets continued to amplify what they consider government misinformation portraying Ahmadis as violent.
The Ambassador and other embassy officers frequently encouraged senior government officials in the Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Religious Affairs, Justice, and Interior to promote religious tolerance and discussed with them the difficulties Ahmadis, Christians, and other religious minority groups faced in registering as associations, importing religious materials, and obtaining visas. Embassy officers focused on pluralism and religious moderation in meetings and programs with religious leaders from both Sunni Muslim and minority religious groups as well as with other members of the public. The embassy used special events, social media, and speakers’ programs to emphasize a message of religious tolerance, although COVID-19 pandemic restrictions curtailed some of these activities during the year.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 43.0 million (midyear 2020 estimate), more than 99 percent of whom are Sunni Muslims following the Maliki school. Religious groups together constitute less than 1 percent of the population include Christians, Jews, Ahmadi Muslims, Shia Muslims, and a community of Ibadi Muslims reside principally in the Province of Ghardaia. Some religious leaders estimate there are fewer than 200 Jews.
The Christian community includes Roman Catholics, Seventh-day Adventists, Methodists, members of the EPA, Lutherans, the Reformed Church, Anglicans, and an estimated 1,000 Egyptian Coptic Christians. Religious leaders’ unofficial estimates of the number of Christians range from 20,000 to 200,000. According to the Christian advocacy nongovernmental organization (NGO) International Christian Concern, there are approximately 600,000 Christians. According to government officials and religious leaders, foreign residents make up most of the Christian population. Among the Christian population, the proportion of students and immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa without legal status has also increased in recent years. Christian leaders say citizens who are Christians predominantly belong to Protestant groups.
Christians reside mostly in Algiers and the Provinces of Bejaia, Tizi Ouzou, Annaba, Ouargla, and Oran.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution declares Islam to be the state religion and prohibits state institutions from engaging in behavior incompatible with Islamic values. The 2016 constitution provides for freedom of worship in accordance with the law and states freedom of conscience and freedom of opinion are inviolable. The new constitution, passed in a November 1 national referendum and effective December 30, removed language from the previous constitution guaranteeing freedom of conscience. The previous constitution says, “Freedom of conscience and freedom of opinion shall be inviolable. Freedom of worship shall be guaranteed in compliance with the law.” The new constitution’s language reads, “The freedom of opinion is inviolable. The freedom to exercise worship is guaranteed if it is exercised in accordance with the law. The state ensures the protection of places of worship from any political or ideological influence.”
The law does not prohibit conversion from Islam, but proselytizing of Muslims by non-Muslims is a criminal offense. The law prescribes a maximum punishment of one million dinars ($7,600) and five years’ imprisonment for anyone who “incites, constrains, or utilizes means of seduction intending to convert a Muslim to another religion; or by using establishments of teaching, education, health, social, culture, training…or any financial means.” Making, storing, or distributing printed documents or audiovisual materials with the intent of “shaking the faith” of a Muslim is also illegal and subject to the same penalties.
The law criminalizes “offending the Prophet Muhammad” or any other prophets. The penal code provides punishment of three to five years in prison and/or a fine of 50,000 to 100,000 dinars ($380-$760) for denigrating the creed or prophets of Islam through writing, drawing, declaration, or any other means. The law also criminalizes insults directed at any other religion, with the same penalties.
The law grants all individuals the right to practice their religion if they respect public order and regulations.
The constitution establishes a High Islamic Council and states the council shall encourage and promote ijtihad (the use of independent reasoning as a source of Islamic law for issues not precisely addressed in the Quran) and express opinions on religious questions presented for its review. The President appoints the members of the council and oversees its work. The constitution requires the council to submit regular reports to the President on its activities. A presidential decree further defines the council’s mission as taking responsibility for all questions related to Islam, for correcting mistaken perceptions, and for promoting the true fundamentals and correct understanding of the religion. The council may issue fatwas at the request of the President.
The law requires any group, religious or otherwise, to register with the government as an association prior to conducting any activities. Under the Associations Law passed in 2012, the government required all organizations previously registered to reregister. The Ministry of Interior grants association status to religious groups; only registered associations are officially recognized. The ministry registration requirements for national-level associations stipulate the founding members must furnish documents proving their identities, addresses, and other biographic details; provide police and judicial records to prove their good standing in society; demonstrate they have founding members residing in at least one quarter of the country’s provinces to prove the association merits national standing; submit the association’s constitution signed by its president; and submit documents indicating the location of its headquarters.
The law requires the Ministry of Interior to provide a receipt for the application once it has received all required documentation. The ministry has 60 days to respond to applicants following the submission of a completed application. If the ministry does not respond within the 60-day timeframe, the application is automatically approved, and the receipt may be used as proof of registration. If the ministry considers the application incomplete, it does not issue a receipt for the application. The law grants the government full discretion in making registration decisions but provides applicants an opportunity to appeal a denial to an administrative tribunal. For associations seeking to register at the local or provincial level, application requirements are similar, but the association’s membership and sphere of activity is strictly limited to the area in which it registers. An association registered at the wilaya (provincial) level is confined to that specific wilaya.
The Ministry of Religious Affairs (MRA) has the right to review registration applications of religious associations, but the Ministry of Interior makes the final decision. The law, however, does not specify additional requirements for religious associations or further specify the MRA’s role in the process.
The National Committee for Non-Muslim Worship, a government entity, facilitates the registration process for all non-Muslim groups. The MRA presides over the committee, composed of senior representatives of the Ministries of National Defense, Interior, and Foreign Affairs; the presidency; national police; national gendarmerie; and the governmental National Human Rights Council (CNDH).
The constitution requires a presidential candidate to be Muslim. Under the law, non-Muslims may hold other public offices and work within the government.
The law prohibits religious associations from receiving funding from political parties or foreign entities. The constitution prohibits the establishment of political parties based on religion. Membership in the Islamic Salvation Front, a political party banned since 1992, remains illegal.
The law specifies the manner and conditions under which religious services, Islamic or otherwise, must take place. The law states that religious demonstrations are subject to regulation, and the government may shut down any religious service taking place in private homes or in outdoor settings without official approval. Except for daily prayers, which are permissible anywhere, Islamic services may take place only in state-sanctioned mosques. Friday prayers are further limited to certain specified mosques.
Non-Islamic religious services must take place only in buildings registered with the state for the exclusive purpose of religious practice, be run by a registered religious association, open to the public, and marked as such on the exterior. A request for permission to observe special non-Islamic religious events must be submitted to the relevant governor at least five days before the event, and the event must occur in buildings accessible to the public. Requests must include information on three principal organizers of the event, its purpose, the number of attendees anticipated, a schedule of events, and its planned location. The individuals identified as the event’s organizers also must obtain a permit from the wali. The wali may request the organizers move the location of an event or deny permission for it to take place if he deems it would endanger public order or harm “national constants,” “good mores,” or “symbols of the revolution.” If unauthorized meetings go forward without approval, police may disperse the participants. Individuals who fail to disperse at the behest of police are subject to arrest and a prison term of two to 12 months under the penal code.
The penal code states only government-authorized imams, whom the state hires and trains, may lead prayers in mosques and penalizes anyone else who preaches in a mosque with a fine of up to 100,000 dinars ($760) and a prison sentence of one to three years. Fines as high as 200,000 dinars ($1,500) and prison sentences of three to five years are stipulated for any person, including government-authorized imams, who acts “against the noble nature of the mosque” or in a manner “likely to offend public cohesion, as determined by a judge.” The law states that such acts include exploiting the mosque to achieve purely material or personal objectives or with a view to harming persons or groups.
By law, the MRA provides financial support to mosques and pays the salaries of imams and other religious personnel as well as for health care and retirement benefits. The law also provides for the payment of salaries and benefits to non-Muslim religious leaders who are citizens. The Ministry of Labor regulates the amount of an individual imam’s or mosque employee’s pay and likewise sets the salaries of citizen non-Muslim religious leaders based on their position within their individual churches.
The Ministries of Religious Affairs, Foreign Affairs, Interior, and Commerce must approve the importation of all religious texts and items, except those intended for personal use. Authorities generally consider “importation” to be approximately 20 or more religious texts or items.
The law gives authorities broad power to ban books that run counter to the constitution, “the Muslim religion and other religions, national sovereignty and unity, the national identity and cultural values of society, national security and defense concerns, public order concerns, and the dignity of the human being and individual and collective rights.” A 2017 decree established a commission within the MRA to review importation of the Quran. The decree requires all applications to include a full copy of the text and other detailed information about the applicant and text. The ministry has three to six months to review the text, with the absence of a response after that time constituting a rejection of the importation application. A separate 2017 decree covering religious texts other than the Quran states, “The content of religious books for import, regardless of format, must not undermine the religious unity of society, the national religious reference, public order, good morals, fundamental rights and liberties, or the law.” The importer must submit the text and other information, and the ministry must respond within 30 days. A nonresponse after this period is considered a rejection. Religious texts distributed without authorization may be seized and destroyed.
The law states the government must approve any modification of structures intended for non-Islamic collective worship.
The family code prohibits Muslim women from marrying non-Muslim men unless the man converts to Islam, although authorities do not always enforce this provision. The code does not prohibit Muslim men from marrying non-Muslim women. Under the law, children born to a Muslim father are considered Muslim regardless of the mother’s religion. In the event of a divorce, a court determines the custody of any children.
The Ministries of National Education and Religious Affairs require, regulate, and fund the study of Islam in public schools. Religious education focuses on Islamic studies but includes information on Christianity and Judaism and is mandatory at the primary and secondary school levels. The Ministry of National Education requires private schools to adhere to curricula in line with national standards, particularly regarding the teaching of Islam, or risk closure.
