Turkey’s population is approximately 80 million (in addition, there are very sizeable refugee communities in Turkey, including over 3 million registered Syrian refugees as of July 2016). The vast majority (98%-99%) are Muslim, and a quarter of those are Alevis (a small offshoot of Shi’a Islam). Christians in Turkey include indigenous Christian communities, Turkish Christian believers from Muslim backgrounds, and expatriates (including refugees). The largest Christian group is the Armenian Apostolic Church, followed by the Syriac Orthodox Church. Istanbul remains the seat of the Ecumenical Patriarch of the Eastern Orthodox Church; the Patriarch is recognised by the Government as the leader of the very small Greek Orthodox community. Also present are churches belonging to the Catholic rite (Armenian, Syriac, Chaldean and Latin), Anglican churches and other evangelical churches, many of which belong to the Association of Protestant Churches (TeK).
The constitution establishes Turkey as a secular state, affording no privileged status to Islam or Islamic law. While a founding principle of the modern Turkish state is the separation of State and religion, a degree of tension is inherent in this as the State must control religion to the extent necessary to prevent religion controlling the State. The constitution affirms the principle of non-discrimination, including on the basis of religion, and guarantees the free exercise of worship and religious rites, including freedom from religious compulsion, provided religious practices do not undermine the fundamental rights of others. Religious conversion is legally permitted, including away from Islam, though social disapproval may be encountered. The Armenian Apostolic and Greek Orthodox churches, together with the Jewish community, have recognition under the Lausanne Treaty of 1923 – although their administrative structures do not have legal entity. These two churches may operate religious community schools, though restrictions on private universities prevent the operation of training colleges. All other religious groups must register as associations or foundations (with charitable or cultural objectives) in order to gain legal status. Although the Lausanne Treaty stipulated that recognised non-Muslims could govern personal status issues according to their own rites, all citizens of Turkey are now subject to the secular civil code.
Turkey ratified the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) on 18th May 1954 and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) on 23rd September 2003. Both the Convention and the Covenant uphold the right to freedom of religion, including the right to hold a religion of one’s choice and the right to manifest that religion, and the principle of non-discrimination. Turkey’s ratification of the ECHR was made without reservation. Ratification of the ICCPR was made with a reservation that provisions relating to ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities would be interpreted in accordance with related provisions in the Turkish constitution.
Christians in Turkey enjoy a considerable degree of freedom, though a number of pressures persist. Following the attempted coup, several Christian workers were deported on the grounds that they constituted a threat to national security. A verdict was finally given in the trial of those responsible for the murders of three Christians in Malatya in 2007, with the perpetrators being handed three consecutive life sentences and two members of the armed forces involved in the planning receiving prison sentences. However, it is feared that many others behind the organisation evaded justice. A 2011 decree concerning restitution of long-standing confiscated church properties has led to the return of several hundred properties to religious foundations – however, many claims for restitution remain outstanding. While the legal requirements to be met by a religious foundation in order to establish places of worship were previously very onerous, these restrictions have eased in recent years. The Armenian and Greek Orthodox communities continue to be hampered by the long-term closure of their training seminaries. Those who choose to leave Islam face family and societal pressure, though this rarely results in violence.
The state of emergency declared following the attempted coup of 15th July has resulted in tens of thousands of job losses and arrests in political purges. Although there was little initial impact on Christians, the Association of Protestant Churches (TeK) has reported that Turkey’s Christian communities are increasingly being affected. In particular, a number of expatriate Christians are facing residency issues, deportation or entry bans.