TURKEY: Turkey seizes 50 Assyrian churches and monasteries, declares them state property

By Patrick Poole

AINA (29.06.2017) – http://bit.ly/2s8DyHY – The Turkish Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet) has seized control of at least 50 Syriac churches, monasteries, and cemeteries in Mardin province, report media sources from Turkey.


The Turkish-Armenian daily Agos reports:

After Mardin became a Metropolitan Municipality, its villages were officially turned into neighbourhoods as per the law and attached to the provincial administration. Following the legislative amendment introduced in late 2012, the Governorate of Mardin established a liquidation committee. The Liquidation Committee started to redistribute in the city, the property of institutions whose legal entity had expired. The transfer and liquidation procedures are still ongoing.

In 2016, the Transfer, Liquidation and Redistribution Committee of Mardin Governorate transferred to primarily the Treasury as well as other relevant public institutions numerous churches, monasteries, cemeteries and other assets of the Syriac community in the districts of Mardin.

The Mor Gabriel Monastery Foundation appealed to the decision yet the liquidation committee rejected their appeal last May. The churches, monasteries and cemeteries whose ownerships were given to the Treasury were then transferred to the Diyanet.

Inquiries of the Mor Gabriel Monastery Foundation revealed that dozens of churches and monasteries had been transferred to the Treasury first and then allocated to the Diyanet. And the cemeteries have been transferred to the Metropolitan Municipality of Mardin. The maintenance of some of the churches and monasteries are currently being provided by the Mor Gabriel Monastery Foundation and they are opened to worship on certain days. Similarly, the cemeteries are still actively used by the Syriac community who visits them and performs burial procedures. The Syriacs have appealed to the Court for the cancellation of the decision.

“We started to file lawsuits and in the meantime our enquiries continued” said Kuryakos Ergün, the Chairman of Mor Gabriel Monastery Foundation. Ergün said they would appeal to the court for the cancellation of nearly 30 title deed registries

Included in the seizure is the 1600-year-old Mor Gabriel Monastery:

Foundation of Mor Gabriel Monastery, filed a court case at the Civil Court of First Instance in Mardin against the registration of title deed records in the name of Treasury.

In the petition filed to the court it has been noted that the properties subject to the court case had been, since ancient times, under the possession and ownership of the Foundation and the significance of Mor Gabriel Monastery has been underlined; “Its history dates back to the 4th century AD. The Monastery is one of the oldest monasteries in the world which is still active and is one of the most ancient religious centers of Syriacs and the entire world with its history of more than 1600 years.

Midyat Syriac Deyrulumur Mor Gabriel Monastery Foundation had been established on the basis of the imperial order of Sultan Abdülmecid Han during the Ottoman Empire in “1267 Islamic calendar (1851/1852 Gregorian calendar) and its status was redefined, became a legal entity, on the basis of the Foundations Law of 13.06.1935 with no 2762.

The Foundation had been recognised as “a religious community foundation” on the basis of a Regulation issued in 2002 by the Directorate General of Foundation and was included in the List of Religious Community Foundations drafted same year. Foundations that I’m not included in this list are in not recognised as religious community foundations.”


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ALGERIA: Ahmaddis sentenced to prison terms

HRWF (30.06.2017) – On 28 June, six Ahmaddis were sentenced by the court of appeals of Batna (430 km from Alger) for “unauthorized fundraising, activity in an unauthorized association and distribution of documents against national interests” . Five of them were sentenced to one year in prison while the sixth one got a suspended sentence of six months. This is the heaviest sentences imposed on Ahmaddis in Algeria. In the first instance, they had been sentenced to 2-4 years in prison and a fine of 300 000 Algerian dinars (2 400 euros).

Waves of arrests and prosecutions of Ahmaddis

Amnesty International (19.07.2017) – http://bit.ly/2stbQFe – Algeria must halt its clampdown against members of the minority Ahmadiyya religious movement, said Amnesty International today, ahead of the appeal hearing on 21 June of six Ahmadis sentenced to up to four years in prison for charges relating to the exercise of their religion.

At least 280 Ahmadi men and women have faced investigation or prosecution over the past year, since a wave of arrests began after failed attempts to register an Ahmadi association and inaugurate a new mosque in 2016.

“The clampdown against Ahmadis over the past year is alarming. This wave of arrests and prosecutions of Ahmadis is a clear indication that the authorities are stepping up restrictions on religious freedom in the country,” said Heba Morayef, North Africa Research Director for Amnesty International.

“Algerian authorities should ensure that the cases against Ahmadis which are solely related to the peaceful practice of their religion are dropped, and immediately release those detained.”

There are an estimated 2,000 Ahmadis in Algeria. Ahmadis consider themselves to be Muslim, however, Algerian officials have made public statements calling them heretics and a threat to Algeria.

In March 2016, Algerian authorities refused an attempt by Ahmadis to register as an association under Algerian law. On 2 June 2016 the police raided a newly-built Ahmadi mosque in Larbaa, in the province of Blida, on the morning of its planned inauguration, and shut it down.

Since then, Amnesty International has learned from local sources that Algerian authorities have initiated judicial proceedings against more than 280 Ahmadis. The charges they face include membership in an unauthorized association, collecting donations without a licence, practising worship in unauthorized places, disseminating foreign propaganda harmful to national interest and “denigrating” the “dogma” and precepts of Islam.

According to members of the Ahmadi community and three lawyers interviewed by Amnesty International, as well as legal documents reviewed by the organization, over a third of those facing criminal proceedings have already been convicted and sentenced to prison terms of up to four years or fines of up to 300,000 Algerian dinars (about 2,750 US dollars). Most are at liberty pending the outcome of their proceedings, and four are currently imprisoned.

On 21 June, six Ahmadis will appear before the Court of Appeals in Batna. They were convicted in first instance of administrating an unregistered association, collecting donations without a licence, and distributing foreign literature threatening national interest. They were sentenced to prison terms of between two and four years and fines of 300,000 Algerian dinars (about 2,750 US dollars) on 27 March. These have been the harshest sentences so far handed to Ahmadis for the peaceful exercise of their religion.