The law states discrimination based on religion is prohibited and guarantees state protection for non-Muslims and for the “toleration and respect of different religions.” It does not prescribe penalties for religious discrimination.
In April, the government passed a hate speech law outlawing all forms of expression that propagate, encourage, or justify discrimination. Expression related to religious belief or affiliation, however, was not among the categories covered by the law.
The CNDH monitors and evaluates human rights issues, including matters related to religious freedom. The law authorizes the CNDH to conduct investigations of alleged abuses, issue opinions and recommendations, conduct awareness campaigns, and work with other government authorities to address human rights issues. The CNDH may address religious concerns to appropriate government offices on behalf of individuals or groups it believes are not being treated fairly. The CNDH does not have the authority to enforce its decisions, but may refer matters to the relevant administrative or criminal court. It submits an annual report to the President, who appoints the committee’s members.
The government does not register religious affiliations of the citizenry and does not print religious affiliations on documents such as national identification cards.
By law, individuals who convert from Islam to another religion are ineligible to receive an inheritance via succession.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
The government continued to enforce a ban on proselytizing by non-Muslim groups. According to media reports, authorities continued to arrest, jail, and fine Christians on charges of proselytizing by non-Muslims, which prompted churches to restrict some activities unrelated to proselytizing, such as the distribution of religious literature and holding events in local community centers that Muslims might attend.
Mohamed Fali, the former head of the country’s Ahmadi Muslim community, remained in Morocco, having fled there to seek asylum in December 2019. He told the online Moroccan news outlet Yabiladi that he fled to escape religious persecution from the MRA and Ministry of Justice and said he had seven pending charges related to his faith. In September 2017, authorities arrested and charged Fali with unauthorized fundraising, insulting the Prophet Muhammad, and forming an unauthorized association. Courts convicted Fali and sentenced him to a six-month suspended prison term. Authorities seized his passport upon his conviction, but the government returned it in 2019, and he fled the country.
In October, authorities sentenced an Ahmadi leader to two years imprisonment for charges related to a 2018 meeting between Ahmadi leaders and police officers in Constantine. Authorities agreed to the officers’ meeting with the Ahmadi leaders at that time, but then arrested all seven of the Ahmadi participants on charges of “unauthorized gathering” after the meeting ended. In response, the Ahmadis said that they are nonviolent Muslims who want to cooperate with the government and that the meeting was intended to open a dialogue between Ahmadis and the government. In December, authorities convicted the other six Ahmadi Muslims of the same offenses.
On November 24, a court in Tizi Ouzou summoned a group of 31 Ahmadi Muslims for what their lawyers described as “the dissemination of leaflets with the aim of undermining the national interest, the occupation of a building for the practice of worship in a secret manner without authorization, collecting funds and donations without authorization, and preaching inside a building without authorization and without approval.” The lawyers said that authorities had arrested their clients for their Ahmadi beliefs. In the December 22 trial, the court sentenced four of the defendants to two-month suspended prison terms and fines of 20,000 dinars ($150) while releasing the remaining 27 Ahmadis.
In August, Ahmadi leaders reported authorities summoned a member of their community in Adrar and questioned him about his religious beliefs. Police searched his home and confiscated his computer, telephone, personal notes, and his Quran, which the authorities held as evidence for a future trial on unspecified charges.
On September 30, police searched the home of well-known opposition hirak activist Yacine Mebarki and arrested him after finding an old copy of the Quran with one of its pages ripped. The police charged Mebarki in connection with the damaged Quran, accusing him of inciting atheism, offending or denigrating the dogma and precepts of Islam, and undermining national unity. On October 8, a court sentenced Mebarki to 10 years’ imprisonment and a fine of 10 million dinars ($75,600). His lawyers said Mebarki stated he was a Muslim advocating for secularism and democracy.
In April, authorities arrested Hirak activist Walid Kechida in Setif Province and charged him with insulting the President and “offending the precepts of Islam” on Facebook. The government referred his case to the criminal court for trial. At year’s end, he remained in detention awaiting trial.
On December 15, a court in Amizour convicted Abdelghani Mameri, a Copt who promoted Christianity, for insulting the Prophet Muhammad and denigrating Islam. The court sentenced him to six months in prison and a fine of 100,000 dinars ($760). On December 3, the same court tried Mabrouk Bouakkaz, also known as Yuva, who was a Christian convert. The prosecution asked for a sentence of six months in prison and a fine of 200,000 dinars ($1,500) on the same charges as Mameri. According to social media, on December 17, the court sentenced Bouakkaz to three years imprisonment.
Ahmadi leaders stated there were 220 cases against community members pending with the Supreme Court at the end of the year. Charges included insulting the Prophet Muhammad, operating and belonging to an unregistered religious association, collecting funds without authorization, burning the Quran, and holding prayers in unauthorized locations. Community representatives said that in some cases, police confiscated passports, educational diplomas, and approximately 40 laptops and 400 books. Among these cases, employers placed Ahmadi Muslims who were under investigation on administrative leave, and the government dismissed 20 public sector teachers and doctors. Ahmadi representatives stated they believed these individuals would appear before the Supreme Court in the next three to six years and that in the meantime, they would be prohibited from working. The government confined Ahmadi Muslims with pending cases to their wilayas and required they physically report to the local court once a week.
During the year, the Ministry of Justice completed an investigation into the circumstances surrounding the death of prominent Berber Ibadi Muslim human rights activist Kamel Eddine Fekhar in 2019 but did not release the findings publicly. Fekhar died following a nearly 60-day hunger strike while in pretrial detention. Authorities arrested him on charges of “incitement of racial hatred” for a Facebook post in which he accused local officials in Ghardaia of discriminatory practices against Ibadi Muslims.
NGOs and Ahmadi Muslim religious leaders said the Ministry of Interior never provided the Ahmadi community with a receipt acknowledging the completed registration application submitted by the community to the government in 2012, to reregister the group under the 2012 Associations Law. Ahmadis also reported they had not received a government response to their outstanding 2018 request to meet with Minister of Religious Affairs Youcef Belmehdi or another senior ministry official to discuss their registration concerns.
The Ahmadi community continued to report administrative difficulties and harassment since the community is not a registered association and therefore unable to meet legally and collect donations. Members of the community said, after their initial attempt in 2012, the community again tried to reregister with the MRA and Ministry of Interior as a Muslim group in 2016 and in 2020, but the government refused to accept those applications because it regards Ahmadis as non-Muslims. The government said in 2019 it would approve the community’s registration as non-Muslims, but the Ahmadis said they would not accept registration as non-Muslims.
The EPA and the Seventh-day Adventist Church had yet to receive responses from the Ministry of Interior regarding their 2012 applications to renew their registrations. Both groups submitted paperwork to renew the registrations that had been issued prior to the passage of the 2012 Associations Law. According to a pastor associated with the EPA, the Church resubmitted its 2014 application in 2015 and 2016 but was never reregistered despite several follow-ups with the government. Neither church received receipts for their registration attempts.
Some religious groups stated they functioned as registered 60 days after having submitted their application, even though they had not received a Ministry of Interior confirmation. Such groups stated, however, that service providers such as utilities and banks refused to provide services without proof of registration. As a result, these groups faced the same administrative obstacles as unregistered associations. They also had limited standing to pursue legal complaints and could not engage in charitable activities, which required bank accounts.
Numerous Christian leaders stated they had no contact with the National Committee for Non-Muslim Worship, despite its legal mandate to work with them on registration. A Christian NGO and Christian publication said there was no indication that the committee had ever met. They again stated that the government disproportionately targeted Protestant groups for unfavorable treatment; the leaders attributed this to the emphasis of some Protestant groups on proselytizing and conversion, as well as to the EPA’s primarily Algerian composition.
The MRA said it does not view Ibadis as a minority group and considers the Ibadi religious school a part of the country’s Muslim community. Muslim scholars affirmed Ibadis could pray in Sunni mosques, and Sunnis could pray in Ibadi mosques.
In January, Morning Star News reported that a pastor of an Oran church affiliated with the EPA received an order to close the church on January 11. Authorities originally ordered the church closed in 2017 because it was not registered with the government as an association. Following appeals, a court issued a judgment to close the church on November 10 but had not delivered the order to the church by year’s end, according to the pastor.
According to media reports and EPA statements, since 2017 the government closed at least 18 EPA churches, all of which remained closed. In August, the administrative court rejected the EPA’s request to reopen the EPA-affiliated Spring of Life church in Makouda, which the government closed in 2019 for hosting unauthorized gatherings. The government said the churches it closed were operating without government authorization, illegally printing evangelical publications, and failed to meet building safety codes.
In December, an international group that described itself as being comprised “of organizations and individuals who are scholars, religious leaders, and human rights advocates” signed a letter to President Abdelmadjid Tebboune regarding “violations of freedom of religion and belief of Christians in Algeria, including closure of numerous churches and a failure to renew the registration of the [EPA].” According to the letter, the government closed 13 churches and ordered seven more to close since 2018 because they lacked the required permit to hold non-Islamic worship services. The letter also stated that the National Committee for Non-Muslim Religious Worship, which is responsible for issuing permits, had not issued a single permit to EPA-affiliated churches.
