Non-Muslims and the referendum

Despite all the shortcomings and challenges we are faced with in Turkey, change is gradually but firmly taking hold in the social, political and economic fabric of the country. Like it or not, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) deserves much of the credit for that, as it has been the only political actor pushing for change in this country. Yet, at times, one cannot resist the frustrating feeling that the government could and should have done much more in its eight years of rule.

A historic mass on Sunday at the Sümela Monastery in the Black Sea coastal province of Trabzon was the first in our young republican history and a taboo-breaking event. Three-thousand Orthodox Christians, from Turkey and abroad, flocked to the ancient monastery to attend the ceremony, conducted by Fener Greek Patriarch Bartholomew, a Turkish citizen.

As democratization makes inroads into the daily lives of the Turkish people, resulting in a more confident society that does not shy away from confronting its own past, the ultra-nationalists and isolationists in Turkey are having a hard time mobilizing xenophobic anti-minority feelings. In sharp contrast to almost a decade ago, when most media outlets were feeding nationalistic fervor, the front pages of dailies yesterday took a positive tone about the ceremony at the Sümela Monastery.

I believe in giving credit where credit is due. Granted, the United States and the European Union have been pushing Turkey to grant rights to its minorities and non-Muslim religious communities, but that in itself was not enough to get governments to act on these demands in the past. It took the AK Party government to allow a church service to be held once a year at Sümela in a gradual loosening of restrictions on religious expression.

Another breakthrough decision adopted by this government matters a great deal to the Armenian community in Turkey, as well as to Armenians abroad. A religious service scheduled to be held at the 10th century Armenian Akdamar Church in Lake Van on Sept. 19 is a significant event marking the reconciliation of Turks with their own past. The church, regarded as one of the finest architectural examples of ancient Armenian civilization in Turkey, reopened in 2007 as a museum following a $1.5 million restoration fund allocated by the Turkish government.

The government is also providing political cover and support for an ongoing legal case called Sledgehammer over a comprehensive military plot targeting minorities and religious communities in an attempt to foment chaos in society and create an embarrassment for the government abroad so that they can launch a coup. The indictment, accepted by the courts, unveils overwhelming evidence on schemes to, amongst other things, confiscate the accounts and assets held by minorities. Another plot, called the Cage plan, that was exposed earlier, sought to undermine the government’s credibility by staging various attacks and organizing assassinations of non-Muslim minority leaders.

Against this background, it is quite understandable that minority groups and non-Muslim religious communities in Turkey are planning to say “yes” to the constitutional changes in the upcoming national referendum on Sept 12. They understand very well that these government-endorsed reforms will further solidify the rights of citizens, including non-Muslims, and ensure constitutionally protected rights for everybody living on Turkish soil. Though the changes are not comprehensive and only cover 26 articles, when adopted, they will offer expanded remedies to citizens for rights violations, including an ombudsman office and the individual right to petition the Constitutional Court.

The Bugün daily on Sunday ran an excellent article surveying minorities and non-Muslim communities on how they view the referendum. It followed an earlier Today’s Zaman article that appeared last month. Greek Orthodox Patriarchate spokesman Dositheos Anagnostopulos was quoted as saying he believed the constitutional changes would further democratize the country. He said as a Turkish citizen he would vote “yes” in the referendum and that this was the view of the patriarchate, as well.

Turkish-Armenian newspaper Agos Editor-in-Chief Etyen Mahçupyan is also among those who advocate constitutional changes. Mahçupyan, whose name was on the hit list in the Sledgehammer coup plan, said he would vote for the changes. “The reforms may not be enough, but they are important when you look at our past in this country,” he said. According to Ara Koçunyan, editor-in-chief of the Armenian daily Jamanak, published in İstanbul, non-Muslim minorities have benefited from the government’s reforms.

“We need to say ‘yes’ on Sept. 12. Saying ‘no’ would give hope to coup supporters,” argued Mihail Vasiliadis, editor-in-chief of Apoyevmatini, a weekly Greek newspaper serving the 2,500-strong Greek community in İstanbul. Zeki Basatemir, a member of the board of directors of the Syriac Catholic Church Foundation in Turkey, said they will vote “yes” on the referendum because this is the first time they’ve found politicians in the government interested in their problems. Assyrian community spokesman Yusuf Bektaş said his personal vote on the changes will be “yes” as well.

The best summary provided on the perspective of Turkey’s minorities was given by Kezban Hatemi, an attorney specializing in minority rights, who said the “not enough, but yes” campaign launched by civil society groups also reflects the views of non-Muslim minorities in Turkey. She said that what they are expecting from the government as the next step is a brand new civilian constitution that will broaden individual rights and freedoms.

I think an overwhelming majority of Turks are also asking the same from the government: The next step is a brand new constitution.

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