In May, the president of the Ahmadiyya community in Algeria was released after three months in pre-trial detention. He had been convicted on similar charges and received a one-year suspended prison sentence and a fine. Ten other defendants in the same case also received suspended prison terms ranging from three to six months in prison, and fines.

Over the past year Algerian public officials and press have made hateful or discriminatory comments about Ahmadis. In June 2016, The Minister of Religious Affairs and Endowments, Mohamed Aissa, described Ahmadi presence in Algeria as part of a “prepared sectarian invasion”. In February 2017, he stated that Ahmadis are “not Muslim.” In April 2017, Ahmed Ouyahia, President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s chief of cabinet called on Algerians to “preserve the country from the Shia and Ahmadiyya sects”.

In a statement on 25 April the Minister of Religious Affairs and Endowments appeared to shift his tone emphasizing that the state “does not intend to combat members of the Ahmadiya sect” and is only enforcing laws on associations and the collection of donations.

However, Algeria has an obligation under Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to ensure the right to freedom of religion. Under international human rights law and standards, this includes the right to manifest that belief in collective worship, to build places of worship, and to collect voluntary financial contributions. 

Algeria’s constitution does not fully guarantee freedom of religion, leaving the regulation of practice and places of worship to restrictive national legislation. National law has specific rules of worship for those considered to be non-Muslims, and collective religious worship outside the scope of what is regulated by the state is a criminal offence. Breaches such regulations, including provisions imposing the use of government-approved public places of worship, and advance notification for religious ceremonies, are punished with one to three years’ imprisonment, and fines between 100,000 and 300,000 Algerian dinars (about 900 and 2,700 US dollars).

“The right to worship collectively is a fundamental aspect of freedom of religion, it is as important as individual freedom of conscience. As long as every religious group, every place of worship is required to get an official seal of approval, there won’t be freedom of religion in Algeria,” Heba Morayef said.

Additional Reading

The Ahmadis of Algeria: the government’s most convenient security threat?


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ISRAEL: Israel’s controversial conversion bill, explained

Israeli politicians and Jewish leaders are fighting again over an age-old question: Who counts as a Jew? And who gets to decide?


By Ben Sales


World-Wide Religious News (29.06.2017) – http://bit.ly/2sYbGsW – This week, Israel’s government inflamed simmering tensions over Jewish conversion when a Cabinet committee advanced a bill that would further empower the country’s ultra-Orthodox Chief Rabbinate. The measure declares that the rabbinate is the only body authorized by the government to perform conversions in Israel.

Defenders of the bill say it consolidates the conversion system in Israel and safeguards its integrity. But the bill has enraged non-Orthodox Israelis and American Jews who see it as a betrayal of Jewish pluralism.

While the bill does not apply to conversions performed outside of Israel, Jewish leaders fear it will impugn the validity of Reform and Conservative Judaism worldwide.

Here’s what you need to know about the controversial legislation.

The bill gives the Chief Rabbinate authority over all official conversions in Israel.

The aim of the bill is to “establish that conversion performed in Israel will be recognized by law only if it is done through the state conversion system,” which is run by the Chief Rabbinate.

In other words, for those who convert to Judaism in Israel, the state will recognize them as Jewish only if they convert through the rabbinate. Any other Jewish conversion performed within Israel, even under private Orthodox auspices, would not be valid in the eyes of the state. But the bill clarifies that private conversions of any denomination would not be outlawed — just unrecognized.

The rabbinate already determines who is Jewish for the purposes of marriage and divorce within Israel. Under the bill, if a non-Jewish resident of Israel wanted to convert to Judaism and gain citizenship under the Law of Return, the rabbinate would also control that process.

The goal is to consolidate Israel’s conversion system under an authority that everyone considers valid.

“Conversion in Israel will be a state-run, uniform conversion, according to Torah law, that will be recognized by all of the Jewish people,” the bill states.

The bill would prevent Israel from recognizing non-Orthodox conversions.

Until last year, the rabbinate controlled all official conversion in Israel. But in March 2016, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that the state must recognize conversions performed by private Orthodox courts outside the rabbinate’s purview.

Religious pluralism advocates celebrated the ruling as a victory because it broke the monopoly of the Chief Rabbinate. Liberal Jewish leaders argued that the next step would be for the court to force recognition of private non-Orthodox conversions in Israel, and a petition before the court asks it to do just that.

The proposed legislation would turn back the clock 15 months, taking away recognition from the private Orthodox courts, and also block any possibility of the state recognizing non-Orthodox conversions performed within Israel.

“They understand that the Supreme Court will grant us what we justly deserve,” said Yizhar Hess, CEO of the Israeli Conservative movement. “This law aims to block the Supreme Court. This strengthens the haredi Chief Rabbinate and will anchor it in a way it isn’t anchored today.”

Some government officials have said the bill would prevent African asylum seekers in Israel from getting a Reform conversion and subsequently obtaining citizenship. But there is no discernible movement among asylum seekers to pursue Jewish conversion.

The bill would not affect conversions performed outside of Israel …

Backers of the bill appear to understand that they cannot risk invalidating Reform and Conservative conversions performed abroad. The measure stresses multiple times that it only applies to conversions performed in Israel, not to any performed outside its borders.

So even if the bill passes, Diaspora Jews who converted through the Reform and Conservative movements can still gain automatic Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return.

“American Reform and Conservative Jews, including Reform and Conservative converts, are considered Jews under the Law of Return,” a senior Israeli official told JTA on Monday. “The proposed conversion law will not change that in any way.”

… but Jewish leaders are still raising hell over it.

If American Jewish leaders are angry about the crisis over the Western Wall, they are apoplectic about this bill. They acknowledge that it does not affect Diaspora conversions. But Jerry Silverman, CEO of the Jewish Federations of North America, warned of a domino effect that could lead the rabbinate one day to extend its reach across the ocean.

“The biggest challenge for the North American Jewish community is codifying the rabbinate as the sole owners of conversion in Israel,” Silverman told JTA on Wednesday. “We think that it will be a domino effect, and it opens the door to give them more decision capability well beyond Israel.”