In March, the government closed all places of worship as part of its COVID-19 response. In August, the MRA reopened larger mosques capable of supporting social distancing measures, although Friday prayer services remained limited to smaller, neighborhood mosques. Catholic and Anglican churches also reopened in August, but the government denied the EPA’s request to reopen its churches, including those which were closed prior to the COVID-19 outbreak. In July, the EPA submitted a complaint to the governor of Tizi Ouzou for closing its churches and requested permission to reopen, but local authorities ruled in the governor’s favor and denied the request. Seventh-day Adventists said they intended to reopen when mosques reopened fully.
Pastor Salah Chalah reported that the Protestant Church of the Full Gospel in Tizi Ouzou, which Human Rights Watch described as the largest Protestant church in the country, remained closed. Police closed the church in October 2019.
Some Christian citizens said they continued to use homes or businesses as “house churches” due to government delays in issuing the necessary legal authorizations. Other Christian groups, particularly in the country’s primarily Berber Kabylie region, reportedly held worship services more discreetly.
According to the MRA, the government continued to allow government employees to wear religious attire, including the hijab, crosses, and the niqab. Authorities continued to instruct some female government employees, such as security force members, not to wear head and face coverings that they said could complicate the performance of their official duties.
MRA officials said the government did not regularly prescreen and approve sermons before imams delivered them during Friday prayers. They also stated the government sometimes provided preapproved sermon topics for Friday prayers to address the public’s concerns following major events or to encourage civic participation through activities such as voting in elections. The MRA said it did not punish imams who did not discuss the suggested sermon topics.
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic and limited resources, it was unclear if the government continued the MRA’s stated practice of monitoring sermons delivered in mosques. According to MRA officials in the past, if a ministry inspector suspected an imam’s sermon was inappropriate, particularly if it supported violent extremism, the inspector had the authority to summon the imam to a “scientific council” composed of Islamic law scholars and other imams who assessed the sermon’s “correctness.” The government could decide to relieve an imam of duty if he was summoned multiple times. The government also monitored activities in mosques for possible security-related offenses, such as recruitment by extremist groups, and prohibited the use of mosques as public meeting places outside of regular prayer hours.
Catholic, Anglican, Protestant, and Seventh-day Adventists leaders reported they did not attempt to import religious literature during the year. Anglican leaders said most parishioners preferred to download the Bible and prayer applications on their cell phones rather than carry a physical Bible. Anglican leaders also reported it remained illegal to print copies of religious texts.
Non-Islamic religious texts, music, and video media continued to be available on the informal market, and stores and vendors in the capital sold Bibles in several languages, including Arabic, French, and Tamazight. In 2019, the government approved the first versions of the Quran in the Berber language, Tamazight, in the Arabic script.
The government continued to enforce its prohibition on dissemination of any literature portraying violence as a legitimate precept of Islam.
On November 1, voters approved a new constitution. According to the BBC, the major Islamic parties, including the Movement for the Society of Peace, the Movement for Justice and Development, and the Nahda Movement, said the proposed new constitution was “against the Islamic values of the Algerian society,” “a threat to the future of the nation,” and backed a “no” vote. The Association of Algerian Ulema expressed its reservations about some of the articles in the draft constitution before the vote, stating, “There is…ambiguity regarding issues such as freedom of worship, national unity, and language.” Christians stated that one change regarding religious freedom in the new constitution, the deletion of a reference guaranteeing the freedom of conscience, was concerning. As one Christian publication stated, unlike the previous constitution, “There is no more ‘freedom of conscience,’ possibly a way to stop churches and their members from discussing Christianity online or having web-based religious services.” Another stated that “the new constitution’s protection of places of worship means little, given the government’s track record regarding freedom of religion.” A representative of International Christian Concern told the U.S.-based website Crux, “This removal [of the freedom of conscience] is what worries many Christians as something which could cause future legal difficulties.”
Christian leaders said courts were sometimes biased against non-Muslims in family law cases, such as divorce or custody proceedings.
The MRA required that couples present a government-issued marriage certificate before permitting imams to conduct religious marriage ceremonies.
According to religious community leaders, some local administrations did not always verify religions before conducting marriage ceremonies. As such, some couples were able to marry despite the family code prohibition against Muslim women marrying non-Muslim men.
EPA leaders reported public and private institutions fired some of its members due to their Christian faith and that in the public sector, the government frequently withheld promotions from non-Muslims.
Both private and state-run media continued to produce reports throughout the year examining what they said were foreign ties and dangers of religious groups such as Shia Muslims, Ahmadi Muslims, and Salafists.
Church groups continued to say the government did not respond in a timely fashion to their requests for visas for foreign religious workers and visiting scholars and speakers, resulting in de facto visa refusals. Catholic leaders continued to say their greatest issue with the government was the long and unpredictable wait times for religious workers’ visas. Catholic and Protestant groups continued to identify the delays as significantly hindering religious practice, although Anglican leadership reported they usually received visas in a timely manner. One religious leader again identified lack of visa issuances as a major impediment to maintaining contact with the church’s international organization. Higher-level intervention with officials responsible for visa issuance by senior MRA and Ministry of Foreign Affairs officials at the request of religious groups sometimes resulted in the issuance of long-term visas, according to those groups. Catholic leaders in Algiers said the government denied a Tamanrasset-based priest’s residency renewal following his November 2019 meeting with foreign officials.
The government and public and private companies funded the preservation of some Catholic churches, particularly those of historical importance. The Province of Oran, for example, continued to work in partnership with local donors on an extensive renovation of Notre Dame de Santa Cruz as part of its cultural patrimony.
Government-owned radio stations continued to broadcast Christmas and Easter services in French and Arabic, although many Amazigh Christians said they would prefer services to be broadcast in Tamazight. The country’s efforts to stem religious extremism included dedicated state-run religious television and radio channels and messages of moderation integrated into mainstream media. After Friday prayers, state broadcasters aired religious programs countering extremism. Some examples included Au Coeur de Islam (At the Heart of Islam) on Radio Channel 3 and Dans le Sens de l’Islam (Understanding the Meaning of Islam) on national television.
Religious and civil society leaders reported that the Jewish community faced unofficial, religion-based obstacles to government employment and administrative difficulties when working with government bureaucracy. The MRA said it had not received requests to reopen the synagogues that closed during the period of the country’s struggle for independence.
Government officials continued to invite prominent Christian and Jewish citizens to events celebrating national occasions, such as Revolutionary Day celebrations at the People’s Palace on November 1.
Senior government officials continued to publicly condemn acts of violence committed in the name of Islam and urged all members of society to reject extremist behavior.
In July, the Ministry of Education required teachers in the Province of Tizi Ouzou to report their religious affiliations. EPA leaders expressed concerns that Christian teachers could face religious persecution and employment discrimination, as teachers are public-sector employees.
Authorities arrested Houssame Hatri in Maghnia on July 23 and said they would try him for his role in a 2014 violent anti-Semitic attack on a young couple in Paris. In the 90-minute attack, Hatri and his companions subjected the couple to physical and verbal abuse, destroyed many Jewish religious objects in the couple’s apartment, and made jokes referring to the Holocaust. After arrest and trial in France in 2018, Hatri escaped and fled to Algeria. According to press reports, under the terms of an extradition agreement with France, authorities will try Hatri in Algeria and he will not face extradition. A French security source told AFP, “It’s a good signal.”
The government, along with local private contributors, continued to fund mosque construction. On October 28, the government opened the Grand Mosque of Algiers, the third largest in the world and the largest in Africa. The Prime Minister and other officials attended the opening ceremony. According to press reports, the project cost one billion dollars and faced criticism for diverting funding from social needs and being a vanity project of former President Bouteflika. The seven-year construction work was completed in April, three years behind schedule.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
Some Christian converts said they and others in their communities continued to keep a low profile due to concern for their personal safety and the potential for legal, familial, career, and social problems. Other converts practiced their new religion openly, according to members of the Christian community.
Several Christian leaders said some Muslims who converted or who expressed interest in learning more about Christianity were assaulted by family members or otherwise pressured to recant their conversions.
According to religious leaders, some individuals who openly engaged in any religious practice other than Sunni Islam reported that family, neighbors, or others criticized their religious practice, pressured them to convert back to Islam, and occasionally insinuated they could be in danger because of their choice.
Media criticized religious communities they portrayed as “sects” or “deviations” from Islam or as “foreign,” such as Ahmadi Muslims and Shia Muslims. Ahmadi leaders said news outlets continued to amplify what they considered government misinformation portraying Ahmadis as violent.
Christian leaders continued to say when Christian converts died, family members sometimes buried them according to Islamic rites, and their churches had no standing to intervene on their behalf. Christian groups reported some villages continued to prohibit Christians from being buried alongside Muslims. In these cases, Christians opted to be buried under Islamic rites so their remains could stay near those of their families.
In April, the former head of the Algerian Renewal Party, Noureddine Boukrouh, called for a suspension of Ramadan fasting in a Facebook post because it “poses a health risk and contributes to the outbreak of the coronavirus.” According to the website Middle East Monitor, the posting sparked a wave of controversy, especially on social media, where some attacked him for interfering “in a purely religious issues only Islamic and medical scholars can tackle.” Boukrouh later reported that his posting subjected him to “criticisms, insults, and death threats.”
In a poll conducted by the Arab Center of Washington, D.C. and released in November, 16 percent of respondents in Algeria either strongly agreed or agreed with the statement that “No religious authority is entitled to declare followers of other religions infidels,” the lowest percentage in the region, which compared with 65 percent regionwide. In contrast, 63 percent of Algerians either disagreed or strongly disagreed with that statement.
