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08.12.2007

Baha'i community wants to be recognized and heard in Turkey

The Baha’i community in Turkey wants official recognition from the state and desires the elimination of prejudices and inaccurate public descriptions of their faith. The Baha’i faith has around 10,000 members in Turkey

İZGİ GÜNGÖR


With around 10,000 members in Turkey the Baha'i community wants official recognition from the state and desires the elimination of prejudices and inaccurate public descriptions of their faith in Turkey. 

“We may be small in number but we are an entity and ultimately have an identity. It is wrong to ignore us with such practices,” said Professor Cüneyt Can, director of the External Affairs Office of the Baha'i Community in Turkey. Many Baha'is charge that Turkey pursues a discriminatory policy against the Baha'i community in Turkey by not listing their faith on identity cards. Religious affiliation is listed on identity cards in Turkey but Baha'is are unable to state their religious affiliation on their identity cards because it is not included among the options. Rights once given to them between 1960 and 1990 were taken away when the Interior Ministry issued instructions introducing a new standardized code system that did not include the Baha'i faith. “Rights that were once granted to us were taken back. There is no improvement, but regression,” said Can.

EU, US criticize

Turkey Criticism in separate reports released by the European Union and the United States included asking Turkey to provide rights to the members of the Baha'i community. “Administrative documents such as identity cards include an entry on religion that may be filled in or left blank. This might lead to discriminatory practices. In addition, there are still concerns regarding religions which are not recognized,” said the EU's annual progress report while the U.S. State Department report criticized Turkey for not recognizing the Baha'i community, saying that Turkey continued to restrict applicants' choice of religion. “We await the amendment of the laws and code system to enable us to state our religion on identity cards,” said Suzan Merter, the Media and Public Relations coordinator of the Baha'i External Affairs Office. She is a third generation Baha'i who benefited from the former law enabling them to be registered. But she cannot renew her identity card and have her religion stated on it.

No hesitation to say I am a Baha'i Merter said she doesn't hesitate to say that she is a Baha'i. “I don't, because this is my identity. What you defend is right and good. We learned the Baha'i faith as a way of life. We learned to be hospitable, virtuous and welcoming of differences. We work for the peace and unity of humanity, which isn't a thing to be ashamed of. So why should I conceal my religious identity?” she said. 

Not only I.D. problems Baha'is face many other problems in Turkey as well. They live with the problems and disadvantages that arise from being unknown as a religious minority in Turkey. Some feel free to reveal their religious identities while some refrain from doing so, fearing stigmatization and discrimination in society. The problems stem mostly from a lack of information about the faith and inaccurate public description of the religion, according to them. They want to be explored and understood correctly and don't want to be associated with other fundamentalist religious movements such as the religious orders – or tarikats.

We do nothing secret “Although limited, some of us are also exposed to harassment and investigations by some government institutions. They try to get statistics and collect intelligence about us in our neighborhood. They then get the wrong impression of our religion. We are doing nothing secret. Our doors are open to everyone. They can join our meetings and better learn about us firsthand,” Can said. Murat Bayer, 35, is a theater artist who converted from Islam to the Baha'i faith in 1993. He is the only Baha'i in his family. His first acquaintance with the Baha'i faith came about as a result of his friends during his university years. He first thought it was a religious order-like formation. Then he was impressed by the principles of the faith and the sincerity and hospitality of the Baha'is. He feels free to reveal his religious identity. The art world, he says, is more open to differences. During his university years he thus used to discuss the issue with his friends and teachers who responded positively and were even attracted to learning more about the religion. 

Prejudice leads to discrimination “I felt myself most comfortable during the United Nation's Habitat II conference held in Istanbul in 1996. I was a new Baha'i at the time. The Baha'i community has consultative status with the U.N. so we are automatically invited to its meetings. It was the first time that I attended something so freely and smoothly,” he said.  “Turkey insistently tries to ignore the existence of Baha'is but it is recognized by an important international body. Baha'u'llah, the founder of the Baha'i faith, once lived in this territory and said many special things about Turkey. And, it is really hard to understand why Turkey ignores such a reality,” Bayer said.

Baha'i World Center in Haifa Bayer met his wife, Denize Bayer, in Haifa, Israel where he was voluntarily working for the Baha'i World Center. Denize, a Brazilian who converted from Catholicism, is a pre-school teacher in an embassy in Ankara. She is very comfortable saying she is a Bahai among her friends. She hasn't faced any serious problem in her daily life here for being a Baha'i except for the suspicious outlook on her religion. “When I say I am a Baha'i, they first find it strange and become more curious about it. Because, it is something new and unknown to them. But as they get to know us further and our way of life, they are impressed. They even want to send their children to Baha'i classes here,” she said.