Silverman has spent the past few days lobbying Knesset members against the bill, and some local American Jewish leaders have made threats in the wake of Sunday’s committee vote. Steven Nasatir, president of Chicago’s federation, told The Times of Israel that any lawmaker who votes for the bill “will not be welcome in our community.”

“This would set back the current reality and make all matters of conversion subject to the furthest right of the ultra-Orthodox world,” Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, told JTA. “It would begin the slow erosion of the Law of Return and affect the validity of conversion throughout the Jewish world.”

This is the latest battle in a decades-long war.

American Jews and haredi Orthodox Israeli politicians have been fighting over this issue for at least three decades; this is just the latest round.

In 1987, a Reform Jewish convert sought citizenship under the Law of Return, and the Israeli Supreme Court allowed it despite haredi protest. Ten years later, a government commission was appointed to come up with a solution to the conversion debate, which had been exacerbated by the mass arrival of Soviet immigrants who had Jewish ancestry but were not necessarily Jewish. The commission recommended a pluralist conversion school that would lead to an actual conversion ceremony performed by the rabbinate.

In 2010, a bill was introduced that would allow a range of local Orthodox rabbis in Israel to perform conversions, but would make the rabbinate the sole authority over all conversions performed in Israel. Amid a massive outcry from Diaspora Jewish leaders, the bill was shelved.

In 2014, the government voted in a Cabinet decision to let those local Orthodox rabbis perform state-recognized conversions — but not under the authority of the rabbinate. After joining the governing coalition the following year, haredi parties succeeded in getting the decision repealed.

Then, a year later, the Supreme Court issued its ruling on private Orthodox conversions. And here we are.



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CHINA: Holy See appeals for the release of Bishop Shao of Wenzhou

ZENIT (26.06.2017) – http://bit.ly/2tnNlhk – The Holy See expressed its “grave concern” after the disappearance of Msgr. Pierre Shao Zhumin, Bishop of Wenzhou, in the coastal province of Zhejiang (Continental China). A statement released by Director of the Holy See Press Office, Greg Burke, on June 26, 2017, pleads for his return, stressing the need to foster “ways of understanding.” The Chinese diocese has had no news regarding the Bishop since May 18.

“The Holy See is observing with grave concern the personal situation of Bishop Peter Shao Zhumin of Wenzhou, forcibly removed from his episcopal see some time ago,” reads the statement. At age 54, he has been bishop of his diocese since the death of his predecessor in September 2016.

“The diocesan Catholic community and his relatives have no news or reasons for his removal, nor do they know where he is being held,” specifies Burke. “In this respect, the Holy See, profoundly saddened for this and other similar episodes that unfortunately do not facilitate ways of understanding, expresses the hope that Bishop Peter Shao Zhumin may return as soon as possible to the diocese and that he can be assured the possibility of serenely exercising his episcopal ministry.”

“We are all invited to pray for Bishop Shao Zhumin and for the path of the Catholic Church in China,” concluded the message.

According to the Churches of Asia Agency (EDA) of the Foreign Missions of Paris, Bishop Wenzhou disappeared from circulation after having been “invited” last May 18 to an interview with functionaries of the local Office of Religious Affairs. Since then, the Bishop has not reappeared in public. On May 22, he made it know that he was in need of wine for Mass, but no one was able to contact him on his mobile phone. According to local sources, Monsignor Shao is in Wenzhou, retained in a police residence.

EDA offered an analysis of the situation, estimating that the diocese of Wenzhou “could be described as emblematic of the efforts the Holy See deploys to foster the unity of the ‘underground’ communities and the ‘official’ local Church.” Efforts, notes the agency, that evidently do not satisfy the Chinese authorities. “

In view of fostering the unity of the two communities, in 2007 Rome appointed Father Vincent Zhu Weifang, member of the “official” clergy, Bishop of Wenzhou, with Father Shao Zhumin, member of the “underground” clergy as Co-adjutor. However, after the death of Monsignor Zhu on September 7, 2016 his successor Monsignor Shao came up against “permanent manoeuvres of interference by the civil authorities in the life of the Church.” He never stopped “being subjected to the harassment of the authorities.”

“With this new ‘incommunicado’ episode that is prolonged, one could think that the young Bishop is facing renewed pressures by the authorities to lead him to come to terms with the religious policy of the government in place,” concludes EDA.



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TAJIKISTAN: Tajikistan bars citizens under 40 from performing hajj

RFE/RL (21.06.2017) – http://bit.ly/2rVnWXc – Authorities in Tajikistan have barred citizens under the age of 40 from performing this year’s annual hajj pilgrimage to Mecca.

Tajikistan’s Committee on Religious Affairs told RFE/RL on June 20 that the decision was made to give older Tajik Muslims more of a chance to undertake the pilgrimage, as Saudi authorities are putting in place stricter quotas.

But many in the Central Asian state believe the ban is an attempt to prevent instances of radicalization among younger generations.

In the past years, the Tajik government has routinely imposed age restrictions for devout Muslims to perform hajj. In 2015, the minimum age was 35.

President Emomali Rahmon’s government has repeatedly called for the strengthening of secular principles in the mostly Muslim country of 8.5 million.

Tajikistan has banned head scarves for schoolgirls, barred minors from mosques, and forced thousands of students to return home from Islamic schools abroad in recent years amid reports that many Tajiks have joined Islamic extremists in Iraq and Syria.



