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Laki Vingas: "The State of Religious Equality – The View of Minority Communities"

Dear Conference Participants,

Ladies and Gentlemen,

For more than 150 years, minorities living, first in the Ottoman Empire and later in the Republic of Turkey, have occupied national and international agendas. During this period, topics similar to those we are discussing today were brought to agendas with similar results. "Politics for minorities" were set, evaluations were made, complaints were transmitted to relevant authorities, international agreements were signed, and reports were produced one after another. For all the good intentions, the minority populations decreased and their cultures sank into oblivion. People became strangers in the lands where they once belonged, and new generations remain unaware of them. Processes from integration to assimilation were experienced. Because of abeyance or political attitudes, their languages degenerated, schools were closed, and their properties and institutions were confiscated (sequestrated by state). With all these incidents, their endurance diminished and their principal identities became distorted.

The most resistant component to distortion and change, common to all these communities undergoing those processes, has always been the concept of religion. Loyalty and fidelity to religious traditions have been the criteria guaranteeing our societies' existence. The 20th century was a bitter period that had heavy costs. During this period, the minority populations decreased from 20% to 0.15%, and those who stayed organized their life around churches and synagogues.

Some of us have lived these changes and adverse events surrounding the population homogenization project and this historical period. Others have witnessed it by reading and listening to the voices of those who have experienced it. Today, at the beginning of the 21st century, the people of the Middle East are witnessing it again while the entire world stands by as if helpless. In Syria, Iraq and partially in Egypt, Christian communities are being chased away from their historical lands and their cultures are being destroyed. If the populations of those societies decrease at this alarming rate, in a few years their communities will become symbolic groups like ours. We have no seen any serious measures taken to avoid this catastrophe of the minorities of the Middle East, and it should cause all of us deep concern. We dwell at the heart of the information age when we are instantly informed about everything, but we are still unable incidents to provide protection to people who cannot provide their own. Unfortunately, a political mechanism to protect historical communities seems impossible to be produced. Instead, this vital topic is reduced to an intellectual complaint. 

Moreover, who is to be apprised of these complaints? How should minorities' rights be established? At what point will states, politicians, and jurists reach a consensus about how they will provide us equality and freedom? And we minorities, what paradigms will guarantee that we live in a universal system law?

Minorities receive different answers to all these questions, and are exposed to different practices in different countries and political regimes. 

According to our historical experiences, as minorities of Turkey, we need new practices, macro level projects, some incentive and some measures, to become equal citizens having the freedom of thought and speech. In this sense, despite positive changes, new laws and legal arrangements, we still expect major moves and a clear way forward. Though we are not waiting desperately and quietly, for our country to be truly democratic, our needs must be addressed.

As active subcultures, we constantly examine our responsibilities and develop new ideas that aim to contribute to constructive development, without waiting for that development to be offered to us. We share our projects and ideas in the public forum, and we work in to create shared values. For example, we continue to endure the fact that our spiritual institutions are not legal entities. On January 30th of next year, our office for minority foundations, with the support of the Venice Commission, is organizing a second conference at Bilgi University to discuss this important matter.

From the Ottoman era to present, minorities in Turkey were always categorized as religious groups, namely as "communities". The collective memory of the state and the society, and even the collective memory of members of minorities, kept the same term. As a result of this tradition, these groups carried on their philanthropic, healthcare, social, educational and cultural initiatives and activities under the guidance of religious institutions. Religious institutions assumed the leading role in the organizational chart. They had right to represent individuals of the community and state institutions acknowledged this. Nevertheless, this freedom of religious institutions, which assumed so many functions and responsibilities, was not discussed openly. However, this item should also be discussed as part of the freedom of religion discussion. It is not possible to limit the freedom of religion by freedom of worship; or admit that such an abrogation of worship can coexist with freedom of religion. In this sense, despite its symbolic value and importance, the Halki Seminary is not the only problem about freedom of religion in our country. The right to educate and train clergy must be considered as a constitutional right and part and parcel of freedom of thought and faith. This right must be vested in the managing authorities of all religions recognized by the state. The absence of this right, the fact that the Halki Seminary has been closed for 42 years, has caused serious injury to the Ecumenical Patriarchate, the Orthodox Church, and to Turkey itself. During studies about the last democratization package the subject was discussed and assiduous efforts were made in order to reopen the Seminary, but -- last minute decision -- it was left out of the package. Prime Minister, Tayyip Erdoğan said in his early speeches that the reopening was easy and close at hand, but that it wouldn't open if they don't get some things in return. The fact that the future of a 17-century-old historical institution depends on momentary questions and is bargained away so easily, make me think that it requires new solutions. I think it is a duty to invest and invent new formulas. Because every struggle to survive is precious, but only the ones that produce results are successful.  