Baha'i after retirement! İhsan Karakelle, 86, is a sociologist and former bureaucrat who worked with the second president of Turkey, İsmet İnönü. His father was a Baha'i. He had to conceal his Baha'i identity until the 1980s. It was when he quit bureaucracy in 1980 that he revealed his religion openly. He remembers the political pressure put on the community in 1959 by the government in an effort to combat fundamentalist Islamic movements. “They wanted to eliminate those movements but they targeted us,” he said. His being a Baha'i is not indicated on his identity card but he relates this situation to his own neglect. Dilan Can studies at Ankara University. Her father was a Baha'i and she converted from Islam when she was 15. She thinks being a Baha'i in this society is interesting but sometimes disadvantageous. Prejudices play a significant role in people's discriminative approaches toward them and there is always a question mark in people's minds about them, according to her. There were even some who asked her whether she is a Satanist! Some of her Baha'i friends hesitate to reveal their religious identity and she thus started being more careful about it. “Unless we are asked, we generally don't say that we are Baha'i. It changes according to the environment,” she said.

Diversified religious education needed:

Another problem raised by the Baha'i community is the issue of religion courses. The national education curriculum is based on Islamic religion and different doctrines taught both at school and at home confuse children's minds, according to them.  “Even if there is only one Baha'i child in one class, the Baha'i religion should be taught,” said Merter. Can meanwhile wants his children to have religious education at school but he doesn't want them to carry out Islamic practices, including prayers, at school. “They should learn about other religions as well. It is already compulsory in schools. But we have our own prayers and my children receive religious education on the Baha'i faith at home,” he said. The religious education given at school that is based on Islam and its teachings also confuses his children, he said. “We teach at home but they learn different things at school. They are seriously confounded,” he said. “The government may prefer to focus on Islamic religious education in schools because the majority of the population is Muslim; but they could at least include examples from other religions while teaching what is good or bad.”

Who are Baha'is?

 Founded in Iran in the 19th century by Baha'u'llah, the Baha'i faith has around 10,000 members in Turkey. Based on very contemporary and democratic principles, the religion has around six million followers worldwide and seeks world unity and peace against the problems of the modern age. The northwestern Turkish city of Edirne is home to the House of Baha'u'llah, where the Baha'i leader lived from 1863 to 1868. The house was declared a protected site and has drawn renowned international political figures. Baha'is believe in God and prophets. They believe that religions are similar to the life cycle. Human beings and humanity are organic, and so are religions: They can complete their existence and new prophets can come as humanity evolves. Baha'is believe that humanity underwent a social evolution from family to nation-state. The next stage will be the global unification or integrated global society, according to the Kitáb-i-Aqdas (The Most Holy Book). Baha'is hold regular meetings; they meet every 19 days among themselves. People are not allowed to become a Baha'i before the age of 15, which is considered to be the age of spiritual maturity. They are forbidden from involvement in politics, but they vote in elections in Turkey. Baha'is hold no superstitions and do not drink alcohol. There is no symbolic clothing particular to them and there are no religious rituals or special places of worship for groups. The Baha'i community has consultative status with the United Nations.

Baha'i faith seen as missionary activity:

The Religious Affairs Directorate in Turkey declined to make an official comment to the Turkish Daily News on how it categorizes the Baha'i community in Turkey but on its Web site it considers the Baha'i faith as a missionary activity. In one of its online periodicals titled “Diyanet Aylık” (Religious Affairs Monthly) featuring an article about “Missionary Activities,” the office includes the Baha'i faith among other missionary movements that intend to spread their belief among people adhering to other religions including Islam. Ahmet Hikmet Eroğlu, a religious scholar and religious historian in Ankara University, concurs with the approach of the Religious Affairs Directorate on the issue. The Baha'i faith isn't a religion but an eclectic movement based on older religions, according to him. “Baha'i faith isn't like other religions such as Christianity, Judaism or Islam which have deep roots in history,” he said. “It is a new and eclectic movement. The Religious Affairs Directorate may see it as a missionary activity as it isn't precisely defined and accepted as a religion in the world, and we know that they make efforts to promote their faith.”   Cüneyt Can meanwhile denies allegations, saying that the faith has existed for 100 years and that they have no relation with missionary activities. “These kinds of allegations and associating us with missionary works is worrying,” he said.  “We don't employ people who work to convert others to the Baha'I faith. We have no organized institution-like structure that works toward that purpose. We have no money, no power. We don't lobby or deal with politics. What makes us strong are the principles that we all long for. We believe, apply the principles to our own lives, share this with others and then spread them. This is how our religion spreads.”