In a poll conducted by a Dubai-based public relations firm in the first three months of the year and involving a team of international experts, 72 percent of the country’s citizens between the ages of 18 and 24 agreed that religion is “the most important” factor to their personal identity, which was the highest level for a single country in the region and compared with a level of 41 percent overall for youth polled in the 17 Arab states included in the survey.
Some Christian leaders stated they had good relations with Muslims in their communities, with only isolated incidents of vandalism or harassment. Christian and Muslim leaders hosted each other during the year. EPA leaders reported Catholic and Muslim leaders sent letters in support of the EPA to the MRA. Other faiths privately expressed support to Protestant leaders, and the EPA reported excellent interfaith dialogue within the religious community. The EPA reported some local authorities expressed regret for church closures, but stated they were duty-bound to follow government directives, regardless of their personal opinions.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
Embassy officials met with representatives of the Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Interior, Justice, and Religious Affairs to discuss the difficulties Ahmadi and Shia Muslims, Christian, and other minority religious groups faced in registering as associations, importing religious materials, and obtaining visas. They also discussed church closures and jailed activists.
The Ambassador and other embassy officers met during the year with government-affiliated and independent religious leaders and with representatives of Muslim and Christian communities to discuss interreligious dialogue and tolerance and, in the case of religious minorities, their rights and legal status.
Embassy officials discussed the practice of religion, its intersection with politics, religious tolerance, and the religious and political roles of women with religious and political leaders as well as with the Muslim Scholars Association and the High Islamic Council.
The constitution defines the country as a secular state. It provides for freedom of conscience, religious belief, conviction, expression, and worship and prohibits discrimination based on religious grounds. The Presidency of Religious Affairs (Diyanet), a state institution, governs and coordinates religious matters related to Islam; its mandate is to enable the practice of Islam, provide religious education, and manage religious institutions. In January, media reported the Supreme Court of Appeals upheld a 13.5-month sentence against an ethnic Armenian citizen for provoking hostility by criticizing the Prophet Mohammed. The government continued to limit the rights of non-Muslim religious minorities, especially those not recognized under the government’s interpretation of the 1923 Lausanne Treaty, which includes only Armenian Apostolic Orthodox Christians, Jews, and Greek Orthodox Christians. Media and nongovernmental organizations reported an accelerated pace of entry bans and deportations of non-Turkish citizen leaders of Protestant congregations. The government continued to restrict efforts of minority religious groups to train their clergy, and the Greek Orthodox Halki Seminary remained closed. Religious minorities again reported difficulties opening or operating houses of worship; resolving land and property disputes and legal challenges of churches whose lands the government previously expropriated; holding governing board elections for their religious foundations; and obtaining exemptions from mandatory religion classes in schools. Religious minorities, particularly members of the Alevi community, again raised challenges to religious content and practices in the public education system. In July, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan reconverted Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia Museum, originally an Orthodox church that was subsequently converted to a mosque and then a museum, into a mosque and declared it open to Islamic worship. In August, President Erdogan similarly ordered the reconversion of the Kariye (Chora) Museum to a mosque. Construction of the new Syriac Orthodox church in Istanbul continued, according to the Syriac Orthodox Metropolitan Office.
According to a press report, on March 20, relatives found the body of Simoni Diril, the mother of a Catholic Chaldean priest, two months after unidentified persons abducted Diril and her husband. According to media reports, isolated acts of vandalism of places of worship and cemeteries continued. In May, security cameras caught an individual attempting to vandalize an Armenian church in Istanbul. Police detained the suspect, and authorities charged him with vandalism. Other media outlets reported an increase of vandalism of Christian cemeteries, including the destruction in February of 20 gravestones in the Ortakoy Christian Cemetery in Ankara. According to a news report in June, unknown perpetrators vandalized a monument commemorating Alevis killed in 1938. Anti-Semitic discourse and hate speech continued in social media and print press; in March, there were media reports, including by the Jewish publication Avlaremoz, of anti-Semitic speech on various social media sites linking the COVID-19 outbreak to Jews.
The U.S. Ambassador, visiting senior U.S. officials, and other embassy and consulate officials continued to emphasize to government officials the importance of respect for religious diversity and equal treatment under the law. U.S. government officials urged the government to lift restrictions on religious groups and make progress on property restitution. Senior U.S. officials, including the Secretary of State, continued to call on the government to allow the reopening of Halki Seminary and to allow for the training of clergy members from all communities in the country. In June, the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom called for the government to keep Hagia Sophia’s status as a museum. In a tweet on June 25, he stated, “The Hagia Sophia holds enormous spiritual & cultural significance to billions of believers of different faiths around the world. We call on the Govt of #Turkey to maintain it as a @UNESCO World Heritage site & to maintain accessibility to all in its current status as a museum.” In July, the Secretary of State urged the government “to maintain Hagia Sophia as a museum, as an exemplar of its commitment to respect the country’s faith traditions.” In November, during a visit to Istanbul, to promote the United States’ “strong stance on religious freedom around the world,” the Secretary of State met with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I and with Archbishop Paul Russell, the Holy See’s representative to the country. The Secretary also visited St. George’s Cathedral and the Rustem Pasha Mosque. Embassy and consulate officials met with a wide range of religious minority community leaders, including those of the Greek Orthodox, Jewish, Armenian Apostolic Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Protestant, Alevi, Syriac Orthodox, and Chaldean Catholic communities, to underscore the importance of religious freedom and interfaith tolerance and to condemn discrimination against members of any religious group.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 82.0 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to the Turkish government, 99 percent of the population is Muslim, approximately 77.5 percent of which is Hanafi Sunni. Representatives of other religious groups estimate their members are 0.2 percent of the population, while the most recent public opinion surveys published in January 2019 by Turkish research firm KONDA suggest approximately 3 percent of the population self-identifies as atheist and 2 percent as nonbelievers.
Leaders of Alevi foundations estimate Alevis comprise 25 to 31 percent of the population; Pew Research Center reporting indicates 5 percent of Muslims state they are Alevis. The Shia Jafari community estimates its members make up 4 percent of the population.
Non-Muslim religious groups are mostly concentrated in Istanbul and other large cities, as well as in the southeast. Exact figures are not available; however, these groups self-report approximately 90,000 Armenian Apostolic Orthodox Christians (including migrants from Armenia), 25,000 Roman Catholics (including migrants from Africa and the Philippines), and 16,000 Jews. There are also approximately 25,000 Syrian Orthodox Christians (also known as Syriacs), 15,000 Russian Orthodox Christians (mostly immigrants from Russia who hold residence permits), and 10,000 Baha’is.
Estimates of other groups include 7,000-10,000 members of Protestant denominations, 5,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses, fewer than 3,000 Chaldean Christians, up to 2,500 Greek Orthodox Christians, and fewer than 1,000 Yezidis. There also are small, undetermined numbers of Bulgarian Orthodox, Nestorian, Georgian Orthodox, Ukrainian Orthodox, Syriac Catholic, Armenian Catholic, Chaldean Catholic, and Maronite Christians. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ) estimates its membership at 300 individuals.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution defines the country as a secular state and provides for freedom of conscience, religious belief, conviction, expression, and worship. It stipulates individuals may not be compelled to participate in religious ceremonies or disclose their religion, and acts of worship may be conducted freely as long as they are not directed against the “integrity of the state.” The constitution prohibits discrimination on religious grounds and exploitation or abuse of “religion or religious feelings, or things held sacred by religion,” or “even partially basing” the order of the state on religious tenets.
The constitution establishes the Diyanet, through which the state coordinates Islamic matters. According to the law, the Diyanet’s mandate is to enable the belief, practices, and moral principles of Islam, with a primary focus on Sunni Islam; educate the public about religious issues; and administer mosques. The Diyanet operates under the Office of the President, with its head appointed by the President and administered by a 16-person council elected by clerics and university theology faculties. The Diyanet has five main departments, called high councils: Religious Services, Hajj and Umrah Services, Education, Publications, and Public Relations. While the law does not require that all members of the council be Sunni Muslim, in practice this has been the case.
There is no separate blasphemy law, but the penal code provides punishment for “provoking people to be rancorous and hostile,” including showing public disrespect for religious beliefs. The law criminalizes “insulting values held sacred by a religion.” Insulting a religion is punishable by six months to one year in prison.
The penal code prohibits religious clergy from “reproaching or vilifying” the government or the laws of the state while performing their duties. Violations are punishable by prison terms of one month to one year, or three months to two years if the crime involves inciting others to disobey the law.
Although registration with the government is not explicitly mandatory for religious groups to operate, registering a group is required to request legal recognition for places of worship. Gaining legal recognition of a place of worship requires permission from the municipalities for the construction or designation of a new place of worship. It is against the law to hold religious services at a location not recognized by the central government as a place of worship; the government may fine or close the venues of those violating the law.
Interfering with the service of a religious group is punishable by one to three years in prison; defacing religious property is punishable by three months to one year in prison; and destroying or demolishing religious property is punishable by one to four years in prison. Because it is illegal to hold religious services in places not registered as places of worship, in practice, these legal proscriptions apply only to recognized religious groups.
The law prohibits Sufi and other religious-social orders (tarikats) and lodges (cemaats), although the government generally does not enforce these restrictions.
Military service is obligatory for males; there is no provision for conscientious objection. A government policy allows individuals to pay a fee of 37,070 Turkish lira ($5,000) instead of performing full military service; however, they are required to complete a three-week basic training program. Those who oppose mandatory military service on religious grounds may face charges in military and civilian courts and, if convicted, could be subject to prison sentences ranging from two months to two years.
The leadership and administrative structures of religious communities do not have a legal personality, leaving them unable to directly buy or hold title to property or press claims in court. Communities rely on separate foundations or associations governed by individual boards to hold and administer assets and property.