We are determined to work for success. We are trying to resolve legal entity problems of hundreds of churches and their fixed properties. With hour-long and daylong studies and meetings at the Foundations' Council that is under the Prime Ministry, decisions are made using the provisional clause 11 appended to the new Foundations Law, about unfairly confiscated properties. Within the scope of this clause, up to this date almost 300 properties have been returned to their original owners, 18 properties will be compensated, and 900 properties have been refused for not being appropriate within the existing law . The Foundation of the Greek Orphanage was added to the list of community foundations as the 166th foundation, and three new legal entities were attributed to communities. 
We are concerned about the fate of sanctuaries that have survived in Anatolia and belong to the past and to history; we often discuss this topic. We want the matters of the recognition of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, the Armenian Patriarchate, the Jewish Arch-Rabbinate, the  Assyrian church legal entities, and the recognition of the Catholic Church and of the Protestant Church, as well as to the problems of the Alevi community  to be settled. We also ask for financial contribution to religious education and to sanctuaries' and ecclesiastics' expenses. Responses to our requests and legitimate demands will be beneficial not only to minority communities but also to the entire society; and individuals belonging to minority communities will be freer and more participative. They have already started to be more participative. Indeed, individuals of the minorities prefer not to live in their own worlds anymore, like they did 50 years ago. They are open to society, there is not just one discourse anymore; there are different discourses. We are now hearing vindicatory statements that are calling the greater society to account. Now, they don't answer with a trembling voice only when the microphone is handed to them; often, with courage they hand the microphone to others. They are not perceived any more as representatives of a group, and they don't feel like it, either. 
They have shown themselves to be individuals, using their names and surnames with the messages they write on Twitter, and the photos they share on their Facebook accounts. They broadcast on general society's media organs; they have the courage to determine the discourse about themselves using their own newspapers and magazines. Nevertheless, the fact that we, citizens belonging to different religions, express ourselves freely during recent years, disturbs some groups. They consider our attitude as "excessive". We try to explain patiently that our attitude is not "excessive" but "normal". Such compensation for the ravages created by politics of discrimination, "othering", pressure, and intimidation of the last 100 years will accelerate our normalization process. Here are topics on which I think one should insist:

  • An educational program that teaches the minority presence and history should start from the elementary level
  • Development of shared social programming
  • Respect of the principal of equality in the new Constitution and in all laws and regulations about minority rights; proposal of new laws according to this principle. 
  • Providing the freedom of conscience and belief in the modern sense.
  • Responsibility of every individual citizen as a citizen
  • Respect of cultural and religious inheritance, avoiding antagonistic ideas and activities
  • Elimination of the reciprocity syndrome and political tradition.
  • Attribution of a role to minorities in Turkey's academic and economic vision.
  • Establishment of modern institutions by providing government support.
  • Active support for the minorities living in Anatolia
  • Incentives for those who had to leave Turkey in order to encourage them to come back.
  • A proactive and dynamic attitude of communities. 
  • Self-modernization of communities' administrative systems. Application of a governance reform.
  • Strategy for producing a new future instead of reckoning with the past.

I want to thank The Order of the Archons of Saint Andrew  for giving me the chance of rethinking all this again. I'm honored to participate in such a distinguished and profitable conference in Berlin. I wish and hope the next conference will be held in Turkey and that all the problematic issues I mentioned will be resolved or at least will be diminished by then.