The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) released its 2020 Annual Report on April 28 and recommended the US government include Turkey on the State Department’s “Special Watch List” for “engaging in or tolerating severe violations of religious freedom.” This designation would single out Turkey as the only country among NATO’s 30 member states with such a flawed record on freedom of religion or belief, providing yet more evidence of Ankara’s ongoing drift from transatlantic values.
USCIRF is an independent, bipartisan federal government entity established by the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 (IRFA) and issued its first annual report in May 2000. In its 2009 report, USCIRF for the first time recommended adding Turkey to its watch list alongside ten other countries that “require close monitoring due to the nature and extent of violations of religious freedom.” Three years later, USCIRF downgraded Turkey, recommending its designation as a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC), alongside 15 others, a category reserved for the top offenders of religious freedom around the world, where violations are “systematic, ongoing, and egregious.” CPC designations have the potential to trigger the White House to issue IRFA-based sanctions, which Turkey has managed to avoid so far.
With the 2014 report, USCIRF upgraded Turkey back to the watch list of second-tier countries that fall short of a CPC designation, where it remained until this year. Ankara’s 2016 imprisonment of US pastor Andrew Brunson on trumped-up charges for almost two years, however, has prompted discussions in Washington about Turkey’s designation once again as a CPC.
While USCIRF’s 2020 annual report repeated some of its usual criticism from earlier years—such as government officials’ anti-Semitic hate speech and Ankara’s refusal to open the Greek Orthodox Halki Seminary and comply fully with European Court of Human Rights rulings on freedom of religion or belief—there were also some new concerns.
The Turkish government’s imprisonment of Brunson, as well as other US persons, has prompted USCIRF to recommend passing the Defending United States Citizens and Diplomatic Staff from Political Prosecutions Act of 2019 (S.1075), which advocates “the release of United States citizens and locally employed diplomatic staff unlawfully detained in Turkey” and calls for the US president to impose sanctions on senior Turkish officials. USCIRF highlighted that Ankara targeted some of the detained US persons “in connection with religion or belief,” a violation that calls for “the imposition of sanctions on responsible Turkish officials.”
In the annual report, the commission also highlighted the need for US diplomatic staff to track religious minority communities’ efforts to “open, regain, renovate, and protect places of worship and other religious sites of spiritual, cultural, or historic importance,” while also working with the Turkish government to “ensure the protection of such sites.” USCIRF’s attempt to raise international awareness about the challenges Turkey’s religious minorities face in restoring, controlling, and maintaining access to their worship halls is of utmost importance. In 2015, Diyarbakir’s restored Surp Giragos Church, the largest Armenian Apostolic Church in the Middle East, was destroyed and desecrated during clashes between Turkish security forces and the militants of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which then led to the Turkish government’s confiscation of the church’s properties.
USCIRF highlighted Ankara’s problematic conduct not only in the Turkey section but also in its review of Syria. The commission called for the US government to “exert significant pressure on Turkey to provide a timeline for its withdrawal from Syria,” while ensuring that neither its military nor its Syrian proxies “expand their area of control in northeast Syria.” USCIRF also asked the administration to prevent Ankara from carrying out “religious and ethnic cleansing” in that area, or “otherwise abuse the rights of vulnerable religious and ethnic minorities there.”
USCIRF’s criticism of Turkey’s conduct over the last year has not been limited to the 2020 annual report. In March 2019, USCIRF condemned Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s threats to convert Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia from a museum into a mosque ahead of the country’s mayoral elections. Last September, USCIRF called out the Turkish government over its latest interference in the internal affairs of the Armenian Apostolic Church by imposing severe restrictions on the eligibility of individuals who can stand for election in the upcoming vote for a new patriarch. In April 2020, USCIRF identified Turkey in its updated Legislation Factsheet on Blasphemy Law as one of the 84 countries that maintain blasphemy laws, urging Ankara to repeal these laws that violate freedom of religion and expression and free all those detained or convicted for blasphemy.
The special concern USCIRF has for Turkey’s conduct is also evident in the fact that last June USCIRF chose to hold its first congressional hearing in ten years on “Religious Freedom in Turkey,” featuring among others Andrew Brunson. In her opening remarks, then-USCIRF Commissioner Kristina Arriaga warned about Turkey’s “downward trajectory on freedom of religion or belief.”
The issues USCIRF has chosen to highlight in its 2020 report and the commission’s efforts over the last year accurately reflect the key obstacles to freedom of religion or belief in Turkey. The commission’s recommendation for the US government to include Turkey on the State Department’s “Special Watch List” is an important reminder for Ankara to address its longstanding shortcomings in the field of minority rights and religious freedoms. It is, however, also important for USCIRF to include in next year’s report a key grievance that it failed to include in the 2020 report, namely Turkey’s refusal to provide full legal status to religious communities, which disproportionately affects minority faiths. For the time being, US officials could make up for this omission by continuing to raise this key grievance in their interactions with their Turkish counterparts.