Turkey’s non-Muslim minorities and the referendum

Turkey’s non-Muslim minorities and the referendum

In contrast to the many modern, huge (and ugly) municipality buildings in Istanbul, Edirne has a small but historic central municipality building. A picture of the members of the municipality’s assembly dating from 1902 shows 12 members: Six Muslim and six non-Muslim. 

The building is one of the best testimonies to the city’s multicultural past. Once home to significant non-Muslim communities, Edirne is now trying to revive that cultural richness. There is only one Jewish family left, but the city’s newly restored synagogue stands as Europe’s third largest, (although it is more often used as an exhibition hall than for religious ceremonies).  

Several historic buildings belonging to Turkey’s non-Muslim minorities have been restored during the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) era. Compared to its predecessors, the AKP’s initial policies toward non-Muslim minorities were the most democratic. This culminated in 2008, as amendments made to the minority religious foundations law facilitated the return of properties expropriated back in the 1970s.

Minorities indeed witnessed several firsts over the course of the last decade: The Greek Orthodox Sümela Monastery near the Black Sea town of Trabzon held its first religious ceremony in 88 years in 2010.

An important piece of Armenian heritage, the Akdamar Church (Church of the Holy Cross) located on Akdamar Island in Lake Van, underwent a restoration and was reopened to visitors in 2007 as a museum. In 2010, the government decided to open the church for religious ceremonies once a year.

Similarly, the Greek minority’s school in Gökçeada was reopened in 2015 after being closed for five decades.

“To me, all these ‘firsts’ are very important and I do not want to underestimate their significance. But the most important gain for non-Muslim minorities in the initial years of the AKP was the fact that we became more visible and gained an increased reputation thanks to the recognition shown to us in the upper echelon of the state,” one representative told me. 

“The interest shown in us at the highest level of the government was a good example to the lower echelons of the state. It increased our self-confidence. We were asked for our views. We were able to express our needs and public support for our views increased.”

Sadly, the assassination of Turkish–Armenian journalist Hrant Dink also took place during the AKP tenure.

 The fact that his family’s quest for justice continues to this day, as the case drags on, will remain a black stain on the AKP’s record. 

It is not the only one. It has been years since the decree regulating elections to administer foundations was cancelled. Minorities were told that the decree was cancelled in order for it to be renewed, answering current day requirements and making the law more democratic. Yet there is no sign of a new decree on the horizon.
“We may be small communities. But even small communities like ours need democracy. We cannot hold elections and we have been deprived of our right to renew ourselves. This is a huge loss for us. It is like property being given back to us but its former administrators being kept in place,” said the representative.

As is the case in other areas of democratization in Turkey, there has been backpedaling in improving the rights of minorities. What’s more, the increasing nationalist climate fueled by rhetoric demonizing all who fall outside of the AKP’s Sunni voting base have had an intimidating effect on minorities.

“I came from Greece in 2002 and voted for the AKP,” the editor-in-chief of the Turkey-based Greek-language daily Apolevmatini, Mihail Vasiliadis, recently told daily Birgün. “Now we can’t even speak our mother tongue in the streets. We refrain from revealing our identities and avoid saying our names.”

Their numbers are so small that the votes of the non-Muslim minorities are not significant in terms of election outcomes in Turkey. Although one cannot know exactly how they have cast their votes, the AKP was rather popular among non–Muslim minorities up until 2011. One wonders how they will cast their votes in the April 16 referendum.