Today, only 0.1 percent of Turkey’s population of nearly 85 million are Christian or Jewish. Both communities (including other non-Muslims and ex-Muslims) are exposed to hate crimes at the hands of the country’s Muslim population. 

The 2021 Report of “Hate Crimes in Turkey Based on Religion, Belief or Unbelief” by the Freedom of Belief Initiative of the Norwegian Helsinki Committee was released in September.

The report documented 29 hate crimes or incidents related to religion, belief or non-belief between January and December 2021. The victims are Alevis, Christians, Jews, and atheists.

The report notes that the actual number of hate crimes that target religious minorities are higher than the number of incidents reported to authorities. 

“Considering the fact that, as a general trend, hate crimes are reported [to police] and documented far less than they happen, it can be concluded that these numbers [of the hate crimes in the report] only reveal a general picture.”

The report lists the main obstacles to reporting or notification of hate crimes:

“Victims are used to hateful acts and have a high threshold for reporting or notifying [the authorities of these crimes],

“Victims prefer not to report [hate crimes] considering their risk of exclusion [from society],

“Victims are concerned that their allegations will not be taken seriously or that they will face greater victimization, including at the hands of police officers, if they report [the hate crimes they are subject to].”

None of the hate crimes in 2021 were handled through an effective legal process, said the report. Those hate crimes include damage to property, threats, violent attacks against individuals, damage to places of worship and cemeteries, harassment, and insults. Some places related to religious, or belief communities were repeatedly targeted.

While the report was under preparation, several hate crimes that targeted religious minorities took place in July 2022. For example, on July 15, in the Haskoy neighborhood of Istanbul, 81 tombstones in the Jewish cemetery were destroyed.  On July 30, two Alevi places of worship (cem houses) and an Alevi foundation were attacked in Ankara.  

“These incidents demonstrate that belief-based hate crimes can happen at any time in Turkey and how important it is to take multidimensional measures,” the report said.

The victims are targeted due to their non-Muslim belief or lack of belief regardless of their ethnicity. Assyrians, Armenians, Jews, atheists, and even Turkish converts to Protestantism were exposed to threats and abuse. 

Today, most of the remaining Christians and Jews in Turkey live in Istanbul. The historic Jewish and Christian presence across Asia Minor almost completely ended because of decades-long persecution against the communities by subsequent Turkish government and Muslim locals. However, even the remnants of their cultural and religious heritage are exposed to violations and destruction. Some examples of hate crimes from last year include:

The Protestant community in the Arhavi town of Artvin became a target in print and digital media for being “missionaries”… Some people then put pressure on the landlord of the Protestant community leader to evict him… The community leader was also targeted with threats such as “dead priest walking” while walking in the streets. 

The Protestant Kurtuluş Church leader and church community in the city of Aydın were also threatened on their Facebook posts with messages calling for the killing and beheading of Christians. 

The Assyrian-Syriac Marta Şimoni Church in Şırnak’s Beytüşşebap district was subject to a violent attack. The rosaries were found thrown out and the statues in the church were thrown to the ground. The fabrics hung for the sick to be healed were taken out of the church and thrown from a slope. The church’s cross was also found on the ground.

An Armenian cemetery in Van was destroyed with construction machinery. Soil was poured on the gravestones that were removed from their places; the bones in the cemetery appeared on the ground.

A Turkish nationalist member of parliament, Ümit Özdağ, targeted the Armenian Member of Parliament Garo Paylan, by saying: “When the [right] time comes, you too will and must experience a Talat Pasha experience.” Talat Pasha was one of the organizers of the 1915 Armenian genocide in Ottoman Turkey. 

The signboard of the Jewish cemetery in the city of Manisa was damaged for the second time in two years. The Environment and Urban Law Commission of the Diyarbakir Bar Association filed a criminal complaint with the Chief Prosecutor’s Office regarding the devastation of the synagogue in Çermik district of Diyarbakir. The gate of the historical Kasturya Synagogue in Istanbul and some of its remnants were set on fire by “unidentified persons.” 

A person living in the city of Diyarbakir sought help from the Diyarbakır Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office, saying he was threatened and stalked on his way home for being an atheist. The prosecutor’s office decided that there was no need to prosecute. The victim’s appeal was also rejected. In the city of Batman, a member and volunteer of the Atheism Association was reportedly battered with a gun.

