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Minorities, Turkey, and the quality of its democracy

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On Jan. 2, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu organized a Christmas lunch for the leaders of Turkey's non-Muslim communities at the Prime Ministry office in Dolmabahçe Palace. Ecumenical Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew, Deputy Patriarch of the Greek Orthodox Church Peter Stefanos, Vicar-General of the Chaldean Catholic community of Turkey Francois Yakan, Patriarchal Vicar of the Syriac Orthodox Church Yusuf Çetin, Turkish ambassador to the Vatican Mehmet Paçacı, Patriarchal Vicar of the Syrian Catholic Church in Turkey Yusuf Sağ, Apostolic Administrator of the Armenian Catholic Archieparchy Levan Zekiyan, Chief Rabbi İshak Haleva and Archbishop of the Armenian Apostolic Church Aram Ateşyan were present at the lunch.

Mehmet Görmez, the head of Turkey's Presidency of Religious Affairs, Istanbul Mufti Rahmi Yaran and Directorate General of Foundations General Manager Adnan Ertem also participated in the event.

Davutoğlu began by conveying his best wishes to his guests for Christmas, which is on Dec. 25 for Catholics and Protestants, but falls on Jan. 6 for Eastern Orthodox Christians, which forms the most populous non-Muslim community in Turkey.

Davutoğlu continued: "We do not consider any tradition at this table alien to these lands, or an outsider that arrived here afterward. I hesitate to use the word 'minority.' In the context of authentic cultural and religious traditions, this picture, which reflects all the colors of our country, is significant for us. Also, this is an important picture in terms of the principle of equal citizenship. We have never attempted any discrimination of our citizens. On the grounds of the fundamental principle of citizenship, the lives, commodities, minds and honors of our citizens are sacred to us, regardless of religious, sectarian or ethnic differences."

His remarks illustrate how the attitude of the state in Turkey has radically changed compared to the recent past. This transformation has been maturing since Nov. 3, 2002, when the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) became the ruling party.

To our friends who assume that Turkey had a secular, democratic, modern and westernized democracy in the past, I would like to point out a few implementations regarding non-Muslims that were routine in this country for 80 years.

The state used to frequently seize the assets of non-Muslim foundations through the Directorate of Foundations and adjudications. The foundations were the only institutions non-Muslims could use for their fundamental activities such as education, solidarity and religious needs. For this reason, the non-Muslim population in this country was minimized to a mere 100,000.

In this country, where an Armenian is Davutoğlu's chief advisor now, non-Muslims formerly did not have any chance to join civilian or military bureaucracy and they could not even be assigned to the lowest positions in the public sphere. All non-Muslim citizens were blacklisted and followed by the state, and benefactors backing the foundations were threatened.

Far from being allowed to construct any new churches, the already-existing minority churches, schools and other foundation buildings were demolished.

Non-Muslims were suppressed in economic, cultural and psychological terms with violent means such as the Property Tax, the 1934 Thracian pogroms and the 1955 Istanbul pogrom. The Turkish state regularly abused minorities and violated their rights and the articles regarding minorities according to the Lausanne Treaty, which was highly praised, since it was Turkey's founding agreement. And the West shut its eyes to all of this, because Turkey was a member of NATO.

Last year, the-then Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced a condolence message to the 1915 genocide victims, which broke another taboo. He said: "We recognize and share your pain." This binding official statement was announced on the official website of the Prime Ministry.

Of course, there are still problems. For example, Heybeliada Halki Seminary is still closed. And it is known that this is postponed due to the unacceptable discriminatory practices carried out in Greece against Turks residing in western Thrace. We have always argued that this approach of the government is highly inequitable, but we have never gotten into any trouble for our opinion.

At the closed-door session of the lunch on Jan. 2, requests regarding this issue were also discussed. Moreover, the Syriacs' right to build churches, schools and hospitals has been re-instated. They had been deprived of this right due to the fact that the word "Syriac" was not stated in the Lausanne Treaty. With this latest development, Syriacs are now preparing to build a church in Istanbul for the first time in modern Turkish history, and the state will provide them land.

Surely there are other criteria for democratization. But I know that the health of a democracy can be measured by the conditions of minorities in that country, particularly these days, when racism has reached its peak in the U.S. and the EU.

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