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Turkey’s minority groups deny pressure, say they are free to practice their faith

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Eighteen representatives of religious minority groups in Turkey have a released a joint statement in which they deny the existence of any government pressure on them, saying they are able to practice their faith freely in the country.

The signatories of the declaration include Fener Greek Orthodox Patriarch Dimitri Bartholomew, acting patriarch of the Armenian Patriarchate in Turkey Aram Ateşyan and Chief Rabbi of Turkish Jewish Community Isak Haleva.

In the statement released on Tuesday the minority group representatives say as the religious leaders and foundation executives of various religions and faiths that have been in Turkey for centuries, they are able to live and practice their faith in accordance with their traditions.

“The statements that claim or imply the presence of pressure [on us] are completely groundless and ill intentioned. Many problems and troubles experienced in the past have been resolved over time. About issues on which we seek improvement, we are constantly having talks with the institutions of our state with mutual good will and determination,” the signatories said, adding that they felt the need to make this statement to correctly inform the public.

Religious minorities in Turkey, the number of whose followers has fallen significantly over the past decades, often endorse the rhetoric of the Turkish government.

For instance, in a statement in January, Bartholomew lent his support to the Turkish military’s Operation Olive Branch, launched to remove People’s Protection Units (YPG) militants from Syria’s Afrin district.

In a letter sent to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Bartholomew said the Greek Church was praying for the success of the military operation in Syria.

“As is the tradition of our church, we are always praying for our state, the health of our leaders and the welfare and happiness of our people. We have not forgotten about the hundreds of thousands of people who have been displaced because of conflicts in our neighbors in the south, especially in Syria,” his statement said.

A key minority group problem in Turkey is the situation of Halki Seminary, which belongs to the Greek Orthodox Church and was closed in 1971 after the Turkish Parliament enacted a law banning private institutions of higher learning.

The seminary still remains closed despite criticism and promises by the Turkish government to reopen it.  The situation of the seminary has been cited in various reports on the issue, particularly in the annual country reports for Turkey prepared by the European Commission.

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