A 1935 law prohibits the establishment of foundations based on the religion or ethnicity of members but grants exemptions to foundations existing before the enactment of the law. Non-Muslim citizens direct these longstanding foundations; 167 continue to exist, the majority of which are associated with the Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, and Jewish communities. In practice, a religious group formed after the 1935 law may successfully apply to register as an association or foundation provided its stated objective is charitable, educational, or cultural rather than religious. There are six Protestant foundations (four existing before the passage of the 1935 foundation law), 36 Protestant associations, and more than 30 representative offices linked with these associations.
The General Directorate of Foundations (GDF), under the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, regulates the activities and affiliated properties of all foundations, and it assesses whether they are operating within the stated objectives of their organizational charter. There are several categories of foundations, including those religious community foundations existing prior to the 1935 law.
If a foundation becomes inactive, the government may petition the courts to rule it is no longer operational and transfer its assets to the state. Only a court order may close a foundation of any category, except under a state of emergency, during which the government may close foundations by decree.
A foundation may earn income through companies and rent-earning properties, as well as from donations. The process for establishing a foundation is lengthier and more expensive than that for establishing an association, but associations have fewer legal rights than foundations at the local level.
Several religious communities have formally registered corresponding associations. Associations must be nonprofit and receive financial support only in the form of donations. To register as an association, a group must submit an application to the provincial governor’s office with supporting documentation, including bylaws and a list of founding members. A group must also obtain permission from the Ministry of Interior as part of its application if a foreign association or nonprofit organization is a founding member; if foreigners are founding members of the group, the group must submit copies of its residence permits. If the governorate finds the bylaws unlawful or unconstitutional, the association must change them to meet the legal requirements. Under the law, the governorate may fine or otherwise punish association officials for actions deemed to violate the organization’s bylaws. A court order may close an association, and the Ministry of Interior may temporarily close an association or foundation and apply to a court within 48 hours for a decision on closure. Otherwise, the government may close associations and foundations by decree under a state of emergency. The civil code requires associations not to discriminate on the grounds of religion, ethnicity, or race.
By law prisoners have the right to practice their religion while incarcerated; however, not all prisons have dedicated places of worship. According to the law, prison authorities must allow visitation by clergy members and allow them to offer books and other materials that are part of the prisoner’s faith.
The constitution establishes compulsory religious and moral instruction in public and private schools at all levels starting with fourth grade, with content determined by the Ministry of National Education’s Department of Religious Instruction, which falls under the authority of the Office of the President. Religion classes are two hours per week for students in grades four through 12. Only students who marked “Christian” or “Jewish” on their national identity cards may apply for an exemption from religion classes. Atheists, agnostics, Alevis or other non-Sunni Muslims, Baha’is, Yezidis, Hindus, Zoroastrians, Confucians, Taoists, and Buddhists, or those who left the religion section blank on their national identity card are rarely granted exemptions from the classes. Middle and high school students may take additional Islamic religious courses as electives for two hours per week during regular school hours.
The government issues chip-enabled national identity cards that contain no visible section to identify religious affiliation. The information on religious affiliation is recorded in the chip and remains visible to authorized public officials as “qualified personal data” and protected as private information. Previously issued national identity cards, which continue in circulation, contain a space for religious identification with the option of leaving the space blank. These older cards included the following religious identities as options: Muslim, Greek Orthodox, non-Orthodox Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Zoroastrian, Confucian, Taoist, Buddhist, No Religion, or Other. Baha’i, Alevi, Yezidi, and other religious groups with known populations in the country were not options.
According to labor law, private- and public-sector employers may not discriminate against employees based on religion. Employees may seek legal action against an employer through the Labor Court. If an employee can prove a violation occurred, the employee may be entitled to compensation of up to four months of salary in addition to the reversal of the employment decision.
According to media, in January, the Supreme Court of Appeals upheld a 13.5-month sentence against Sevan Nisanyan, a self-exiled ethnic Armenian citizen of Turkey, for publishing “offensive” words against the Prophet Muhammad that could provoke hostility. While referencing the country’s penal code, the court further justified its decision by citing a 2005 European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) ruling in the case of publishing company I.A. versus the Government of Turkey, stating that religious statements that could be viewed as a “cheap attack” should be avoided. One member of the court opposed the sentence, stating that while Nisanyan’s writing humiliated Muslims, there was no concrete evidence that breaches of public peace had occurred.
According to media reports, Cemil Kelik, a religious culture and ethics teacher at a high school in Istanbul, continued to teach after authorities reinstated him in a remote city in May. In 2019, Kelik was fired after comparing the morals of atheists and deists to those of “self-professed” Muslims and saying headscarves were not obligatory in Islam.
On May 20, police detained and arrested Banu Ozdemir, a former official from the main opposition Republican People’s Party, and charged her with “insult and inciting hatred among the people” after she retweeted a video of a mosque in Izmir that had been hacked to play the Italian leftist revolutionary song “Bella Ciao” from its speakers. The prosecutor requested three years’ imprisonment and released Ozdemir. The court acquitted her in December.
On July 16, the opposition daily newspaper Sozcu reported police arrested Muhammed Cevdet S. in Istanbul for insult and inciting hatred among the people by sharing social media posts that included caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad. There were no further developments at the end of the year.
In January, according to Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), police arrested and charged with membership in a terrorist organization a Syriac Orthodox priest, Father Sefer Bilecen (also known as Father Aho) and two other Syriacs, reportedly for offering bread and water in 2018 to members of the designated terrorist organization Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), who visited the 1,500-year-old Mor Yakub Monastery in Mardin Province. The next hearing was scheduled for January 2021.
The government continued to interpret the 1923 Lausanne Treaty, which refers broadly to “non-Muslim minorities,” as granting special legal minority status exclusively to three recognized groups: Armenian Apostolic Orthodox Christians, Jews, and Greek Orthodox Christians. The government did not recognize the leadership or administrative structures of non-Muslim minorities, such as the Armenian Apostolic Patriarchate of Constantinople, the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, and Chief Rabbinate, as legal entities, leaving them unable to buy or hold title to property or to press claims in court. These three groups, along with other minority religious communities, had to rely on independent foundations they previously organized, overseen by separate governing boards, to hold and control individual religious properties.
In January 2019, the ECtHR ruled the government had violated the European Convention on Human Rights, which provides for freedom of assembly and association, because it refused to allow Seventh-day Adventists to establish a foundation. The court ruling required the government to pay six members of the congregation in Istanbul a total compensation of 8,724 euros ($10,700). Compensation could include legal assistance and legal and court registration fees; by year’s end there was no information available nor indication on whether the government had compensated the six individuals, and no disclosure of any government payments.
The Armenian Apostolic Patriarchate and the Greek Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarchate continued to seek legal recognition, and their communities operated as conglomerations of individual religious foundations.
In June, the Istanbul Protestant Church Foundation issued a press statement saying it was “increasingly difficult for foreign Protestant clergy serving in Turkey to be resident.” According to the Protestant Church Association headquartered in Ankara, it did not attempt to register any church during the year. Both groups reported no progress on registration requests made in previous years.
Multiple Protestant church representatives continued to report bureaucratic difficulties in registering places of worship. Church representatives said they were obliged to continue meeting in unregistered locations for worship services because local officials did not approve registration applications and continued to impose zoning standards on churches, including minimum space requirements not imposed on mosques. Officials did not apply this requirement to Sunni Muslim congregations, which they permitted to build worship facilities in malls, airports, and other smaller spaces. Additionally, some Protestant churches reported local authorities did not allow them to display crosses on the exterior of their buildings.
In June 2019, a local court in Bursa approved an application by the Protestant community in Bursa to start a foundation. At year’s end, the government still had not responded to a request by the Protestant foundation to allow long-term use of a church renovated in 2018 using government funding. Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Turkish Protestant congregations continued to share the building, owned by the GDF for more than 10 years.
The government continued to provide incarcerated Sunni Muslims with mesjids (small mosques) and Sunni preachers in larger prisons. Alevis and non-Muslims did not have clerics from their own faiths serving in prisons; however, clergy of other religious groups were permitted to enter prisons with the permission of the public prosecutor to minister to their adherents as long as doing so was not considered a threat to a facility’s security.
The government continued to treat Alevi Islam as a heterodox Muslim “sect” and did not recognize Alevi houses of worship (cemevis), despite a 2018 ruling by the Supreme Court of Appeals that cemevis are places of worship. In March 2018, the head of the Diyanet had said mosques were the appropriate places of worship for both Alevis and Sunnis. On January 13, the municipal council of Izmir granted seven Alevi cemevis the status of house of worship. On January 16, an Istanbul municipal council assembly approved the provision of free services to cemevis in line with other municipality and government treatment of other places of worship.
In November, a parliamentarian from the opposition Peoples’ Democratic Party addressed an inquiry to the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, reporting that Alevi residents of Hardal village in Sivas Province opposed government plans to convert a historic mansion containing Alevi inscriptions and belonging to an Alevi association into a mosque. The ministry did not respond to the inquiry by year’s end.
The GDF continued its restoration of the Surp Giragos Armenian and Mar Petyun Chaldean Churches, both in Sur District, Diyarbakir. During the year, the government again did not pay restitution and compensation to the religious groups for the expropriation of property damaged in fighting with the PKK.