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BULGARIA: Anti-Muslim policies and incidents

HRWF (27.06.2017) – On 22-23 June, the “Muslim Denomination in Bulgaria” (The Office of the Grand Mufti in Bulgaria) participated in the OSCE Supplementary Human Dimension Meeting about Freedom of Religion or Belief in Vienna and made a statement about their problems in Bulgaria. The full text is available is http://www.osce.org/odihr/325336?download=true . See excerpt below:

For years, the Muslims’ religious institution in Bulgaria has been stifled by the strong political grip of various political circles and the complete indifference of governments that remain deaf to the problems of Muslims. Schools for the preparation of clergy suffer from a chronic lack of funding by the Bulgarian state, the block of attempts to develop a cultural-religious center or to regain property ownership of waqf properties, the uncovering of the junction of lawsuits and a heavy legacy from the management of the former leaders of the Muslim community of totalitarian times. We are witnessing an unsanctioned spread of hostile speech, populism and anti-Muslim speech, which,  during  election campaigns, were at their peak. We even witnessed attempts to prevent voters from voting because of their ethnic-religious affiliation during the last parliamentary election. When we add to this all the new global challenges such as the refugee crisis, the war-torn Middle East and the fatal ideology of DAESH, the results are extremely sour for the Muslim communities, especially in Bulgaria. I will present in this report fresh examples from this year, which roots are of course from the past:

Discriminative and Islamophobic amendments in Penal Code

In 2016, a number of discriminatory and Islamophobic laws were introduced in parliament by the “patriotic” and extreme nationalist parties, many of which were not accepted because the parliament ended its work due to early elections. About eleven months ago elections took place, resulting in the same importers of the bills in question to now be in the country’s government.

On May 26, 2017, the newly-elected parliament, and in particular the “patriots” and extreme nationalists, proposed discriminative amendments to the Penal Code (1) to criminalize Islam in the country. The proposers’ statement states that terrorism is due to radical Islam and that “radical Islamic ideology” is preached when it comes to ideas such as “the creation of an Islamic state (caliphate)”, the propaganda of jihad, and so on. At the same time, the definition of “Islam” is equated to ideologies such as fascism and anti-democracy.

Generally the Muslim community in Bulgaria is against all kinds of terrorism and radicalism and predominantly supports anti-terror laws and codes, which are necessary for the security and protection of the whole society. But at the same time, this law allows for the abuse of religious freedoms and opens doors for arbitrariness and human rights violations through casual, illogical and unreasonable interpretations of the term “radical Islam”. There is no clear definition nor unified expert opinion on the formulation of “radical Islam,” which is the basis of unique legislative decisions for Europe.

Although widely used in the public domain and media, the term “radical Islam” is very controversial. It is hardly subject to scientific definition because of the impossibility to establish where, when and at what doctrinal or conceptual point the “moderate” becomes “radical”. Therefore, such bills risk being inconsistent with fundamental principles such as freedom of religion, which is part of the values of European societies.

If this bill were adopted, it would be extremely inefficient and would have negative consequences for the whole of society. Instead of helping to combat phenomena that legislators would most likely want to pursue with good intentions, defending society and democratic values, they will rather complicate the situation. It is pointless to adopt a law that will not solve the problems in society, but more likely to deepen them. Problems in society must be viewed objectively in order to find adequate solutions to the related dynamic social problems.

In addition to these legislative changes, extreme nationalists in parliament are also preparing some other changes in the Law of the Religions, which stipulate that preaching in temples should only be in the Bulgarian language, and other corrections, such as a ban on the financing of religions from abroad. These amendments, however, only impose restrictions on the freedom of religion, but offer no alternatives.

Problems with the financial donations of the denomination

In this sense, a serious problem that can be qualified as a violation of religious freedoms is the suspension of donations to the Muslim denomination. About three months ago, the Interim Government in Bulgaria, which was committed to holding parliamentary elections in the country, cancelled the donation treaty with the Republic of Turkey.

On this issue, the Office of the Grand Mufti has repeatedly been blamed by the media and representatives of some political circles for receiving financial and staff support from the Turkish governmental Directorate of Religious Affairs. Turkey’s financial support is in fact a partial sponsorship of the three religious high schools and the Higher Institute of Islamic Studies in Sofia. It is the result of a treaty, which was signed between the Governments of Bulgaria and Turkey as early as 1998, regulating financial assistance, the sending of teachers to the spiritual schools, and guest-imams and lecturers from the Turkish Religious Affairs Directorate. This treaty was signed because of Bulgaria’s inability to support its religious institutions in the post-totalitarian period. Also an agreement between was signed between the Office of the Grand Mufti and the Turkish Religious Affairs Directorate in 2002, which is without limitation.

Separately, according to the Law of the Religions, denominations have the right to invite religious officials from abroad with the permission of the ”Directorate for Religious Affairs” with the Council of Ministers of Bulgaria. At present, there are 15 imams in Bulgaria who are seconded from Turkey and preach in Bulgarian mosques. Of course, this practice exists not only with Muslims. Catholics, Protestants, Jewish and Armenian communities invite priests and religious officials to Bulgaria and that is so normal.

Nevertheless, the media and politicians do not comment on why it is necessary for Bulgarian Muslim schools to be funded by another state. The answer is simple– because the Bulgarian state does not have such a financial possibility. At present, the annual subsidy that the Office of the Grand Mufti receives from the State amounts to 360,000 leva (about 180,000 euros), intended for the renovation of old mosques.

When the Interim Government cancelled the treaty unilaterally, it did not inform the representatives of the Office of the Grand Mufti for three months. The result of this is that the staff and teachers had resigned for salaries not paid. At the moment, the Muslim denomination is in an extremely difficult situation as they are unable to meet the needs of the denomination because of insufficient income that it cannot yet restitute from waqf property foundations following the democratic changes. For this reason, the institution has been incapacitated for two months in paying the salaries of the imams and teachers in the country.

The Office of the Grand Mufti has always stood for the Muslim community to be supported by the Bulgarian state and we have insisted over the years to make a commitment. This is the most natural and normal state of affairs. Excluding donations without offering another alternative is not a solution to the question.

Selling of Property Belonging to the Muslim Community

Meanwhile to the suspension of donations from Turkey, the Interim Government initiated a public auction sale of the land of 27 decares belonging to the Muslim community, for which the Office of the Grand Mufti has been struggling for years to obtain permission to build its cultural and religious center in Sofia. The permission to design the plot, which the mufti’s office has had since 2002, is maturing unanswered in the administration of the chief architect of Sofia since 2008, when the Office of the Grand Mufti applied for a visa for construction at Sofia Municipality.

