Turkey’s non-Muslims seek equal citizenship rights in constitution
20 February 2012 / YONCA POYRAZ DOĞAN, İSTANBUL
Two groups from Turkey’s non-Muslim community have presented their packages of proposals to the parliamentary sub-commission working to replace the country’s military-prepared Constitution, emphasizing the restricted rights of minorities and demanding equal standing as citizens. On Monday, Greek Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew I and representatives of Turkey’s Arameans submitted their proposals to a sub-commission of the inter-party Constitutional Reconciliation Commission. Their utmost concern was equal citizenship rights. “There have been unjust practices against minorities. Those unjust practices have been slowly corrected.
A new Turkey is being born, and we don’t want to be second class citizens anymore,” Patriarch Bartholomew said following the meeting in Ankara, as quoted by the Anatolia news agency. He also said this was the first time in the history of the Turkish Republic that minority groups have been officially invited to the Parliament to voice their demands.
“We just want our rights as citizens of Turkey. We don’t want discrimination. We want equality because we are citizens of Turkey: We are born here, we pay our taxes here, we serve in the military here, we vote here,” the Patriarch said. “We are hopeful that our demands will be addressed.”
Answering questions from Today’s Zaman, Laki Vingas, representative of several minority foundations and a Turkish citizen of Greek origin, said they presented an 18-page document to the sub-commission voicing their specific demands.
“We told the sub-commission that equality of citizenship should not be confined to documents; it should be practiced,” he said, adding that making a new constitution is important for every Turkish citizen and it is disturbing that Turkey still has the military constitution written after the 1980 coup.
Vingas also said that as they voiced their demands and concerns about the educational issues facing Turkey’s Greek community, the sub-commission members have been interested in hearing more about why Halki Seminary on Heybeliada, the second largest of the Princes’ Islands, is still closed.
“The Patriarch told the commission members that the school was open during the Ottoman era and Atatürk’s time. However, it was later closed due to a political decision. The Patriarch made it clear that the Greek community of Turkey wants the school to be operated under the Ministry of Education,” he said.
Vingas added that the new constitution is supposed to provide religious freedom, freedom of expression and the right to assembly. It is also supposed to prohibit hate speech and discrimination.
“If these things are granted in the new constitution, the seminary will automatically be opened, as its closure falls under the issue of freedom of religion. When there is freedom of religion, adherents of a religion should be able to educate their religious leaders,” he said. Before the Greek Patriarch met with Parliament, representatives from the Mor Gabriel Monastery Foundation presented their proposals for the new constitution.
Kuryakos Ergün, head of the Mor Gabriel Foundation, told Today’s Zaman on the phone after the meeting that they demand equal citizenship rights from the government as well.
“We prepared a proposal on behalf of the Arameans. We asked for basic rights — like the removal of barriers currently restricting someone’s right to education in his or her mother tongue,” he said, adding that the Aramean people also demand legal recognition.
“We also ask that priests should be paid by the state through funding from the Religious Affairs Directorate,” he said.
In the packages prepared by both groups they point out the restricted role of minorities in the public sector, as non-Muslims are limited from assuming influential positions such as judges and prosecutors, even though the current constitution imposes no such restrictions. The package of proposals asks that the way to the top-level bureaucracy be opened up.
“Arameans have been living here for more than six thousand years. They are one of the oldest communities in this region. We are not guests here,” he asserted.
The parliamentary sub-commission has also invited representatives of other non-Muslim communities to present their proposals, but officials said the dates for meetings with representatives of the Jewish and Armenian community have not been scheduled yet.
Meanwhile, the representatives of those communities told Today’s Zaman that they are working to present their suggestions to the commission.
On Monday, the sub-commission also heard proposals from two other groups; Aydınlar Ocağı, a conservative-nationalist group, and academics from the İstanbul Policy Center (IPC).
IPC officials told Today’s Zaman that they have been working on a study exploring possible mechanisms to establish a system of effective checks and balances regarding Turkey’s legislative, executive and judiciary branches. A team of researchers from the center has been collecting the views of representatives from academia, the media, civil society groups, unions and think-tanks, representing a wide variety of political stances, in order to bring together their suggestions. The IPC is planning to share the results of that study with the media on Wednesday. They will also make presentations to the parliamentary speaker, Cemil Çiçek, and members of parliament.