During the year, the government did not return properties seized in previous decades; it last returned 56 properties in 2018 to the Syriac community. Representatives from various communities said they continued to pursue property returns through the appropriate legal and government channels. The Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, Jewish, Syrian Orthodox, Bulgarian Orthodox, Georgian Orthodox, Chaldean, and Armenian Protestant communities, which had previously submitted applications for the return of properties, continued to report these unresolved claims were an issue for their communities. Due to their legal status, recognized religious foundations were eligible to receive compensation for their seized properties, but religious institutions and communities without legally recognized foundations were not.
Religious communities, particularly Alevis, continued to raise concerns regarding several of the government’s education policies. At year’s end, the government continued not to comply with a 2013 ECtHR ruling that found the government’s compulsory religion courses in public schools violated educational freedom. The ECtHR denied the government’s appeal of the ruling in 2015 and upheld the Alevi community’s legal claim that the government-mandated courses promoted Sunni Islam and were contrary to Alevi religious convictions. Authorities added material on Alevism to the religious course curriculum in 2011 after the ECtHR decision, but Alevi groups stated the material was inadequate, and in some cases, incorrect. They also continued to call on the government to implement the ECtHR decisions.
Non-Sunni Muslims and nonpracticing Muslims said they continued to face difficulty obtaining exemptions from compulsory religious instruction in primary and secondary schools and often had to choose from electives dealing with different aspects of Sunni Islam, particularly if their identification cards listed their religion as Muslim. The government said the compulsory instruction covered a range of world religions, but some religious groups, including Alevis and members of Christian denominations, stated the courses largely reflected Hanafi Sunni Islamic doctrine and contained negative and incorrect information about other religious groups, such as some educational texts referring to Alevi beliefs as mysticism. In February 2019, the Konya Regional Administrative Court ruled the changes made in the compulsory religion course curriculum did not eliminate violations to educational freedom, as ruled by the ECtHR in 2013. In June 2019, the Istanbul 12th Regional Administrative Court accepted an Alevi parent’s appeal for his son’s exclusion from the compulsory religious course. The case was still pending at year’s end.
According to the Diyanet, it had 128,534 employees at year’s end, with women constituting 18 percent of its workforce. The Diyanet expanded its program launched in 2016 to assign Diyanet employees, including imams, to university dormitories operated by the government in every province. On September 9, the Diyanet appointed 922 additional employees to public university dormitories. The Diyanet stated the officials would provide “moral guidance” to address the “moral values” problems in the dorms and provide the Diyanet’s provincial muftis with performance reviews every six months.
The government continued to provide funding for public, private, and religious schools teaching Islam. It did not do so for minority schools the government recognized under the Lausanne Treaty, except to pay the salaries for courses taught in Turkish, such as Turkish literature. The minority religious communities funded all their other expenses through donations, including from church foundations and alumni.
The government continued to permit Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, and Jewish religious community foundations to operate schools under the supervision of the Ministry of National Education. Children of undocumented Armenian migrants and Armenian refugees from Syria could also attend. Because the government continued to classify legal migrant and refugee children as “visitors,” they were ineligible to receive diplomas from these schools. The curricula of these schools included information unique to the cultures of the three groups and teachable in the minority groups’ languages. According to a representative of the Syriac Orthodox community, the community continued to operate a preschool, but there were not enough older students to warrant creating a kindergarten-through-grade 12 school.
In February, media reported parents petitioned to stop the conversion of Ismail Tarman Middle School into an imam hatip school, a vocational religious school intended in principle to train government employed imams. The parents successfully argued that five imam hatip schools were available in their district and won four court decisions in their favor to prevent the conversion. The Ministry of National Education, however, did not adhere to the court decisions of two local administrative and two regional administrative courts, and the school continued to operate as an imam hatip school through year’s end. According to media, some parents of students criticized the practice of converting some nonreligious public schools into imam hatip religious schools. The country’s 2020 investment program in the general budget included the government’s associated priorities, with 460 million lira ($61.96 million) allocated for new imam hatip schools, compared with 30 million lira ($4.04 million) for new science schools.
Many public buildings, including universities, continued to maintain small mosques. In 2017, the Ministry of National Education issued a regulation requiring every new school to have an Islamic prayer room. The government continued to deny Alevis the right to establish similar places of worship in government buildings that did not contain places of worship for non-Sunnis. Alevi leaders reported the approximately 2,500 to 3,000 cemevis in the country were insufficient to meet demand. The government continued to state that Diyanet-funded mosques were available to Alevis and all Muslims, regardless of their school of religious thought.
Several Alevi foundations again requested the end of a continuing program that takes school children ages six to 13 to local mosques for religious instruction during their two-week winter break. The voluntary Ministry of National Education program begun in 2018 for 50,000 children drawn from each of the 81 provinces continued for a third year, with approximately 10,000 children participating during the year. Alevi representatives said they objected to the program because students not participating could be “singled out” for not participating and as being different from the other students.
On January 12, BirGun, a newspaper associated with the political opposition, reported the Ministry of Education started a pilot program introducing Islamic religious classes to preschool students in three provinces. According to media, these classes taught children to associate positive adjectives to images displaying adherence to Islamic tradition, such as women wearing the hijab, while negative adjectives were associated with uncovered women. The government responded that the examples cited were not comprehensive and not representative of the material.
According to media, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I in July again called on the government to allow the Halki Seminary to reopen as an independent institution to enable training of Greek Orthodox clergy in the country, stating the continued closure interrupted a tradition of instruction dating back centuries to the historical roots of the school as a monastery. A 1971 Constitutional Court ruling prohibited the operation of private institutions of higher education and led to the seminary’s closure. Amendments to the constitution in 1982 allowed for the establishment of private institutions of higher education but also placed significant restrictions on the institutions, and the seminary was not permitted to reopen and operate under its traditions and preferences.
In September, Sozcu reported that the Diyanet had acquired an historic tuberculosis hospital on the same island as the shuttered Halki Seminary with plans to open an Islamic educational center.
The government continued to provide training for Sunni Muslim clerics while restricting other religious groups from training clergy inside the country. The Greek Orthodox and Armenian Orthodox Patriarchates remained unable to train clergy within the country. Protestant churches reported the inability to train clergy in the country made their communities dependent on foreign clergy. Local Protestant church representatives raised concerns that the government’s reported deportation of or ban on entry for foreign clergy members hurt their community’s ability to instruct local clergy unable to travel abroad for training.
Multiple reports continued to state these Protestant communities could not train clergy in the country and therefore relied on foreign volunteers to serve them in leadership capacities. Local Protestant communities stated they aimed to develop indigenous Turkish leaders in their congregations because it was becoming increasingly difficult to rely on foreign volunteers; however, they faced difficulties because they could not operate training facilities in-country. Community sources also said some of the deportations and entry bans during the year targeted foreign-citizen members of the community who had lived legally as long-term residents in the country for decades and who previously had not experienced any immigration difficulties. On June 16, the Istanbul Protestant Church Foundation issued a press release stating, “It is with great sadness we must inform you that since 2019, it has been made increasingly difficult for foreign Protestant clergy serving in Turkey to be resident in our country.” According to community members, these immigration procedures also affected a local community’s ability to raise funds for local churches because foreign clergy members attracted individual donations and support from church communities in their countries of origin. Some individuals with entry bans or resident permit denials requested review of their immigration status through the country’s legal system. None of the cases reached conclusion by year’s end and could take several years to resolve due to the complexities of, and backlog in, the judicial system, according to media reports.
Monitoring organizations and media outlets, including Middle East Concern, International Christian Concern, World Watch Monitor, Mission Network News, and Voice of Martyrs, continued to report entry bans, denial of residency permit extensions, and deportations for long-time residents affiliated with Protestant churches in the country. In December 2019, the Ministry of Interior’s Directorate for Migration Management announced that as of January 1, the government would deny extension requests to long-term residents for tourist purposes in the absence of another reason to request a residency permit (i.e., marriage, work, study). Observers reported that through July, there were 54 pending immigration court cases, including residency permit denials and entry bans, of which 19 were new cases. Recipients of bans and denials most frequently cited security codes that denoted “activities against national security” and “work permit activities against national security.” Several religious minority ministers conducted religious services while resident in in the country on long-term tourist residence permits. While similar measures occurred in previous years, multiple groups said they perceived a significant increase in the number of removals and entry bans during the year.
Members of religious communities continued to report that the inability to hold elections for the governing boards of their foundations remained an impediment to managing their affairs. They said when board members died, retired, or left the country, foundation boards had a more difficult time fulfilling their duties and ran the risk of eventually not functioning without new members. If they reached the point of no longer functioning, the government could then declare the foundation defunct and transfer its properties and other assets to the state.
The government continued not to recognize Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I as the leader of the world’s approximately 300 million Orthodox Christians, consistent with the government’s stance that there was no legal obligation for it to do so. The government’s position remained that the Ecumenical Patriarch was only the religious leader of the country’s Greek Orthodox minority population. The government continued to permit only Turkish citizens to vote in the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s Holy Synod or be elected patriarch but continued its practice of granting citizenship to Greek Orthodox metropolitans under the terms of the government’s 2011 stopgap solution intended to widen the pool of candidates eligible to become the next patriarch. The Istanbul Governorate, which represents the central government in that city, continued to maintain that leaders of the Greek Orthodox (Ecumenical Patriarchate), Armenian Apostolic Orthodox, and Jewish communities must be Turkish citizens.
The decision by the Church of Jesus Christ to remove its volunteers and international staff from the country remained in effect throughout the year. In 2018, the Church cited safety concerns as the reason for the removal. According to local members, some followers stayed away from church because they feared retribution and discrimination. Some said they had lost their jobs, including in the public sector, because of their faith, and they experienced difficulties in finding new employment.
