We have covered many more stories about problems obtaining the official recognition of non-Muslim identity in places like Egypt, where changing one’s religion on the national ID card from Islam is well nigh impossible, and Malaysia, where in a few bizarre cases, the surviving family was blindsided with claims about the Muslim identity of the deceased.
But there is one major difference here: Turkey is a candidate for membership in the EU, even with this sort of behavior. Zeynep Tufan had “changed her religion” from Islam, but not officially, “because of the hurdles attached to the process of doing so.” Even now, this report describes how even where a citizen can now request their religious status to be left blank, “it is a widespread practice that public registration officials automatically write Islam on a person’s identity card.” There are many other abuses described below.
It’s not that Muslim officials suppose that by some bureaucratic sleight of hand, they can get some unwitting soul into Allah’s heaven despite what the departed believed in their own heart. Episodes like this are but another way of poking a finger in the eye of non-Muslims, even as they grieve.
“Christian Woman in Turkey Buried As Muslim,” by Yonav Poyraz Dogan for Today’s Zaman, June 12:
Zeynep Tufan was 75 years old when she died of cancer this month. Even though her identification card from the Republic of Turkey had a box which indicated that she was an adherent of the religion of Islam, she wasn’t.
Although she was born to Muslim parents, she had changed her religion later in life, but did not change her identification card because of the hurdles attached to the process of doing so.
Since officials in Turkey determine a person’s burial rituals according to the indication of religion on her or his identification card, she was buried in a Muslim cemetery. Her son Soner Tufan told Sunday’s Zaman that her burial ceremony on June 2 was full of irony. “First the Muslim prayer leader wanted to carry on a ceremony. We told him about our being Christian, but he said he has to do his job. The imam read prayers and naturally expected to be followed, but there was a patient silence. We wanted him to finish up so we could continue with our own little ceremony,” Tufan said, emphasizing that burial ceremonies are important in Christianity.
The problem he pointed out is in regards to respecting one’s beliefs and will. “My mother would have wanted to be buried in a Christian cemetery with a Christian burial ceremony, but nobody cared about her will or our declaration because of her identification card,” he said. When asked why she did not change her identification card after becoming a Christian, Tufan said she did not want to get into trouble for doing it. “The bureaucracy that you have to go through for that kind of a change is terrible,” he said. “Plus officials question why you did it.”
Tufan is referring to the questioning by public registration officials when somebody wants to change his or her religion. “They ask you why you changed your religion. They even try to convince you that Islam is the best religion. Actually, their questions and remarks reach the level of harassment,” he said. After becoming a Christian, Tufan changed his identity card in 1996. “I completed all the hard work for the necessary paper work. But the hardest part was the remarks that I had to endure at the public registration office,” he added.
Just like his mother, Tufan’s father also avoided changing his identification card and was buried in a Muslim cemetery. He is now joined by his wife in his grave in an Ankara cemetery. They were allowed to have a gravestone in accordance with their Christian traditions, but were not allowed to display a cross. “We have a verse from the Bible there,” Tufan said.
According to Tufan, the core of the matter is that a person’s declaration should be given utmost importance when it comes to the practice of freedom of religion. He says: “If a person or his or her family wants a certain type of burial ceremony, this should be respected and officials should ease the process for people, not make it harder.”
Ah, but people are vulnerable when they are grieving. It is a cruelly opportune time to rub their semi-official second-class status in their faces.
Human rights lawyer Orhan Kemal Cengiz told Sunday’s Zaman that there are other problems, too. “This practice is against freedom of conscience and religion. It is also not correct from a humanitarian perspective,” he said, indicating that a person should not be in a position to declare his or her religion every time he or she shows an identity card. In that regard, he said, the religion box on identification cards should be removed, or at least be optional.
“It’s quite possible that you can be discriminated against because of your religion,” he said.
Pointing out additional problems, he said the Turkish practice is discriminatory in itself because the state does not allow one to indicate belief systems on identification cards other than major religions, like Islam, Christianity and Buddhism, recognized by the Republic of Turkey. Therefore, for example, Alevis of Turkey do not even have the choice of indicating their belief on their identification cards.
Last year in February, the European Court of Human Rights issued a landmark ruling which said whether obligatory or optional, displaying one’s religion on identity cards is a violation of human rights. The ruling was in response to a case filed by a Turkish citizen who is a member of the Alevi community. A complaint filed with the court in June 2005 by Sinan Isik, who in 2004 applied to a Turkish court requesting that his identity card feature the word “Alevi” rather than the word “Islam.”
Until 2006 it was obligatory in Turkey for the card holder’s religion to be indicated on an identity card, yet since 2006 he or she has been entitled to request that the entry be left blank. But both Cengiz and Tufan said it is a widespread practice that public registration officials automatically write Islam on a person’s identity card.
Turkey has undertaken some window-dressing reforms for the EU, but it is clear that in practice, abuses remain widespread.