Alevis, a historically persecuted community in Turkey, have a population which is estimated in the tens of millions, thereby being the country’s largest religious minority. But as the Turkish government does not officially recognize the Alevis, they are counted by the government as “Muslim,” not as a belief community with their own authentic faith and culture. 

Alevis top the list of victims of hate crimes in the report. An Alevi family living in Istanbul, for instance, said that their neighbors attacked and beat them, shouting hateful slogans such as “May Allah burn those who are disturbed by the sound of the adhan [Islamic call to prayer]”. A Muslim teacher in Ankara insulted Alevis, including his own Alevi students and their parents, because of their Alevi identity.  An Alevi sought help from the police after experiencing insults by an imam in the city of Amasya. An Alevi family living in Izmir said that they were exposed to insults, verbal abuse, and threats from their neighbors. A middle school teacher in the city of Hatay was subjected to systematic pressure, harassment, and coercion at the hands of the school principal for being an Alevi.

Five Alevi houses in the city of Yalova were crossed and “Alevi” was written on their walls. Marking Alevi houses with some letters or crosses has become a widespread phenomenon in Turkey. This poses a security threat to the Alevi community as Alevis were repeatedly massacred throughout Turkey’s history. And marking their locations could be a signal that they are singled out for a future massacre or pogrom. During the 1978 massacre against Alevis in the city of Malatya, for instance, some masked people attacked and burned down the houses, offices and businesses belonging to Alevis and left-wingers which had been marked beforehand. 

What is it that makes people of a certain ideology, such as Islam, target, attack, and abuse even their own colleagues, neighbors, or students simply for their non-Muslim identity? What makes them see past their humanity? What makes them damage or destroy even the cemeteries and places of worship of non-Muslims, whom Islamic scriptures call “kafirs”? 

Dr. Bill Warner, the president of the Center for the Study of Political Islam (CSPI), describes what the term “kafir” means according to Islamic scriptures:

“The language of Islam is dualistic. As an example, there is never any reference to humanity as a unified whole. Instead, there is a division into believer and kafir (unbeliever). Humanity is not seen as one body but is divided into whether the person believes Mohammed is the prophet of Allah or not.

“Kafir is what the Koran and Islam call the unbelievers. Kafir is the worst word in the human language. The Koran defines the kafir and says that the kafir is:

“Hated (40:35), mocked (83:34), punished (25:77), beheaded (47:4), confused (6:25), plotted against (86:15), terrorized (8:12), annihilated (6:45), killed (4:91), crucified (5:33), made war on (9:29), ignorant (6:111), evil (23:97), disgraced (37:18), unclean (9:28), cursed (33:60), stolen from (Bukhari 5,59,537), raped (Ishaq 759). A Muslim is not the friend of a kafir (Koran-3:28).

“Christians and Jews are infidels, but infidels are kafirs, too. Polytheists are Hindus, but they are also kafirs. The terms infidel and polytheist are religious words. Only the word “kafir” shows the common political treatment of Christian, Jew, Hindu, Buddhist, animist, atheist and humanist.

“The word kafir should be used instead of ‘unbeliever’, the standard word. Unbeliever is a neutral term. The Koran defines the kafir and kafir is not a neutral word. A kafir is not merely someone who does not agree with Islam, but a kafir is evil, disgusting, the lowest form of life. Kafirs can be tortured, killed, lied to and cheated. So the usual word “unbeliever” does not reflect the political reality of Islam.”

This mentality has brought, and continues to bring, so much suffering, abuse and injustice to non-Muslims in Turkey and other majority-Muslim countries. 

Historic Asia Minor, which is today inside modern Turkey’s borders, was a majority-Christian country at the time of the Eastern Roman Empire. This was before the Turkish conquest of the region in the eleventh century. Despite centuries-long Turkish oppression that targeted indigenous Christians and Jews (which includes a genocide, pogroms, and official discrimination), those communities preserved their sizable presence – at least in Istanbul – under Turkish rule until the 1955 pogrom. While the government of Turkey has finally achieved the establishment of a completely Muslim-dominated state and political system, the persecution and hate speech against non-Muslims, confiscation of their properties, and threats of further violence never ends. And bringing those realities to light remains a taboo in Turkey – even an “offense” whose “perpetrators” face threats, prosecution, jail time or even worse outcomes.