Bottom-Up Hope: Local Governments Bolster Religious Pluralism in Turkey

When powerful states and their proxies intensify religious persecution worldwide and democratic governments under a neo-isolationist spell look the other way, where can vulnerable religious minorities find hope? The developments in Turkey show that even when an authoritarian regime doubles down on its scapegoating of religious minorities with all its might, local governments and their visionary leaders can mitigate those challenges and provide vulnerable communities with much-needed hope to carry on.

The year 2021 has been a dark one for freedom of religion or belief in Turkey, particularly for the country’s dwindling religious minorities. In April, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) singled Turkey out in its annual religious freedom report as the only country among NATO’s 30 members as deserving a “Special Watch List” designation for engaging in or tolerating severe violations of religious freedom. Earlier this month, USCIRF released a country update on Turkey, warning that the Turkish government “has continued to carry out actions, deliberate inactions, and rhetoric to fuel a political environment that is hostile to religious minorities.”

When Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan converted Hagia Sophia into a mosque last year, he relegated Turkey’s Christians and Jews from citizens to conquered subjects by deploying supremacist rhetoric that praised the conversion as a gratification of the spirit of conquest of the Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II. Elpidophoros, the archbishop of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America and a native of Istanbul, warned that “a mentality of the conqueror, and claiming conqueror’s rights… changes the relationship of the state to its citizens.” He added, “I am a Turkish citizen myself, and I don’t want the state to have the mindset of the conqueror, because I am not a conquered minority. I want to feel in my own country as an equal citizen.”

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