Three months ago the Interim Government announced the sale of the property. The official reason for the announcement of the plot for public sale was the run up of tax liabilities of the Office of the Grand Mufti to the National Revenue Agency, despite previous assurances from the Mufti’s office to repay this debt every month. These debts have been primarily accumulated during the period of contests and lawsuits initiated against the institution by former state security agent Nedim Gendzhev, who claimed leadership of the Muslim community, for which we have submitted a reports before the ODIHR/OSCE.

The building in which the institute is housed is currently ineligible for accreditation of a higher education institution, hindering the development of students and lecturers to seek realization in secular universities and majors.

Anti-Muslim hate incidents

Muslim community in Bulgaria increasingly concerned about the hate motivated incidents perpetrated against Muslims and holy sides, while acts of vandalism against mosques and sides for worship have become all too frequent.

Recently the Office of the Grand mufti recorded hate crime incidents towards Muslim religious places, one of which was committed in May 2017 against the mosque in Plovdiv and its windows were broken.

On the night of February 7, a new vandal attack was made against the mosque in the town of Silistra by unknown perpetrator. The perpetrators fired a 5.5-millimeter air rifle into the security cameras and lighting fixtures of the mosque. Traces of bursts are noticed on the facade of the mosque. The Board of Trustees of the mosque filed a complaint with the police in Silistra.

On May 28, the second day of Holy month of Ramadan, football fans attacked and vandalized the Sofia mosque with beer bottles and garbage cans. Passing by the mosque, they made rough and insulting expressions against Muslims, Turks and Islamic religion, and measured the mosque with full beer bottles. The nearby policemen refused to react despite the requested help.

Unfortunately, these are not the only examples of Islamophobic attacks and hostility against Muslims. It has become increasingly common to openly express hostility against Muslims, to negatively stereotype Muslims and Islam, and to generally use intolerant language against Muslims. Relatively, few of these incidents were revealed or resulted in prosecutions. Although the Criminal Code contains hate crimes, these are rarely applied in practice. Public understanding of issues such as social marginalization of minority groups and victims of hate speech and crime, remains very limited. Many Muslim individuals are unaware that islamophobia and discrimination against them might be illegal. Moreover, even more people are not aware of any organization in their country that could help them if they are being victim of biased act and discrimination.

Appointment of the leaders of the extreme nationalist party as the Deputy Prime Minister for Demographic Policy

The appointment of Mr. Valeri Simeonov, one of the leaders of the extreme nationalist coalition party “United Patriots,” (which is recognized as pro-fascist party in European Union) as the Deputy Prime Minister for Economic and Demographic Policy and the President of the National Council for Cooperation on Ethnic and Integration Issues with the Council of Ministries, is particularly disturbing for Muslims in the country. As such, he will be in charge of supervising the development and implementation of the state policy on minority integration.

In his public appearances regarding minorities in Bulgaria, the leader of the nationalist formation, and now also the Deputy Prime Minister of Economic and Demographic Policy, manifested himself in the whole spectrum of the inadmissibility– from absurdly inappropriate jokes through a hazy speech of hatred to outright hooliganism.

During the election campaign three months ago, Mr. Simeonov physically assaulted an elderly woman of Turkish and Muslim origin, who had come to exercise one’s right to vote (this was covered by the national media).

The Deputy Prime Minister told the media he has taken “funny” pictures as a young man, when visited Buchenwald Concentration Camp, in which more than 56,000 Jews were killed. He also made horrifying insults from the parliamentary tribune to Muslims, Roma and other minorities, which can be checked by plenary minutes. Valeri Simeonov has shown in his speech not only extreme positions, but sometimes also vulgar ones that do not correspond to the profile of a politician from a European state. Now he will be responsible for the ethnic and integration policies of the government.

(1) Proposed amendments, National Assembly, 26 May 2017 – http://www.parliament.bg/bills/44/754-01-11.pdf



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OSCE: Ensuring freedom of religion or belief and tolerance and non-discrimination for all is vital to security, say participants at OSCE meeting in Vienna

OSCE (22.06.2017) – http://bit.ly/2tffwOP – Freedom of religion or belief, and tolerance and non-discrimination are essential to ensuring peace and security in the OSCE region, participants said today at the opening of a two-day OSCE Supplementary Human Dimension Meeting in Vienna.

The Meeting, organized by the OSCE’s 2017 Austrian Chairmanship and the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), brought together representatives of governments and of civil society organizations working on issues related to the freedom of religion or belief from the Organization’s 57 participating States.

Michael Georg Link, Director of ODIHR, highlighted to Meeting participants current challenges to efforts to build flourishing, open, tolerant and inclusive societies, telling the meeting that hostile social forces, which are intolerant of and foster dangerous environments for particular religious or belief communities, endanger social peace and cohesion. Also, the practice in some OSCE participating States of limiting the free exercise of the universal human right to freedom of religion or belief to a list of religious and belief communities pre-defined and approved by the state is also of particular concern.

Director Link said:  “Some participating States have gone so far as to insist that the exercise of freedom of religion or belief requires specific permission from the state, an understanding that goes against the conception of freedom of religion or belief as an inalienable right belonging to everyone, including non-believers, without distinction.”

Ambassador Clemens Koja, Chairperson of the OSCE Permanent Council and Permanent Representative of Austria to the OSCE, said that these challenges can only be addressed through a co-operative approach.

“The right to freedom of religion or belief provides an indispensable contribution toward promoting sustainable stability and security in our societies,” Ambassador Koja said. “Co-operation and dialogue is essential. Dialogue can foster respect, co-operation and lead to the much needed common understanding of these rights and freedoms, in order to strengthen our democracies and the rule of law.”

Keynote speaker Marco Ventura, Professor of law and religion at the University of Siena in Italy and a member of the OSCE/ODIHR Panel of Experts on Freedom of Religion or Belief, stressed that freedom of religion or belief is under threat in the OSCE region and that international co-operation can strengthen it as a force for security.

“Freedom of religion or belief in the OSCE region suffers from being an ‘empty’ right, a right not taken seriously, or from being a ‘threatening’ right, a right to be afraid of. Both misunderstandings about freedom of religion or belief are based on a static view of society, and are in turn conducive to a static vision hindering human rights and fueling discrimination and intolerance,” said Ventura.