The government paid partial compensation to the Alevi Cem Foundation in Turkish lira, based on the 2017 euro exchange rate, amounting to 39,010 euros ($47,900) after the ECtHR rejected the country’s appeal to reduce the 54,400-euro ($66,700) compensation it was obligated to pay the Alevi Cem Foundation in February 2019. The Cem Foundation filed a court case to receive the remainder of compensation and interest. The case continued at year’s end. The Cem Foundation took the government to the ECtHR in 2010 for discrimination for not paying the electric bills of Alevi places of worship, a service provided for mosques. The government appealed for a fee reduction to 23,300 euros ($28,600). In November 2018, the Supreme Court of Appeals ruled cemevis are places of worship and therefore should receive the same benefits as Sunni mosques, including being exempt from paying utility bills. Alevi organizations continued to call on the government to comply with the ruling.
The Diyanet regulated the operation of all registered mosques. It paid the salaries of 128,469 Sunni personnel at the end of the year, compared with 104,814 in 2019. The government did not pay the salaries of religious leaders, instructors, or other staff belonging to other religious groups.
On July 24, the government changed the status of Hagia Sophia, which had become a mosque in 1453 and then a museum in 1935, back again to a mosque, and the Ayasofya Mosque held its first Islamic prayer since 1935. In July, President Erdogan said, “Like all our mosques, its [Hagia Sophia’s] doors will be open to everyone – Muslim or non-Muslim. As the world’s common heritage, Hagia Sophia with its new status will keep on embracing everyone in a more sincere way.” Ibrahim Kalin, the presidential spokesperson, said the country would preserve the Christian icons in the building. In a televised address to the nation in July, President Erdogan said, “I underline that we will open Hagia Sophia to worship as a mosque by preserving its character of humanity’s common cultural heritage,” and he added, “It is Turkey’s sovereign right to decide for which purpose Hagia Sofia will be used.”
Following the government’s announced plan to reconvert Hagia Sophia to serve as a mosque, on June 30, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I stated, “The conversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque will disappoint millions of Christians around the world,” and he called for Hagia Sophia to remain a museum. A June 25 Washington Post article cited the Ecumenical Patriarch as saying the intended reversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque left him “saddened and shaken.” On June 20, a group of Turkish Catholic bishops stated they “would like Hagia Sophia to remain a museum.” In a tweet on June 13, Armenian patriarch Sahak Masalyan endorsed the idea of restoring Hagia Sophia’s status as a place of worship, advocating that there also be a space for Christians to pray. After inaugural prayers on July 24, Hagia Sophia no longer required an entrance fee and remained accessible to all visitors.
On July 28, UN Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Religion or Belief Ahmed Shaheed and UN Special Rapporteur for Cultural Rights Karima Bennoune wrote a joint letter to President Erdogan expressing concern that “the transformation of the Hagia Sofia may set a precedent for the future change in status of other sites, which will have an overall negative impact on cultural rights and religious harmony,” and that the transformation of the Hagia Sophia from a museum to a mosque “may violate the right of people of diverse religions and backgrounds, and nonreligious people, to benefit from access to, and use of, the sites.” The letter also requested the government explain any measures it would take “to preserve the historical and cultural traces of religious minorities, to promote tolerance and understanding of religious and cultural diversity, including in the past, and to promote the equality of all persons, including members of religious minorities.”
After a 2018 Council of State ruling deferred to the Cabinet the decision to reopen Chora Museum as a mosque, the Office of the President announced on August 21 the museum would be reopened as a mosque on October 30. The opening was deferred and did not occur by the end of the year because of continuing restoration. The museum, famed for its mosaics and frescos depicting Christian imagery, was originally constructed and repeatedly renovated as the Greek Orthodox Church of the Holy Savior in the fifth century and then converted into the Kariye Mosque in 1511 before becoming a museum in 1945. According to the progovernment Yeni Safak media outlet, the Council of State determined the 1945 decision to designate the structure as a museum was illegal because it violated the charter of the foundation that owned the then-mosque; the charter stated the building would serve indefinitely as a mosque. Many local Muslims stated they welcomed President Erdogan’s decision to reconvert the museum into a mosque.
The government continued to permit annual and other commemorative religious worship services at religiously significant Christian sites previously converted to state museums, such as St. Peter’s Church in Antakya, St. Nicholas’ Church near Demre, St. Paul Church near Isparta, Church of the Holy Cross on Akdamar Island, and the House of the Virgin Mary, near Selcuk. The government granted the Greek Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarchate permission to hold its annual August 15 service at the Sumela Monastery Museum near Trabzon for the first time since suspending services in 2015 for restoration.
The trial of 13 individuals charged with conspiracy to commit a large-scale assault on an Izmit Protestant church and kill its pastor in 2013 continued through year’s end.
The country continued to host a large diaspora community of ethnic Uyghur Chinese Muslims. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) continued to seek the forcible repatriation of some Uyghur Muslims from Turkey; however, local Uyghur community sources said they knew of no cases of deportations of Uyghurs to the PRC during the year. Government officials, including Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, reaffirmed their commitment not to return Uyghurs to China. On December 31, Foreign Minister Cavusoglu stated, “Until now, there have been requests for returns from China related to Uyghurs in Turkey. And you know Turkey hasn’t taken steps like this.”
Turkish human rights associations and multiple news sources reported on July 2 that Ankara police disbanded a demonstration organized by the Democratic Alevi Association in remembrance of the 1993 arson attack on Hotel Madimak in Sivas, which killed 33 Alevi intellectuals and two hotel staff. According to the Turkish Human Rights Association, police detained and later released seven demonstrators.
According to media reports, the governor’s office of Tunceli Province began to develop Munzur Springs, an Alevi place of worship in eastern Tunceli, as a recreational and commercial area. On September 22, excavation teams began construction on the site. “We consider this undertaking an attack on our places of worship and urge officials to revert this error,” said Dersim Research Center, an organization devoted to protecting the Munzur Springs, in an official statement. In July, authorities granted permission for hunting a limited number of mountain goats in eastern Tunceli despite public outcry against it. Endemic to the Munzur Valley National Park, mountain goats are considered sacred among local residents, according to representatives of the Dersim Center. According to media reports, in June 2019, the Ovacik District Governorate sent a letter to the muhtars (village leaders) of eight villages in the district ordering them to evacuate as soon as possible due to the villages “being in a natural disaster zone.” The district is home to many Alevis and their religious sites. According to media reports, the villages were scheduled for removal because the government had awarded a Canadian-Turkish mining consortium rights to conduct exploratory mining in Munzur National Park – a spiritual area for the Alevis containing many holy sites. The letter did not specify when the villages were to be evacuated; as of year’s end, there was no public update on the case.
The government continued to provide land for the construction of Sunni mosques and to fund their construction through municipalities. According to the Diyanet’s most recent published statistics, there were 89,259 mosques in the country in 2019, compared with 88,681 Diyanet-operated mosques in 2018. Although Alevi groups were able to build some new cemevis, the government continued to decline to provide financial support for their construction and maintenance, with some instances of municipalities providing this support.
Construction of the new Syriac Orthodox church, St. Efphrem (Mor Efrem), in Istanbul continued, with completion expected in 2021. Once completed, it will be the first newly constructed church since the founding of the Turkish Republic in 1923. To date, the approximately 18,000-member Syriac Orthodox community in Istanbul has used churches of other communities, in addition to its one current church, to hold services.
According to news reports, for the third year in a row, the annual Mass took place at the historic Armenian Akdamar Church near Van, in the east of the country, this time officiated by the newly elected Armenian patriarch. Authorities canceled annual services between 2015 and 2017, citing security concerns arising from clashes between the military and the PKK.
Government funding for daily and weekly newspapers published by minority religious communities remained pending at year’s end. In 2019, the government allocated a total of 250,000 lira ($33,700) for minority publications.
Jewish citizens again expressed concern about anti-Semitism and security threats. According to members of the community, the government continued to coordinate with them on security issues. They said the government measures were helpful and the government was responsive to requests for security.
In December, President Erdogan issued a statement wishing a Happy Hanukkah to the country’s Jewish citizens and “the entire Jewish community around the world.” He emphasized that everyone should be able to “practice their beliefs and traditions freely without any discrimination, regardless of their religion, language, or ethnic origin.” Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu met with the Chief Rabbi and other Jewish community leaders via video conference to wish them Happy Hanukkah.
In April and September, President Erdogan again sent messages to the Jewish community celebrating Passover and Rosh Hashanah. The messages described cultural and social diversity and the symbol of “a culture of love and tolerance” as the country’s most important asset.
Renovations continued on the Etz Hayim Synagogue in Izmir, scheduled to reopen in early 2021 as both a synagogue and a museum. According to Izmir Jewish community leaders, the synagogue would form part of a “Jewish Museum” project to include several other Jewish sites nearby, some of which still required reconstruction. The project received funding from the municipal government and through international grants.
