Turkey’s Deputy Foreign Minister Faruk Kaymakcı recently claimed that his country’s “difficult, contested and questioned” membership with the European Union will nevertheless “be the most valuable and advantageous EU membership compared to others,” which will bring “enormous benefits.” It’s a clear indication of intent following a season of uncertainty regarding the nation’s geopolitical alignment. Whilst Erdoğan has appeared to eye up relationships eastward with groups such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, 79% of the population are still in favour of accession—despite undergoing the longest and most arduous candidacy process in EU history.
And yet, despite Turkey posturing itself as more valuable than other current member states, it has failed to address nagging concerns about its alignment with respect to human rights. It is ranked among the top ten countries worldwide experiencing the largest decline in religious freedom—a freedom entrenched in the European Convention on Human Rights and central to democracy. Christians especially have experienced this acutely, which accounts for their demographic drop from 25% in 1914 to less than 0.5% of the population today. For Christians born and raised in Turkey, this has meant flagrant discrimination, the demolishment of ancient churches, the inability to train clergy, and threats to and loss of lives (which is also a danger for Turkish locals who convert from Islam). According to some, this is how the diverse Christian cultural memory is being and has been erased in the country.
Additionally, Protestant missionaries serving in Turkey frequently face religious discrimination or even expulsion. Turkish Protestants cannot train their own religious personnel. Due to a need for spiritual leadership, many congregations turn to foreign pastors or religious workers. However, these foreign religious workers face constant threats of expulsion. Nobody knows this better than missionary pastor Mark Smith.
The Smith family are among 60 Christian missionary families that have been expelled from the country in the past two years. Mark and his wife were peacefully and legally residing in the country, helping to start and lead a Turkish-speaking evangelical church for 10 years before being banished for “activities against Turkish state security” in 2020. Since then, they have not been able to return. “We love the country of Türkiye and want to work for the good of its people. We are not a threat to the state, the country or the Turkish way of life,” stated Mark at an event on “Freedom of Religion in Türkiye” held in the EU Parliament. He is just one of many who are challenging these unjust expulsions.
In deliberately stifling the public expression of faith, Turkey has laid open a question that could be a stumbling block for their desire to join the European Union. Can the EU align itself with a country that tramples on its own aims and values, such as inclusion and equality, at the expense of Christians—the most persecuted religious group in the world?
The answer to this question lies in how the European Union views religious-freedom rights and how it has historically dealt with violations of this right.
When at its best, the EU can enable justice for those persecuted due to their religion. Last year, the European Parliament passed a resolution that helped to secure an acquittal for a Catholic Pakistani couple languishing for years on death row on a trumped-up ‘blasphemy charge.’ This year, the EU has specifically shown its teeth to Turkey in a 2022 European Parliament report condemning violations of the freedom of religion. The Parliament called upon the Turkish government to enable effective reforms by, for example, providing religious communities with legal personality and education rights. Furthermore, the European Parliament Intergroup on Freedom of Religion or Belief and Religious Tolerance expressed concern in its 2017-2021 report about the rise of “religious nationalism” propagated by the Turkish government.
Conversely, although the EU has taken some action regarding religious freedom violations in Turkey, its institutions must examine the consistency of their commitment to religious freedom. Over the summer, the European Parliament exposed inconsistency by voting down a resolution to condemn the stoning of a teenage girl in Nigeria who had simply thanked Jesus, in a class group chat, for her exam results. The EU cannot be the human-rights beacon it aspires to be while deliberately turning a blind eye to such severe injustice.
And then there’s the opportunity for the EU to put their money where their mouth is. The implementation of the 2013 EU Guidelines on the promotion and protection of freedom of religion or belief, geared towards the protection of freedom of religion in the EU’s external action, had to be evaluated three years after taking effect—in 2016. This has not happened until today—six years too late and still counting.
Another example of the EU’s neglect in the area of freedom of religion is the fact that the Special Envoy’s mandate, the very entity geared towards reporting on freedom-of-religion violations in countries such as Turkey, has remained vacant for most of the past three years without any explanation or rationale given by the European Commission.
Although some positive action exists on religious freedom at the EU, in practice, it lacks consistency and vigour. Empty promises continue to create increasing space for violations to freedom of religion in countries such as Turkey. What example does this set for applicant countries seeking alignment with European values?
As we consider the future of Turkey’s accession status, this is perhaps a good moment for Europe to reflect on its own identity. The question is not only what Turkey can offer Europe, but what Europe can offer the world? Religious minorities need the EU to stand strong in its commitments to human rights, democracy, equality, and freedom for everyone.