The Supplementary Human Dimension Meeting, “Freedom of Religion or Belief: Issues, Opportunities, and the Specific Challenges of Combating Anti-Semitism and Intolerance and Discrimination against Christians, Muslims and Members of Other Religions,” will assess the progress made in the implementation of relevant OSCE commitments, and explore the opportunities and challenges that exist to further strengthen the right to freedom of religion or belief for all within the OSCE area.

Participants representing governments, civil society and international organizations and religious or belief communities, will share their experiences of creating peaceful and secure societies grounded in respect for everyone’s freedom of religion or belief. The Meeting will also explore the role of interfaith and interreligious dialogue and co-operation in creating the conditions for lasting security.



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GERMANY: Liberal mosque founder vows to keep it open despite Egyptian fatwa and death threats

Pro-Erdogan newspaper calls practices ‘prayer of the perverse’

By Harriet Agerholm

The Independent (26.06.2017) – http://ind.pn/2t9dLTo – The founder of a new liberal mosque in Berlin has vowed to keep the building open in the face of death threats and heavy criticism from religious conservatives.

Seyran Ates told The Guardian she was sent “3,000 emails a day full of hate” about the Ibn-Rushd-Goethe Mosque which allows men and women to pray side by side, instead of segregating them.

But the 54-year-old remained defiant. “The pushback I am getting makes me feel that I am doing the right thing,” she said.

Open to both Sunni and Shiite worshippers, as well as members of the LGBTQ community, the mosque shares its premises with a protestant church.

But Ms Ates said no-one wearing a niqab or burqa is allowed entry, claiming the garments are a political statement.

The mosque’s foundation was condemned by Egypt’s state-run Islamic organisation, Dar al-Ifta al-Masriyyah, which said that men and women praying side by side was incompatible with Islam

The country’s al-Azhar university responded to the new institution by issuing a law banning the foundation of liberal mosques.

Diyanet, Turkey’s religious authority, also criticised it.

It said that its practices “do not align with Islam’s fundamental resources, principles of worship, methodology or experience of more than 14 centuries, and are experiments aimed at nothing more than depraving and ruining religion”.

The religious association linked the mosque to the network of US-based Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, who Turkish authorities have accused of being behind last year’s failed coup.

Ms Ates has denied any connection to Mr Gulen.

Turkey’s pro-government Sabah newspaper said the mosque practices “the so-called prayer of the perverse”.

Ms Ates, who moved from Turkey to Germany as a child, has criticised the oppression of women in certain Muslim communities and called for liberal values to be upheld.

The German government called Turkish criticism of the new mosque, an interference in freedom of religion and opinion.

“I want to be very clear in rejecting all comments that clearly intend to deprive people in Germany of their right to freely exercise their religion and to limit the right to free expression of opinion,” said Martin Schaefer, spokesman for the country’s Foreign Ministry

Germany, which is home to an estimated 4 million or more people of Turkish origin, is already at loggerheads with Turkey on a number of issues.

Turkish politicians were barred from campaigning in Germany for a referendum on expanding President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s powers.

Turkey’s arrest of a German-Turkish journalist working for a German paper also caused friction between the two nations, as did Turkey’s refusal to let German parliamentarians visit an air force base hosting German planes.

Mr Schaefer said it was not for the government to determine how people practiced their religion and that it would protect freedom of worship just as it protected freedom of opinion and press freedom.



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GERMANY: Liberal mosque debate turns political in Germany

Criticism from within the Islamic world has been constant since the first service was held at a new liberal mosque in Berlin. The federal government has come to the defense of the woman who started the initiative.

DW.COM (25.06.2017) – http://bit.ly/2tcBuCC – Support has been coming in from high places: With uncharacterisically clear language, the federal government has defended the new, liberal Ibn Rushd-Goethe Mosque against criticism from the Islamic world . In Berlin, Germany’s Foreign Ministry, as well as the Interior Ministry, has rejected criticism leveled by the Turkish Religious Affairs Directorate, Diyanet, pointing to protection of religious freedom.

German Interior Ministry spokesman, Tobias Plate, said the issues of religious freedom and the Berlin mosque will be raised with counterparts from Ankara at their next bilateral meeting. Diyanet, a religious authority in Turkey, operates under the aegis of the country’s prime minister.

The German government’s promise to address the issue brings the debate over the new mosque to the highest political level. One week ago, Berlin attorney and women’s rights activist, Seyran Ates, opened the liberal mosque. Situated in Berlin’s Moabit neighborhood, it is housed within a local Protestant church and is open to men and women of every sexual orientation.

Ates herself is an imam and chooses not to wear a headscarf while carrying out her duties. That has caused anger in the Islamic world. She said she has been overwhelmed by a flood of hate mail and has also received death threats. Authorities said it remains to be seen if the house of worship will require police protection.

Diyanet has claimed the new mosque is connected to the Gulen Movement operated by exiled Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom the Turkish government claimed was behind last July’s failed coup attempt.

‘A threat to social harmony’

Interior Ministry spokesman Plate called the Turkish criticism bewildering and “unacceptable.”

“It cannot be ruled out that such statements have the potential to threaten social harmony within German society,” he added.

According to media reports, Ankara has been aggressively pursuing and threatening alleged members of the Gulen movement, as well as institutions connected to it, such as schools – even in Germany.

The German Foreign and Interior ministeries emphasized that their own criticism was not only directed at Diyanet, but also at the supreme authority on fatwas in Egypt. That authority sharply criticized the Berlin mosque for violating Islamic religious responsibilities.

‘The state has to protect religious freedom’

Martin Schäfer, spokesman for the German Foreign Ministry, said such statements were, “clearly intended to deny people in Germany the right to exercise their religion and limit their right to freely express their opinion.”

He went on to say that the German government summarily rejected any such attempts. “When, where and how people choose to express and live out their religious beliefs is not the government’s business. Rather, the opposite is the case: It is our understanding that the state has no authority to interpret religious issues, but instead, has the responsibility to protect freedom of religion, just as it does freedom of speech and freedom of the press.”