Ankara University and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs co-organized a Holocaust Remembrance Day event at the public university on January 31, with the participation of local Jewish community leaders, diplomats, government officials, academics, and students. Minister of Culture and Tourism Mehmet Ersoy was the government’s keynote speaker. Joined by the university’s rector, government speakers highlighted the country’s history of helping Jews escape Nazi persecution and its status as a cosponsor of the 2005 UN resolution designating January 27 as International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Chief Rabbi of Turkey Ishak Haleva, other leaders of the Jewish community, and high school students took part in the event. In February, the government for the fifth consecutive year commemorated the nearly 800 Jewish refugees who died aboard the Struma, a ship that sank off the coast of Istanbul in 1942. The governor of Istanbul, Chief Rabbi Haleva, other members of the Jewish community, and members of the diplomatic community attended the commemoration.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
According to a press report, on March 20, the body of Simoni Diril, the mother of a Chaldean Catholic priest, was located two months after unidentified persons abducted Diril and her husband, Hurmuz Diril, who was still missing. Diril’s body was found near her village in southeastern Sirnak Province. According to CSW, the couple had received threats from Turkish and Kurdish residents. According to one witness, members of the PKK abducted the couple, while others said government-affiliated groups were responsible for the abduction. According to media reports, police continued to investigate the abductions, as well as the killing of Simoni Diril, through year’s end. In March, CSW Chief Executive Mervyn Thomas urged authorities to expedite efforts to secure Humuz Diril’s release, as well as “take extra measures to protect the Christian minority, and tackle hate speech, anti-Christian sentiments, and all forms of religious discrimination in Turkey.”
Some converts to Christian Protestant groups from Islam or from Christian Orthodoxy continued to report social shunning within their family, among friends, and at their workplaces following their associates’ discovery of the conversion, according to local community members.
On August 15, progovernment news site A Haber released an editorial entitled, “Who is Joe Biden, is he a Jew?” The news site published the editorial in response to Biden’s December 2019 statements about the country in an interview published by The New York Times.
News outlet An Haber Ajansi reported that on June 18, an Istanbul prosecutor rejected a complaint of hate speech filed by the president of Arnavutkoy Alevi Cemevi, Yuksel Yildiz. Yildiz filed the complaint in 2018 after a middle school teacher from the public Arnavutkoy Cumhuriyet Middle School said food prepared by Alevis should not be eaten, and he continued to explain that if one has eaten from the hand of an Alevi, one should consult an imam. The accused religious studies teacher admitted making these statements, and the school dismissed him. The prosecutor, however, rejected the legal complaint because the teacher’s actions did not “present a clear and imminent threat to public safety.”
On September 28, independent news website Duvar reported that a car convoy staged a rally in support of Azerbaijan in front of the Armenian Apostolic Patriarchate, in Istanbul’s Kumkapi District. The convoy occurred after the outbreak of hostilities between Armenia and Azerbaijan around Nagorno-Karabakh in September.
In October, unidentified individuals wrote on the door of the home of the president of Bursa’s Pir Sultan Abdal Association, an Alevi organization, “It is your time for death.” Police launched a criminal investigation of the incident that was continuing at year’s end.
According to media reports, isolated acts of vandalism of places of worship and cemeteries continued, including a growing number of instances of vandalism of Christian cemeteries, while no instances were reported in 2019. In February, media outlets reported 20 of 72 gravestones in the Ortakoy Christian Cemetery in Ankara were destroyed. Another incident occurred in Trabzon, where a grave was destroyed in the cemetery of the Santa Maria Church. In May, security cameras caught an individual attempting to vandalize an Armenian church in Istanbul. Police detained the suspect, and authorities charged him with vandalism. According to a news report in June, unknown perpetrators vandalized a monument commemorating Alevis killed in 1938. In May, according to media reports, an unidentified man tore the cross from the gate of the Armenian Surp Krikor Lusaravic Church in Kuzguncuk District, Istanbul. Police reportedly opened an investigation of the incident.
Some news outlets published conspiracy theories involving Jews and blamed Jews for the country’s economic difficulties and the genesis and spread of COVID-19. In an article appearing in the Jewish publication Avlaremoz (Judeo-Spanish for “Let’s talk”), members of the Jewish community expressed concern regarding the proliferation of pandemic conspiracies blaming Jews. In March, Nesi Altaras, an Avlaremoz editor, told the Jerusalem Post, “The pandemic has just fueled the fire of pre-existing Turkish antisemitism and conspiracy theories about Jews.”
Anti-Semitic rhetoric continued in print media and on social media throughout the year. According to a Hrant Dink Foundation project on hate speech released in December 2019, there were 430 published instances in 2019 of hate speech depicting Jews as violent, conspiratorial, and a threat to the country, compared with the 899 published instances in 2018. The foundation did not release a report for 2020. A reader’s letter published in the newspaper Yeni Akit stated Jewish residents in Istanbul trained street dogs to bite Muslims and repeated historic accusations of blood libel. Some commentators criticized the letter as ridiculous, and Mustafa Yeneroglu, a parliamentarian formerly with the ruling AKP party, denounced the content as “the language of the Nazis,” according to multiple media reports.
On March 18, Ahval reported that Fatih Erbakan, the head of the Renewed Prosperity Party, said on March 6, “While there is no hard proof, Zionism could very well be behind the coronavirus.” A video also circulated online showing bus passengers blaming the spread of COVID-19 on Jews and Israel.
On May 11, the self-described conservative magazine Gercek Hayat published an editorial showing a diagram that listed the Turkish Chief Rabbi, the Ecumenical Patriarch, and the Armenian Apostolic Patriarch as “servants of the Fethullah Gulen organization,” considered a terrorist group by the government. The editors stated that key minority religious community leaders, including Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, Chief Rabbi Haleva, the former Armenian Patriarch, and Pope John Paul II, were “coconspirators” of the “Fethullahist Terrorist Organization.” Several religious leaders condemned these statements, warning the statements could incite violence and the desecration of religious sites.
In September, progovernment daily newspaper Sabah published an opinion piece criticizing the U.S.-led Abraham Accords between Israel, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain. The article included several anti-Semitic characterizations, including stating the deal was “masterminded by those who have omnipotent control across the globe.”
In February, the Pew Research Center published findings on attitudes towards democratic principles, such as regular elections, free speech, and free civil society, as well as religious freedom, in 34 countries, based on interviews it conducted in its Spring 2019 Global Attitudes Survey. According to the findings, 82 percent of Turkish respondents considered religious freedom to be “very important,” ranking it among the highest of their priorities for democratic principles among the nine tested.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
The Ambassador, other embassy and consulate general officials, and visiting U.S. officials regularly engaged with government officials throughout the year, including at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. They underscored the importance of religious freedom, interfaith tolerance, and condemning hateful or discriminatory language directed at any religious groups.
U.S. officials also reinforced religious freedom issues, including religious education, in private meetings with government officials. They sought government representatives’ responses to specific claims of religious freedom concerns raised by local religious communities and explored how best to collaborate between the governments of the two countries to protect and respect religious freedom.
On June 25, the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom called on the government to maintain Hagia Sophia as a museum, stating on Twitter, “The Hagia Sophia holds enormous spiritual & cultural significance to billions of believers of different faiths around the world. We call on the Govt of #Turkey to maintain it as a @UNESCO World Heritage site & to maintain accessibility to all in its current status as a museum.” On July 1, the Department of State issued a press release stating it was “disappointed by the decision to change the status of the Hagia Sophia,” and looked forward “to hearing plans . . . it remains accessible without impediment for all.” On July 24, following a meeting of the President and Vice President with head of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America Archbishop Elpidophoros concerning the reconversion of Hagia Sophia museum into a mosque, the Vice President tweeted, “America will stand firm with the Greek Orthodox Church in the call for Hagia Sophia to remain accessible as a source of inspiration and reflection for every person of every faith.”
U.S. government officials urged the government to implement reforms aimed at lifting restrictions on religious groups and raised the issue of property restitution and restoration. Embassy staff continued to press for the restitution of church properties expropriated in Diyarbakir and Mardin.
The Secretary of State and other senior U.S. government officials continued to urge government officials to reopen the Greek Orthodox seminary in Halki and allow all religious communities to train clergy in the country. On July 30, the Ambassador and Istanbul Consul General visited Halki to demonstrate continued interest in the reopening of the seminary. In January, the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom visited the Ecumenical Patriarchate and Halki.
On June 24, the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom recognized Turkey for calling out the PRC for its repression of Muslim minorities in Xinjiang. Embassy officials at the highest level met with Ministry of Foreign Affairs officials during the year to discuss the country’s continued support for Uyghurs in the face of Chinese pressure.
During a November trip to Istanbul, the Secretary of State met with religious leaders, including Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I and Archbishop Paul Russell, the Holy See’s envoy to Turkey. He also visited St. George’s Cathedral and the Rustem Pasha Mosque.
On December 1 and 3, the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom virtually convened international prominent faith leaders from Islam, Christianity, and Judaism for the second meeting of the Abrahamic Faiths Initiative focused on countering hate speech, protecting holy sites, and engaging the public. Representatives from the country’s religious community attended.
In August, the Ambassador traveled to the city of Edirne to visit Muslim and Jewish historic sites and to demonstrate the U.S. government’s commitment to religious freedom.
On January 31, the Ambassador attended a Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony at Ankara University with senior host government officials and the leadership of the country’s Jewish community.
Due to COVID-19 and subsequent country and mission restrictions, senior U.S. embassy and consulate general officials had limited physical engagement with religious community contacts and places of worship, but they regularly engaged virtually and to the extent possible in person with a wide range of religious community leaders to hear and address their concerns and promote interreligious dialogue. Officials from the embassy and consulates general engaged with members of the Greek Orthodox, Jewish, Armenian Apostolic Orthodox Christian, Armenian Protestant, Armenian Catholic, Protestant, Alevi, Syriac Orthodox, Syriac Catholic, Roman Catholic, Chaldean Catholic, and Church of Jesus Christ religions, among others, throughout the country. The embassy and consulates general used Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram to emphasize the importance of the inclusion of religious minorities, including messages under hashtags such as #DiniOzgurluk (religious freedom), on designated days that recognized and underscored the U.S. government commitment to religious freedom and human rights.