ANKARA – After decades of official neglect and mistrust, Turkey has taken several steps to ensure the rights of the country’s non-Muslim religious minorities, and thus to guarantee that the rule of law is applied equally for all Turkish citizens, regardless of individuals’ religion, ethnicity, or language.
Turkey’s religious minorities include Greek Orthodox, Armenian, Assyrian, Kaldani, and other Christian denominations, as well as Jews, all of whom are integral parts of Turkish society. As part of the Turkish government’s new initiative to end any sort of discrimination against these non-Muslim communities, President Abdullah Gül has emphasized that message by receiving Bartholemew, the Greek-Orthodox Patriarch of Istanbul, and by visiting a church and a synagogue in Hatay – a first by a Turkish president.
In August 2009, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan met with leaders of religious minorities on Büyükada, the largest of the Prince Islands in the Sea of Marmara, and listened to their problems and concerns, a clear signal of his government’s intent to buttress their sense of civil inclusion. As Deputy Prime Minister, I met with representatives of religious minorities in March 2010, and visited the Armenian and Greek Orthodox Patriarchies in 2010 and 2011. Likewise, Turkey’s minister for European Union affairs, Egemen Bağış, has met with these communities’ leaders on several occasions.
Beyond establishing warm relations between the Turkish government and the country’s religious minorities, official policy has been changing as well. In May 2010, Prime Minister Erdoğan issued an official statement that warned public servants and citizens against any discrimination against religious minorities, and that emphasized the absolute equality of Turkey’s non-Muslim citizens.