He went on to remind those present that Turkey is also a signatory of the European Convention on Human Rights, which guarantees religious liberty.

The liberal mosque’s opening caused a great stir in Germany and has also received international attention. It is named after one of the most important figures of enlightened Islam, the Arab scholar, physician and philosopher Ibn Rushd (1126-1198), known as Averroes outside the Islamic world, as well as the German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), whose “West-Eastern Divan” is one of the most important German-language books ever written on the exchange of ideas between the Occident and the Orient.

Men and women will pray side by side at the new mosque, and women allowed to preach. The Quran will be interpreted in a “historically critical manner,” and organizers say they do not welcome fully veiled women. Seyran Ates started the mosque initiative because she is convinced that the interpretation of Islam must not be left to religious conservatives.



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OSCE: The need of a shared understanding of freedom in the OSCE Region

Freedom of Religion and Belief (FoRB) as a universal, fundamental Right must not be compromised by the pretext of “spiritual” or “cultural” security

Commentary by Dominic Zoehrer, HRWF consultant

HRWF/FOREF (23.06.2017) – The Austrian OSCE Chairmanship and the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights hosted a Supplementary Human Dimension Meeting (SHDM) on the 22nd and 23rd of June in the spacious halls of the Hofburg, the former imperial palace in the inner city of Vienna. This SHDM’s theme was Freedom of Religion or Belief for All and was aimed at discussing the opportunities and challenges in confronting intolerance and discrimination against Jews, Christians, Muslims and members of other faith communities. As the contributions to the SHDM have shown, notions of what FoRB means and how basic freedoms form a normative basis for government policies are becoming increasingly blurred in the OSCE region. Restrictive governments tend to prioritize concepts of security over the individual and collective right to religious freedom with impunity. The lack of a shared understanding of freedom in the region makes it even easier for such governments to compromise on fundamental human rights.

In his introductory remarks to one session of the meeting, Ambassador Jean-Christophe Peaucelle, the Advisor for Religious Affairs at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of France, stated: “France is not hostile to religion. France is committed to non-segmented freedom of religion and belief, and ensures the protection of universal and indivisible human rights.” He underlined that the French version of secularism does not view religion negatively, but takes a neutral stance on religion.

Considering Ambassador Peaucelle’s declaration of religious freedom principles, it is somewhat puzzling that FECRIS, the most aggressive network of anti-cult organizations in Europe, in fact has its origins in French policies on minority religions. The network was created in 1994 at the initiative of the French organization UNADFI (National Union of Associations of Defense of Families and Individuals), a group that was predominantly financed by the French State. FECRIS, an acronym for European Federation of Centers of Research and Information on Sectarianism, has likewise been financed almost entirely by public funds. Between 2003 and 2016 an annual average amount of about 35.000 EUR (in total: 485.200 EUR), or more than 90% of the total funding of FECRIS, was provided by the French Prime Minister in order to export the French interpretation of secularism to other European countries (cf. below diagram).

The French treatment of minority religions over the past two decades has given international legitimacy to Russian compromises on religious freedom. For years, the vice-president of FECRIS, Alexander L. Dvorkin, has been the key promoter of the Russian Orthodox concept of “Spiritual Security”. This ideological view holds that Russia’s historical traditions and cultural heritage must be protected inter alia by countering “the adverse impact of foreign religious organizations and missionaries”, as stated in the 2000 National Security Concept of the Putin Administration. Since the introduction of the law on Freedom of Conscience and on Religious Associations in 1997, the Russian federal government has used spiritual security as a pretext to combat “religious extremism”. This law has in effect allowed for wide-spread hate speech and physical assaults against non-Orthodox religious groups – e.g. the Jesuits, the Salvation Army, the Baha’i, Hare Krishna, Falun Gong, Pentecostals and Mormons – and eventually culminating in this year’s ban on the Jehova’s Witnesses as an “extremist” group. About 170,000 Russian citizens are currently affected by this law. (See also the contribution of HRWF and FOREF to the SHDM here.)

What gives reason for concern is that Ambassador Peaucelle’s remarks passed uncontested in the presence of about 70 civil society representatives. Does the silence on France’s contribution to the systematic persecution of minority religions in the OSCE region indicate ignorance among international observers, or, even worse, indifference?

Another presentation at the SHDM should have caused raised eyebrows, but was again left unchallenged. Dr. Farid Hafez, a researcher at the Department of Political Science at the University of Salzburg, explained that Islamophobia is “a form of racism”, namely “anti-Muslim racism”. The notion of race is understood to be a social construction that reflects political power structures, according to Hafez. However, he did not discuss why the notion of “race” should be preferred to the notion of “religion” in the context of religious freedom. This attempt to introduce a special formula for describing discrimination against Muslims, which defies objective categorization and diminishes respect for the universality of fundamental human rights, is alarming.

Besides the freedom to adhere to a certain belief, the international standard of religious freedom also encompasses the right to freely criticize religion or to fear a religion within the framework of fundamental human rights. But when Islam is identified with “race”, the use of the term Islamophobia is a mechanism to immunize a religion against any form of criticism, thus undermining the fundamental principles of religious freedom and freedom of expression. The vagueness of Hafez’ notion of Islamophobia – which could range from fear of sharia to hate crimes or even physical assaults against Muslims – is thus expected to pose a significant challenge to objectively measuring and assessing concrete cases of FoRB violations against Islamic minorities in the OSCE region. Moreover, inner-Islamic violations of the right to religious freedom, e. g. blasphemy or apostasy laws, are not sufficiently covered by the term. A serious adoption of this elastic terminology could lead to the denunciation of sceptics or apostates who criticize a religion, or its political and military spin-offs, as perpetrators of hate crime and a threat to public security.

An important counterpoint was set by Prof. Brett Scharffs, Director of the International Center for Law and Religion. In a less ideological and more principle-based and fact-oriented presentation, Prof. Scharffs first analyzed patterns and trends of restrictions on religion by state actors in the OSCE region and then discussed the problem of the “securitization” of human rights.

