court on Feb. 2 ordered Turkey to remove the religious affiliation
section from citizens’ identification cards, calling the practice a violation of
and in particular Christian converts in Turkey have faced discrimination because
of the mandatory religion declaration on their identification cards, which was
enforced until 2006. Since then, citizens are allowed to leave the “Religion”
section of their IDs blank.
The ruling by the
European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) “is a good thing,” said Zekai Tanyar,
president of the Turkish Protestant Alliance, citing prejudices against
“[Religion on the ID]
can cost people their jobs,” he said. “It has been known to affect whether they
get a job or not, how people look at them, whether they are accepted for a post
or an application of some sort. Therefore I think [the ruling] is a good and
Tanyar said the same
principles would apply in the case of Muslims living in a country that had
prejudices against Muslims. For converts in Turkey having to state their
religion on their ID cards, “in practice, and in people’s experience, it has
The ECHR ruling came after a Turkish
Muslim national filed a petition challenging that his identification card stated
his religion as “Alevi” and not Muslim. Alevis practice a form of Shia Islam
that is different from that of the Sunni Muslim majority.
The court found in a
6-to-1 vote that any mention of religion on an identity card violated human
rights. The country was found to be in violation of the European Convention of
Human Rights – to which Turkey is a signatory – specifically Article 9, which
deals with freedom of religion and belief; Article 6, which is related to due
process; and Article 12, which prohibits discrimination.
The presence of the
“religion” box on the Turkish national identification card obliges individuals
to disclose, against their will, information concerning an aspect of their
personal convictions, the court ruled.
Although the government
argued that indication of religion on identity cards did not compel Turks to
disclose their religious convictions, the ECHR found that the state was making
assessments of the applicant’s faith, thus breaching its duty of neutrality and
In a statement on the
verdict this week, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that the
ruling was in line with the government’s intentions.
“I don’t see the ECHR
decision as abnormal,” he said, according to Turkish daily
Taraf. “It’s not very important if it is removed.”
The ECHR is independent
of the European Union, which Turkey seeks to join. The rulings of the ECHR are
binding for members of the Council of Europe, of which Turkey is a member, and
must be implemented.
A Step in the Right
Human rights lawyers welcomed the
decision of the ECHR, saying it is a small step in the direction of democracy
and secularism in Turkey.
“It is related to the
general freedom of religion in our country,” said human rights lawyer Orhan
Kemal Cengiz. “They assume everyone is Muslim and automatically write this on
your ID card, so this is a good reminder that, first of all, everyone is not
Muslim in this country, and second, that being a Muslim is not an indispensible
part of being Turkish.”
The lawyer said the
judgment would have positive implications for religious minorities in Turkey who
are subject to intolerance from the majority Muslim population.
In 2000 Turkey’s
neighbor Greece, a majority Christian Orthodox country, lifted the religion
section from national IDs in order to adhere to European human rights standards
and conventions, causing tumult among nationals.
“In Turkey, Greece or
whatever European country, racism or intolerance or xenophobia are not rare
occurrences if [religion] is written on your card, and if you are a minority
group it makes you open to racist, xenophobic or other intolerant behaviors,”
said Cengiz. “There might be times that the [religious] declaration might be
It is not yet known what, if any, effect
the ECHR decision could have on the rest of the Middle East.
Because of its history,
economic power and strategic location, Turkey is seen as a leader in the region.
Like Turkey, many Middle Eastern countries have a place for religious
affiliation on their identification cards. Unlike Turkey, listing religious
affiliation is mandatory in most of these countries and almost impossible to
change, even under court order.
According to Human
Rights Watch (HRW), religious identification is used as a tool to deny jobs and
even basic rights or services to religious minorities in many Middle Eastern
“It’s a serious problem
from a human rights point of view,” said Joe Stork, deputy director for the
Middle East and North Africa for HRW, an international human rights
organization. “It’s especially problematic when that requirement becomes a basis
Stork said the
identification cards shouldn’t have a listing for religion at all. He said the
European decision may eventually be used in legal arguments in Middle Eastern
courts, but it will be a long time before change is realized.
“It’s not like the
Egyptian government is going to wake up in the morning and say, ‘Gee, let’s do
that,'” Stork said.
Egypt in particular is
notorious for using religion on IDs to systematically discriminate against
Coptic Christians and converts to Christianity. While it takes a day to change
one’s religion from Christianity to Islam on their ID, the reverse is virtually