Based on a survey published by the Pew Research Center in April this year (see here), Scharff observed that there is a correlation between countries with large religious majorities and high government restrictions on religion. In OSCE participating States with a “very high” level of legal restriction, 14 out of 18 countries had a dominant religious group that constituted over 70% of the population. In OSCE States with a “high” level of legal restriction, 30 out of 36 countries had a religious majority of more than 70% of the population. While Muslim majority countries tend to implement “moderate” to “extremely high” restrictions on religion, the extent of restrictions in Christian Orthodox countries scaled from “low” to “extremely high”.

“However,” Prof. Scharffs said, “regarding the discrimination of freedom rights, majority religions are not necessarily part of the problem, but often they are also part of the solution.” He explained that no country implementing a “very high” legal restriction on religion has a Catholic majority, and only in two countries with “high” legal restrictions, Catholics represented the majority. Furthermore, 8 out of 11 countries applying “very low” restrictions have a Catholic majority. Whereas social and legal restrictions tend to be high in OSCE States with significant Muslim or Orthodox Christian majorities, Scharffs pointed out that since 50 years, countries with Catholic majorities have a doctrinal basis for protecting religious freedom as a universal value: the Vatican’s declaration on religious freedom and human dignity from 1965, the Dignitatis Humanae. He drew the conclusion that the teachings and practices of dominant religions do have an important influence on the standards of government restrictions and FoRB policies.

In the second part of his presentation, Scharffs explored the tension between “securing fundamental rights” on the one hand and the “securitization of rights” on the other. Limitations of fundamental rights not only need to be justified, they also need to be confined to (1) public safety, (2) public order, health or morals, and (3) the rights and freedoms of others. Contrary to the limitation of rights in accordance with objective principles, the securitization of rights prioritizes the state’s interests over individual freedoms. “The pretextual misuse of national security has become a rationale for limiting freedom and restricting religious groups”, Scharffs explained. In this vein, Russia’s law on religious extremism exemplifies how measures in the name of security are used to persecute minorities. He said that seeing religious freedom through the prism of security “will distort and weaken freedom”, as balancing national security and individual freedoms is considered a zero-sum game. However, limitations of human rights always require a legitimate basis and should only be applied where objectively necessary. Scharffs concluded his remarks by applauding the OSCE’s role in constructively thinking about the relationship between freedom of thought, conscience, religion and belief, and security. He expressed his hopes that the OSCE will rise to the challenge of leadership in this area and resist the trend of securitization of freedom.

This snapshot of conflicting notions of human rights in the OSCE region reflects a questionable, ‘post-modern’ trend in which the protection of basic individual freedoms is diluted in the name of economic and social regulation, security and political correctness. Are fundamental human rights after all only social constructions that are subject to flexible interpretations by state actors, group interests and individuals?

In her book Soviet Dissent, Ludmilla Alexeyeva, a Russian historian and human rights activist, observed that having no access to philosophical or legal literature of the human rights tradition and only limited contact with human rights organizations in the West, the Soviet dissidents reinvented human rights for themselves. But still, as Aaron Rhodes pointed out in his analysis of the transformation of human rights concepts in the participating States of the OSCE since the Helsinki Final Act in 1975, the dissident movement’s interpretation of human rights was absolutely consistent with the classical liberal view of human rights as developed by enlightenment thinkers John Locke and Immanuel Kant. They regarded freedom not as “a means to other ends, but an end in itself.” Protecting the freedoms endowed by natural law was thus understood to be a moral duty. Another obvious feature of the dissident human rights movement was the “scientific, factual, dispassionate style” of its intellectual leaders, e. g. Andrey Sakharov, Ludmilla Alexeyeva, Yuri Orlov or Václav Havel. Reinforced by the Helsinki Accords, the behavior of state actors could be measured objectively against their own political commitments to human rights standards. And finally, the insistence on a clear distinction between human rights activity and political reform programs allowed for non-partisanship among dissident human rights defenders. Priority was not given to regime change or economic, social and cultural rights, but to the respect for basic individual freedoms.

This case of the Soviet dissident movement illustrates that the notion of fundamental freedoms is not only the invention of a particular cultural context. If the participating States of the OSCE wish to return to the original spirit of the Helsinki Final Act, they need to reflect and renew their commitment to protect the universality and non-partisanship of basic human rights as an end in itself, and apply objective standards for monitoring abuse beyond ideological bias.

The aim of the supplementary human dimension meeting was to enable constructive debate among OSCE institutions, participating states, the civil society, faith representatives and academic experts in order to find approaches for improving the implementation of OSCE commitments. However, without a shared understanding of freedom, the dilution of human rights concepts and the reduction of basic freedoms to shallow rhetoric might eventually lead to the loss of the OSCE as a platform for sincere, open and result-oriented dialogue. “For OSCE gatherings not to become an elitist discourse, we must not loose touch with the grassroots”, as one NGO representative put it at yesterday’s SHDM.  Only when basic freedoms are respected as inalienable rights and are defined as the cornerstone of the political commitments shared between Vancouver and Vladivostok, will the voices of civil society and religious representatives have a chance of being heard.

For further reading:

Alexeyeva, Ludmilla (1985): Soviet Dissent: Contemporary Movements for National, Religious, and Human Rights. Middletown.

Besier, Gerhard / Seiwert, Hubert (Ed.) (2012): Freedom of Religion or Belief, Anti-Sect Movements and State Neutrality. A Case Study: FECRIS. Religion – Staat – Gesellschaft, vol. 13 (2012), book 2. (Link)

FOREF Europe & HRWF (05.05.2017): Jehovah’s Witnesses Banned in Russia. Human Rights Organizations appeal to Russia’s Supreme Court and Presidential Administration. Press release. (Link)

FOREF Europe & HRWF (23.06.2017): RUSSIA: Condemn Jehovah’s Witnesses Ban. Statement for the OSCE Supplementary Human Dimension Meeting (SHDM) I: Freedom of Religion or Belief. 22-23 June 2017, Vienna/Austria. (Link)

Rhodes, Aaron (2017): Human rights concepts in the OSCE region: changes since the Helsinki Final Act, Central Asian Survey. (Link)



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